Before we get started I just want to state for the record that my assertion that Martha just might be the movie in which RWF learned that he could dispense with critical distance altogether might very well be the stupidest thing I’ve written on this blog yet, and the most misleading. Case in point: Effi Briest. The film is a study in critical distance. In fact, the director refers to his technique in this film as consisting of a “triple alienation effect.” (When it comes to alienation effects, one just isn’t enough.) I’ll describe what he meant by that in a pinch, but for now I just want to apologize for my penchant for absurd and sweeping generalizations.
I shouldn’t be surprised at the apparent 180-degree directorial shift, of course. Fassbinder never stayed in one place for long, and if he told a handful of stories over and over throughout his brief career, he varied the telling and the tools constantly. Still, the gear change that Effi Briest represents from Martha is pretty stunning. After a lurid, almost gothic, technicolor melodrama based on a genre perfected in Hollywood in the 1950s, a delicate episodic costume drama in gossamer black and white adapted from a 19th-century German novel. Effi Briest is a sort of palate cleanser: the sorbet and wafer-thin tuiles that logically follow an over-seasoned and too-heavy (but compulsively delicious) meal. Or to put it more simply, Martha is a guilty pleasure; Effi Briest is an arthouse movie any film snob would approve of.
(Of course, even statements like the above are misleading, as though RWF finished Martha and then decided to do something radically different. I’m pretty sure Effi Briest was begun first and in any case, everything we know about the director suggests that he was always working on multiple projects in multiple idioms not to mention multiple media—laterally, if that makes any sense, whether in his head or in the studio, and not sequentially the way I’m viewing them now.)
Effi Briest (a luminous Hanna Schygulla) is an exuberant young lady of seventeen toward the end of the 19th century when her mother (Lilo Pompeit, the director’s own mother, in her strongest performance to date) announces that the successful Instetten (Wolfgang Schenk), her one-time suitor before she married the kind and sensible Herr Briest (Herbert Steinmetz), would like to marry Effi. Effi agrees, and so the story begins. Instetten proves to be an upright and honest husband, if a bit stuffy and formal, but it’s the 19th century and Effi has no cause for complaint. The couple are wealthy and live in style, even if the town where Instetten is stationed in government service is provincial and dull. After their first and only child is born (a daughter, for which everyone consoles Effi: better luck next time), Instetten must spend increasing amounts of time away from home attending to his prince’s business. In his absence, a ridiculously dashing and rakish acquaintance from Instetten’s youth, Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel), provides Effi with stimulating company on long walks which gradually lead to (surprise!) infidelity. When Instetten is transferred to Berlin, the affair ends and is forgotten—until the governess finds a packet of letters from Crampas to Effi and gives them to her master. Effi’s fate is sealed according to the inexorable laws of bourgeois rectitude which require both her husband and parents to abandon her, among other things. Down she goes, following her inevitable trajectory to its logical end.
We’ve been here before, of course (or someplace like it), but not by this path. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous cinematographically, Effi Briest stands out as a brilliant exercise in literary adaptation. Indeed, the actual German title of this film is Fontane Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane being the author of the novel. (OK, the complete title, if you want to get technical, is Fontane Effi Briest, or 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, but that was surely only for use in the film’s opening titles: I don’t think RWF could have taken it seriously or expected it to be used in any other context.) The point according to the director, which is largely lost in translation, is that this is a film of a novel written by an author in a specific place and time, which is to say it is a film as much about Fontane’s 19th-century language and Fontane’s 19th-century voice which reflected Fontane’s conflicted 19th-century attitudes about women and marriage and infidelity as it is about the character of Effi Briest. It’s Fontane’s Effi Briest, not Effi Briest. (Come to think of it, I bet that’s what Coppola was trying to do when he made Bram Stoker’s Dracula back whenever that was. For whatever that’s worth.)
Of course I would never have known the significance of the German vs. English title of the film nor grasped the peculiarly “German” quality of the narration had I not read about them in The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which I received as a Christmas gift from my lovely husband. (He got me into this mess, after all . . .) But I don’t think it matters. As always, if you need to know the artist’s intentions to grasp the work, it’s not art, it’s a puzzle. (Do I really believe that? It just came to me. Sounds good, though, doesn’t it?) And despite the director’s claims to the contrary, you don’t have to understand German and you don’t even have to know who Fontane was for the film to work. After all, the language is literary and old-fashioned in translation too.
But there’s more to it. The narration in the film is actually split between voice over (Fontane’s narrator), inter-titles (Fassbinder’s, presumably), the actors, and the images. This further emphasizes the film’s literary qualities and mediates the viewer’s experience of the images, which are themselves highly formal and self-consciously constructed through a variety of framing and screening devices (mirrors, fabric, lace, flora, etc.) or else curiously neutral. There are frequent fades to and from white, which also call attention to their own artifice in ways that fades to and from black simply do not.
I think the images are constructed in such a way that they almost function like blank film, so that even though there are images there, you can fill them again with your own imagination and your own emotions. What makes that possible is the triple alienation effect: the mirrors, the fade-ins and fade-outs, and the emotionless acting style. The detachment that’s created this way almost forces the moviegoer, I think—though I find that wrong; let me put it differently, he has freedom like with reading, where the sentence you’ve read doesn’t take shape till your imagination goes to work; what I mean is, he has the freedom with this film to make the film for himself, even though the images are there. It isn’t a film like most other films, which overwhelm the moviegoer. This is one which in my opinion gives the moviegoer room to maneouver, and that’s what makes this film special. (“A Conversation with Kraft Wetzel about Effi Briest,” The Anarchy of the Imagination, Töteberg and Lensing, eds [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992] pp 157-58.)
But all this talk of alienation makes it all sound so academic. What makes Effi Briest profound, at least for me, is actually the film’s delicacy. After that one silly title (“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 film does not shout its disapproval of Instetten or the Briests or the mores they tragically and dutifully uphold at Effi’s expense. Instead, it faithfully replicates the story’s central dilemma using language and imagery that mirrors the values and aesthetics of the novel’s own milieu, in which beauty, refinement, discretion, and decorum were paramount. The affair with Crampas, for example, is discreetly alluded to but never shown; Effi allows herself only one outburst of emotion when she realizes how Instetten has turned her daughter against her, which she later disavows as unreasonable (the outburst, that is); Frau Briest calmly wonders aloud to her husband if Effi’s tragedy might be their fault, not because they punished Effi but because they indulged her youthful exuberance and unwittingly encouraged her in her subsequent crime. More to the point, reflections in gilt mirrors, marble statuary, images glimpsed through screens of translucent damask or delicate lace are not just devices for creating alienation: they are also signifiers of the beautiful in 19th-century bourgeois aesthetics, symbols, in other words, of their society’s values. By foregrounding these elements, RWF shows us their destructive power without having to even raise his voice.