EFFI BRIEST (1974)

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Rainer Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation of late 19th century ‘realist’ novel ‘Effi Briest’ came when the themes of the book were once again pertinent in Germany, around the time of student protests of the late 1960s and the worldwide women’s rights movement.  It might have initially seemed an odd choice for Fassbinder to make this intensely emotionally-restrained piece at the same time he was openly exploring themes of sexuality and prejudice in his Douglas Sirk inspired dramas.  Like Scorcese with Age of Innocence, however, the film focuses on the underlying emotional violence people inflict on each other.  

The titular Effi is a teenage girl approaching womanhood who is married off to a former suitor of her mother.  Naively hoping for a romantic fairytale, at the same time she admits to being attracted to danger.  Instead Effi experiences stultifying routine, loneliness and a husband who is kind but essentially unknowable to her.  Initially a source of gossip, not even that can be sustained in the tiny town Effi calls home.  As Effi’s loneliness and disconnect grows she starts to get close to a friend of her husband and this ultimately paves the way years later to tragedy.  

Fassbinder carefully frames the often static shots and then adds frames within frames, using doorways, windows, mirrors and the frequent statues which fill Effi’s seaside home and Berlin apartment and threaten to move more than the actors themselves, effectively suggesting the restrictions characters are placed under by sex, class and society.  Filmed beautifully in black and white, many of the shots could be paintings, so delicately and deliberately are they composed. The pace is also deliberate, and frequent dissolves make it more a series of linked vignettes than a flowing narrative. Mostly minimal dialogue is supported with narration by Fassbinder himself. 

As all the characters are remote from each other, so they are from the audience.  There’s no one to really like or care about and emotional investment becomes difficult to maintain.  It’s not a short piece either, and at over two glacial hours in length it starts to become truly patience testing.  There seems two ways to experience this film, firstly that it’s a piece of beautifully filmed and acted art that it is often mesmerising, made with great care and passion by a talented filmmaker.  As an engaging experience it’s also often too portentous, ponderous and arguably dull.  Apparently both the book and film are still regularly taught in German schools and understandably so.  And there’s the rub: this is a film almost built for film class - to be deconstructed, to have its themes and approach explored, to have context and subtext endlessly debated until the lesson is done.  If Starburst was at that class, much as with this gorgeous but distant film, we’d be glad when it was over.  In fact, after this it’s time for a cinematic palette cleanser.  Dirty Harry it is.

Special Features: Commentary, interviews and trailer.

EFFI BRIEST (1974) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER /  STARRING: HANNA SCHYGULLA, WOLFGANG SCHENCK, ULLI LOMMEL, LILO PEMPEIT, HERBERT STEINMETZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
 


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