Fontane Effi Briest
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Wellspring DVD
Effi Briest, a naïve but socially ambitious girl of seventeen, agrees to marry a mid-level government official, much older than herself, who was once her mother’s suitor. Effi believes that he will soon be promoted to a high-ranking ministry position and that, as a result of his position and wealth, she will be the envy of all society. Effi marries the man and moves to his rural home, but her husband’s promotion is slow in coming. As Effi waits, she soon learns that the life of a regional bureaucrat’s wife is lonely and stifling. She is the subject of gossip because of her extravagant spending and her lavish wardrobe, her servants look down on her, and her husband torments her with stories of a dead Chinese servant whose spirit haunts their house. Soon, Effi finds herself with child. She hires a kind and loyal local woman as her nanny, but ignores her new daughter when she begins to see more and more of Major Crampas, a dashing young military official stationed in their small town. When Effi’s husband finally gets a promotion (but not the high-level promotion Effi was hoping for), she breaks with Crampas and moves to Berlin with her husband. Years pass and one day Effi’s husband finds incriminating letters written to his wife from Crampas. Even though several years have passed since Effi last saw Crampas, her husband feels he has no choice but to do as society dictates. He sends Effi away to live in a boarding house, duels with Crampas, and raises his daughter to forget her mother. Effi, now having fallen ill, takes on all the guilt and responsibility for what has happened.
Fassbinder’s film is based on Theodor Fontane’s 1894 novel of the same name, a work heavily indebted to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Fassbinder has claimed that his film is not meant to tell the story of Effi Briest, but is rather meant to demonstrate Fontane’s attitude toward his society at the time he wrote his novel. This may be why some viewers find the film so uninvolving. Fassbinder excises all but one of the most emotional scenes of the novel and keeps a certain literariness by using insistent fades to white between the very short scenes, mimicking the turning of a page. He also makes heavy use of voice-over narration drawn almost verbatim from the novel, a rarity for Fassbinder, and uses stately intertitles in Gothic script to fill in gaps in the narrative or to emphasize a particular quote from the text.
Watching this film with subtitles is a daunting task. There is so much dialogue, narration, and on-screen text that needs absorbing, but the eye is constantly drawn into Fassbinder’s stunning compositions. The beauty of the photography and the stolid formality of the picture’s imagery and editing act as metaphors for the rigid strictures of late-19th century Prussian society. Fassbinder has said that it is almost pointless for non-Germans to watch the film since the film relies on the unambiguous word choices of Fontane and on the very specific historical and regional references of the film. I imagine that watching the film subtitled is akin to reading the novel translated — one gets a general idea of what’s going on, but fails to grasp the richness of the language and the historical specificity of the content. It’s probably the same in French with Madame Bovary or in Russian with Anna Karenina. It’s often been said that reading those works outside their original language verges on futility. Americans have perhaps equivalents in the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton and the often very good films made from their novels.
The film itself is a strange departure for Fassbinder, made over the course of two and a half years and released the same year one of his unqualified masterpieces, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Effi Briest was itself hailed as a masterpiece on its release, which is ironic since several critics had recently deemed Fassbinder a former wunderkind who had run out of ideas. The film demonstrates not only Fassbinder’s usual superb technical control and ability to elicit superbly nuanced performances from his actors, but also an unprecedented affinity for literary adaptation and historical sensitivity. It’s not a film for Fassbinder novices or those with short attention spans, but it’s a testament to Fassbinder’s skill as a filmmaker that he could make a film so far outside of his normal works that works as well as this one does.