Tag Archives: Ulli Lommell

Effie Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1974)


EFFIE BRIEST is the opposite of a Visconti-like adaptation of a female focussed 19th century novel such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina: no sweeping balls, all the action left out of the main-narrative (births, marriages, affairs), even a duel is shot at a distance to minimise tension and excitement. The focus is on repressive ideologies and what they do to people, mainly women. The message is basically the full title: ‘FONTANA EFFIE BRIEST: MANY PEOPLE WHO ARE AWARE OF THEIR OWN CAPABILITIES AND NEEDS, YET ACQUIESCE TO THE PREVAILING SYSTEM IN THEIR THOUGHTS AND DEEDS, THEREBY CONFIRM AND REINFORCE IT.’ The focus is to render cinematically what the novel signifies. For the first twenty minutes I kept thinking, wouldn’t Visconti have done it better? I wanted violins and violent emotions, swirling skirts under frescoes…then I gave myself over to the film’s form of narration and its rhythms, which ultimately became incantatory and hypnotic.

Effie Briest (Hannah Schygulla) is the only child of landed gentry from the provinces. A lively, spirited 17 year-old, intelligent and unspoiled, with a good heart. Baron von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), much older at 38, old enough to have once courted her mother (played by Fassbinder’s own mother, under the name of Lilo Pompeit), arrives to ask for her hand in marriage and her parents encourage her to accept. Instetten is wealthy, ambitious, and has excellent prospects. ‘At twenty you’ll be where other girls are at 40 and reach much higher than I ever did,’ her mother tells her. Soon Effie is swept off to a provincial backwater where her husband is stationed. She’s looked after by servants but has no one to talk to. The society around her criticise her for being atheist or deist, for expressing too many thoughts or dressing too well, basically for being too young.


Her husband is often away on business and she’s bored, alone, and frightened of a Chinese ghost that her husband tells her is part of the history of the house, but that others will soon tell her is a way for a man to give status to an unremarkable house and for a husband who’s often away to keep a wife under control . When handsome Major Crampus (Ulli Lommell) comes to visit she’s thirsty for company and ripe…for what? It’s clear that they see each other furtively. What’s less clear is whether they actively consummate an affair. This goes on for a while. Then, as Instetten rises higher in government, they move to Berlin, Effie is appointed a Lady in Waiting to the Empress….and then her letters to Crampus are discovered.

The discovery of the letters, which happens almost two thirds into the narrative is a moral turning point. Instetten claims to love his wife, they have a daughter, Annie, the affair happened six years before. What should he do (see clip above)? He asks a friend for advice and as soon as he does so they realise that by the logic of their society, the act of making that information available to another, even a friend, leaves him with no option but to duel for his honour. Instetten wins the duel. Crampus asks to tell him something, maybe that he didn’t have sexual relations with his wife, but dies before he can do so.

The duel makes the papers. Effie is forbidden her home and loses her child. Even her parents, who still love her very much, can’t risk themselves being shunned and forbid her returning to her childhood home, though they do send her a small stipend so she can afford the boarding house she now has to live in. Her only companion is Roswitha, her maid, the daughter of a blacksmith who got pregnant out of wedlock and was beaten out of her house with a red-hot iron by her father. Roswitha’s situation was so terrible, Effie found it unseemly to speak about earlier, and it certainly lends a perspective to what Effie herself will live through later.

Effie doesn’t know if she feels guilty but she does accept the consequences of her actions. Until one day on a tram, she sees her daughter, flees in a panic, and finally begs to be able to see her daughter in a planned and reasoned  way. This eventually takes place but that’s when she realises Instetten has turned her daughter against her and this she can’t bear. She takes ill, her loving parents take her back, and she dies, fully absolving Instetten. What a pity think the parents on her death, they were the perfect couple. Was it their fault? Did they spoil her? Some questions are too vast to answer, says Effie’s father, the last line of the film.

The story is divided into sections separated by intertitles that narrate (‘Then came their first separation, which lasted almost 12 hours’) comment on the story (‘an artifice calculated to inspire fear’) or the characters: ‘A man in his position has to be cold of course, on what do people founder in life if not on warm human emotions’. The film is shot in black and white (by Dietrich Lohman and Jürgen Jürges), in tableau-like compositions, with a very extensive voice-over narration, often taken directly from Fontana’s novel and read by Fassbinder himself, a superb device that allows an omnisicient narrator to comment on various aspects of the story – the society, the characters, ways of thinking, secret thoughts – occasionally in counterpoint to what we are shown and sometimes appearing mid-scene taking over from what we have seen and lending a perspective to it, and sometimes even what happens next. For those who’d like to see, all the intertitles and voice-overs are compiled above in chronological order.


The images are often shot through mirrors —  this is a society in which perception is all, or gauzes —  in scenes that fade to white, like old photographs. Women of all classes are often on their knees before their men. The ending is so moving because it reinforces what the opening title tells us, Effie’s resignation at the end confirms and reinforces the very ideology that brought her down so painfully and unnecessarily.



The film is hypnotic and ultimately moving, all black and white, and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Tableau-ish, episodic, incantatory. A masterpiece.


José Arroyo

THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES/ Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (Ulli Lommel, West Germany, 1973)


THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES / Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973), is a film directed by Ulli Lommel but produced by Fassbinder, written by and starring  Fassbinder stalwart Kurt Raab, and peopled by everyone who seems to have appeared in previous Fassbinder films, including his lover (El Hedi ben Salem), his current and future wives (Irm Hermann and Ingrid Caven), the stars of THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS (Hans Hirschmüller) and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Brigitte Mira); and many others. There is a real sense of Fassbinderlandia about this film and a reminder of the influence of Warhol’s factory on his style of filmmaking. Fassbinder’s own appearance in this film as a fat pimp and small-time crook, sexually and physically confident in spite of his size, crotch thrust out, is a signifier of how confrontational Fassbinder liked to be.

And confrontational this film certainly is. It’s inspired by the same ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’ that was the basis for Fritz Lang’s M (and there’s an homage to it here, the bit with the young girl in the playground) but set in the aftermath of WWII rather than the interwar years after WW1. Kurt Raab’s look is a combination of Peter Lorre in M and Max Schreck’s in Murnau’s NOSFERATU. THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES brings out the homosexual dimension to the fore. Here the serial killer is gay, in love with a no-good pimp (Jeff Roden), living in an underworld of petty theft, black marketeering and prostitution (both men and women) that brings to mind John Henry Mackay’s THE HUSTLER: THE STORY OF A NAMELESS LOVE FROM FRIEDRICHSTRASSE. Lommell’s film also brings out the vampiric dimension to the fore as Raab’s serial killer, though with no special super-natural powers, likes to bite his victims in the neck and suck their blood before dismembering their bodies and selling their flesh to restaurants through the black market where the customers adore the ‘pork’.

THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES is a very impolitic film, one that I doubt could be made now. Jack Babuscio began his review in Gay News (Gay News No 06, June 3-16th, 1976) by asking: ‘Ulli Lommel’s TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES (1973) is a film that will certainly set the blood of many Screen Gay readers boiling. Does this mean you?’ (See below and thanks to Andrew Moore for the images).

A creepy gay man luring adolescent runaways to his home with promises of money and employment, then having his way with them (in this film before or after he kills them, with their naked bodies splayed out) must have fed into all kinds of prejudices of homosexual men as predatory paedophiles. It’s a film that would have been a gift to people like Anita Bryant had she been aware of it then. And I wonder to what extent Fassbinder, Lommell or Raab took this into account or whether the social impact of any of these particular narratives and representations on already vulnerable queer communities still living under the repressive Paragraph is something that would have entered their minds. Was it freedom or thoughtlessness?

Frank Noack tells me that, ‘TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES was attacked in West Germany, by gay activists and gay-friendly straight reviewers, for its sinister portrayal of the gay world, but Fassbinder couldn’t care less. His point, more explicit in PETRA VON KANT and FOX AND HIS FRIENDS, was that gays and lesbians exploit one another as much as straight people do. Neither Fassbinder nor Raab, who has written a deliciously lurid tell-all book right after the maestro’s death, expressed any interest in or sympathy for the gay movement. Because of its explicit male nudity, the film nevertheless won a gay cult following’.

The film’s perspective is that an oppressive world creates its own monsters. Raab’s character (Fritz Haarmann) is arrested by the police under paragraph 175 and made to be a police informant. But his compulsion for young male flesh is his own. I suppose the achievement of this handsome-looking film (Jürgen Jürges first job as dop, deploying a whole arsenal of expressionist devices) is in so well evoking a particular underworld of petty criminals, cheap taverns, dark railways, and dangerous attic flats; in shocking and frightening like a good horror film should, and in arousing sympathy for a queer serial killer.

I suspect Raab’s appearance here had a role in inspiring the skin-head look that would become so prevalent a decade later in London and Berlin.

From the handsomely produced Arrow Box Set of Fassbinder films (vol 1.) chock-a-block with great extras, including interviews with the director, actors, cinematographer.

José Arroyo

Love Is Colder Than Death/ Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1969)

LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH is Fassbinder’s first feature and in it are present elements that would reappear later on and help constitute what we’ve come to recognise as his style. The film begins with an image of him, shoft left of center, with the rest of the frame empty, smoking, reading the newspaper, legs crossed, overweight, menacing and sensual.

Soon we’ll see a shirtless black man, an object of desire, and when we see the head of a syndicate place his hand on his knee, the queerness will come to the fore.

There will be a Turk on the loose who must be got rid of. Hannah Schygulla is the love interest/whore, one of the great presences in film history, here so young, sensual, with a face that seems to communicate everything and yet remains inscrutable.

Fassbinder is not afraid to hold a close-up so that the eye can wonder all over Ulli Lommell’s handsome face,

Lommell clearly dressed to evoke Delon in LE SAMOURAI.

And Fassbinder knows how to compose a shot dramatically so whilst the film is clearly based on a play (and with bare sets, minimal furniture etc), it never feels stagebound, and indeed the setting is opened up (tellingly, to freeways and supermarkets).

It’s a cinephile’s film, dedicated to Chabrol, Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub and Linio and Cuncho, the characters from Damiano Damiani’s A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. I love the moment where they go steal sunglasses in a department store and he tells the saleswoman he wants glasses like Janet Leigh wore in PSYCHO. The film seems all tone – alienated, distanced, sensual — and attitude. Personal bonds are valued but deceive, the world is merely out to get you so maintain what you can of your freedom at all cost. All this in a world that’s exploitative and murderous but where numerous people are killed without once drawing blood. A distinctive first feature which I enjoyed very much. The frame grabs are from the Arrow release.


Film is currently playing on MUBI

José Arroyo