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