Feb 9, 2013

Effi Briest

Considered a dream project of sorts by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Effi Briest (1974) aka Fontane Effi Briest – an ornamental and vaguely oneiric black-and-white epic period piece based on Huguenot-German novelist Theodor Fontane’s 1894 novel of the same name – was a daunting project which the auteur put his heart, soul, and money into, taking about 58 days (as opposed to his usual 9 to 20 days) to complete shooting, yet the work and wealth that went into the meticulously stylized work ultimately paid-off in the long run, at least as the director and a number of critics were concerned, as it went on to be hailed as one of the ill-fated filmmaker’s greatest cinematic works, henceforth winning the 1974 Interfilm Award at the 24th Berlin International Film Festival and being nominated for the Golden Bear. With the full title of the film being the absurdly long Fontane Effi Briest oder Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen, Fassbinder indubitably made no lie about the fact that it was a big film for him and probably a work that he expected would be a glaring great cinematic work in the context of all of film history as a whole, which being named as one of the "Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made" by The New York Times, one can argue there is evidence to support that claim, yet as a fanatical fan of the Fass man’s cinematic oeuvre myself, I cannot agree with this seemingly ridiculous assessment. Essentially Fassbinder’s cinematic equivalent to the classic Hollywood civil war epic romance Gone with the Wind (1939), Effi Briest – almost entirely lacking the idiosyncratic subversive qualities and maniac melodrama that his fans know and love – is like an ostensibly highbrow melodramatic chick flick for petit-bourgeois Marxists and suburban socialists who are just as much as fascinated by and as materialistic as the society that they would love to see destroyed. Somewhat a cinematic swansong for Hanna Schygulla (who stars in the title role), in part due to the actress' disagreement over interpretations of the character and what she saw as low pay, as well the filmmaker’s new diva obsession Margit Carstensen, Effi Briest would mark the last time Fassbinder worked with the itsy-bitsy (and apparently bitchy) bombshell blonde until The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Playing a seemingly impenetrable and dispassionate character constrained by the superficially stoic yet shallow social conventions and mores of the late 19th century Prussian aristocracy, Schygulla later admitted in retrospect in an interview regarding her purposefully plastic performance in Effi Briest, “I actually wanted to play it with more expression. I realize now that the movie is so good precisely because I was not allowed to express myself.” Undoubtedly a man who had a way with words, Fassbinder would state, “I can't stand the sight of your face any more,” regarding Schygulla's little revolt, but the filmmaker’s remarks had totally new meaning for me after enduring her seemingly endless pathetic performance in Effi Briest; an aesthetically refined yet virtually emotionally empty epic in cultural decay, artistic dismay, and tedious Teutonic tautology.

 Utilizing Theodor Fontanes's words in character dialogues, off-screen narration, and old Germanic text and letters, Effi Briest is indubitably a surprisingly fateful cinematic adaption, especially for a Fassbinder film, as a virtual celluloid love letter to the man that wrote the source material, hence Hanna Schygulla restrained acting as the positively pretty yet physically and emotionally pedomorphic protagonist. 17-year-old Effi Briest, a naive “child of nature” and a girly ditz with a decidedly dapper exterior, probably does not make a very wise decision when she marries a man twenty years her senior named Baron Geert von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck); a patently pedantic Prussian aristocrat and “art fiend” who delights in high kultur and keeping young women rather restrained. The daughter of a curious cuckold of a merchant (Herbert Steinmetz) who oddly and odiously states, “I envy her” in regard to the marrying of his daughter to a man old enough to be her father, and a severe social-climbing mommy (not coincidentally played by Fassbinder’s real-life mother Lilo Pempeit), elfish Effi does not really have the opportunity to think twice about marrying a banal baron who will make her internal life an inferno, but her social and material life something of great majesty, at least in her parents' minds. Admitting to her mother that she has mixed feelings about the baron because he, “is a man of principles” and “probity,” Effi – a delicate dame that is more prone to impulse than intelligence – feels somewhat pained and frightened by prospects of the future in regard to her less than handsome future husband; a man whose psychological, physical, and social dominance guarantee he will be ruling the house with a firm iron-first. Of course, gorgeous and gracefully girly girl Effi marries Geert the gentleman brute and thus their miserable marriage of monotony and failed monogamy begins. Needless to say, their marriage is less about mutual love, sex, and romance than homosexual Fassbinder’s short-lived marriage to his friend/diva Ingrid Caven. On top of moving her into a home in a small Baltic town that is purportedly haunted by ghosts, thus scaring her into submission, Effi must endure Geert’s blueblood passion for fine art and his blatantly bitchy servant Johanna (Irm Hermann), who won’t even look the young girl in the eye because, being a cold wench, she is certainly the true soul-mate for the Baron, but lacks the social status to be with him. Things get slightly better for Effi when she hires an overweight lapsed Catholic servant named Roswitha (Ursula Strätz), but the blood in her veins does not really start pumping until Geert’s associate Crampas (Ulli Lommel whose typically suave, Sven-gali like essence was snuffed out as a result of his voice being dubbed over post-production Italian style) – a major in the military – comes to town and comes in the sexually repressed girl on the seaside with his semen. Of course, Crampas, quite literally and figuratively, only comes and goes, but Effi makes the mistake of leaving around incriminating letters between the two lecherous love birds that are found by the Baron a number of years later. To maintain his social dignity and any questions as to whether or not he is a cowardly cuckold, Geert duels and inevitably kills Crampas and banishes Effi from his home, despite the fact that the mismatched married couple now have a daughter. In good Prussian aristocratic society, a mere infraction results in the complete and utter social ostracization and virtual annihilation of one’s life, or so little Effi comes to learn after her erotic escapades with a dapper man she admittedly never loved, nor adored. 

 Assembling a seemingly asinine anti-auteur piece with not a single likeable nor empathetic character, Fassbinder admitted regarding Effi Briest in a 1974 interview with Kraft Wetzel for the West Berlin publication Kino that, “it isn’t a film about a woman, but a film about Fontane, about this writer’s attitude toward his society. It’s not a film that tells a story, but a film that traces an attitude.” Indeed, the director even went so far as stating that Effi Briest is, “a film that really only works in the German language,” yet I seriously doubt that lost-in-translation linguistics are responsible for the ludicrously languid and lusterless lifeblood (or lack thereof) that is Effi Briest; a periodically poetic yet profoundly prosaic epic of celluloid melodramatic impotency and insipidity. Best known for his intrinsically idiosyncratic and marvelously merciless melodramas with a sharp and scathing sociopolitical consciousness, Fassbinder inexplicably stated in the same interview with Kino that, “my personal interest is more in literary topics…The fact that I made things like EIGHT HOURS ARE NOT A DAY has to do with my having grasped certain societal mechanisms and recognizing perfectly calmly that you have to do something for the audience. And with other films like EFFI BRIEST and the earlier ones, there I was doing something for myself.” Of course, considering Fassbinder named his less than masterful work Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) as his best film and Despair (1978) as his third best in a personal Top-Ten list of his films in 1981, it is quite obvious that the genius filmmaker was not exactly the most keen judge of his own cinematic oeuvre. As someone who has seen and likes virtually all of the director’s films and considers no less than five of them masterpieces, I do not hesitate to state that Effi Briest is one of Fassbinder’s least worthwhile and rewarding cinematic efforts, as a sometimes admittedly aesthetically outstanding, yet ultimately uninspiring and uninventive work that is the celluloid equivalent of a piece of Victorian antique furniture that is pleasing to look at in passing but is not comfortable to sit in nor worth the price, at least for the majority of patrons. Portraying an extinct society that essentially dissolved into a much larger and more petty German middle-class, Effi Briest is a foggy window into a cultural graveyard of the less than noble, noble living dead that was better off left resting in its cold crypt. 

 Sharing some similarities with Fassbinder’s other films, Effi Briest is surely a wayward (but this time rather weak) ‘women’s picture,’ if not an unflattering one that portrays the ‘fairer sex’ as being nothing short of morally retarded and servile yet decidedly disloyal. As Baron Geert von Instetten – an absurdly authoritarian man but not without honor – states to his beauteous yet besotted wife Effi, “Women, of course are the first to cry for a policeman, but the law doesn’t interest them.” Indeed, hopeless Effi’s only admitted guilt for cheating on her husband is her lack of guilt in regard to her carnal deceit. A proud Prussian patrician, it comes as the ultimate insult that Effi philanders with a man who is half polish, bad with women, and a gambler, even if he is the “perfect cavalier.” Only when she is banished, disgraced, and has her budding child taken away does Effi admit that her big Baron beau is “petty” and “cruel” – character flaws she recognized in him long ago, but she married the mundane and monstrous man anyway solely as a means of gaining social status and piddling prestige. Judging by the petty yet pathetically pitiful problems faced by the characters in Effi Briest, one can only speculate that Fassbinder – a man personally plagued by suicidal lovers, a steady diet of narcotic drugs, and a pugnacious personality – almost longed for the much simpler times portrayed in his superlatively softcore cinematic saga of aristocratic manners and gestures. Unfortunately, it seems Fassbinder’s source of solace was also a source of slumber for his viewers, at least in regard to Effi Briest; the master enfant terrible auteur filmmaker’s attempt at confirming that he could direct a garden-variety film in the dispiriting spirit of classic Hollywood golden age melodramas, which, ironically, might have been the damned director’s single greatest and most pernicious provocation of his career.  If you ever had the compulsion to make your grandmother a Fassbinder fan, just buy a gently used copy of Effi Briest for her trusty VHS player.

-Ty E

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