Effi Briest screens June 1 as part of “Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Effi Briest

In Effi Briest—both the 1974 film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the 1895 Theodor Fontane novel on which the movie is closely based—an inexperienced young woman is married off to a man who cannot love. Baron von Innstetten, twice Effi’s age when she weds him at 17, is a model civil servant, a man of wide education, discerning taste, honest intentions, and, for the most part, generous motives. There is no reason to doubt him when he says he adores his young wife, and little cause to accuse him of intentionally causing her pain. But his love is chilly, formal, and abstract; he wants to be her teacher, her protector, and her sole possessor, but it’s not clear that he wants to be—or can be—her lover. Early in their marriage, Effi accuses him, in a playful tone whose seriousness perhaps even she doesn’t realize, of being “frosty as a snowman” to her: “You could give me a kiss. But you never think of that.” “Don’t go on,” he interrupts. “I’ll try to be better.”

Fassbinder started work on Effi Briest midway through 1972, a little over a year after his transformative first encounter with the films of Douglas Sirk. In some respects, Fontane’s novel was an odd choice of subject for a filmmaker whose eyes had just been opened to the possibilities of melodrama. Written at 75 by a writer who came to fiction late, it’s an adultery story that, for the most part, eschews grand displays of passion in favor of a deep, quiet, stoic sadness. The characters are without exception reasonable, lucid, and decorous. Effi’s affair with the handsome, married major Crampas, on which the novel’s plot hinges, is left completely unwritten. A climactic duel between Crampas and Innstetten—who stops to pick a flower on the way—takes place in five businesslike words. (“It was all quickly performed.”) Five pages from the end of the novel, Effi, having fallen in disgrace from her high position and moved back to her childhood home, sits by the town station and watches the trains go by: “Sometimes she saw two plumes of smoke which overlapped for a moment and then went their separate ways to left and right again until they disappeared behind village and copse.” What might have been—as in another famous adultery novel—an instrument of death becomes, in Fontane’s hands, a reminder of the fragility of happiness and the brevity of life.

The tragedy of Fontane’s Effi Briest is that people often aren’t equipped to love one another as they want or need to, that social conventions and societal pressures often have a greater claim on the human mind than they demand or deserve, and that time, in its passing, doesn’t always resolve matters as we expect or hope it will. It’s striking how modern Fontane’s sensibility—his scorn for the aristocracy’s high-minded codes of conduct, his functional, unadorned, luminous prose style, his rejection of the conventions attached to traditional melodrama—now seems. At the same time, Effi Briest’s breed of tough-minded stoicism has a long pedigree; the tone of the novel’s closing chapters echoes, among others, Marcus Aurelius, the Greek Stoics, and the first 11 books of Ecclesiastes.

Effi Briest

All this might seem outside Fassbinder’s ken. But the idea of adapting Effi Briest had been in the director’s mind since his early stint working with Munich’s action-theater. He had initially conceived of it as his first film project, and when, three years later, he finally had enough funding to make it, the product became the longest and most expensive of any of his films up to that point: a stately, black-and-white period piece shot on a small number of well-dressed sets for a budget of what would now translate to over a million dollars. What Fassbinder gravitated towards in Fontane was, as he once put it, the way the author “rejected everybody and found everything alienating and yet fought all his life for recognition.” But Fontane’s rejection of society—in his case, the waning aristocracy of late 19th-century Prussia—took a very different form from Fassbinder’s. Effi Briest’s characters either wear their exclusion with whatever dignity they can (Effi), give up their attachments to society out of family loyalty (her parents), or resign themselves to a life of meaningless repetitions and slim consolations. Near the novel’s end, Innstetten realizes that the principles on which he has built his life are essentially empty. The speech he gets in response from his fellow civil servant Wüllersdorf is one of the book’s richest, saddest passages:

Show me someone who isn’t depressed. Someone who doesn’t say to himself every day, “a very questionable business when you think about it.” […] All this about creeping around in the jungle and spending the night in anthills is idiocy; leave that to those who enjoy it, it’s not for the likes of us. Stand in the breach and hold the line till you fall, that’s the best thing.

Fassbinder cuts Wüllersdorf’s reply. Instead, the scene ends with a blunter, more explicitly self-pitying declaration of failure from Innstetten: “I’ve messed up my life.”

Effi Briest

In general, the most revealing discrepancies between Effi Briest the novel and Effi Briest the film tend to come down to what each leaves unsaid or unshown. Nearly every word in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest—on top of the dialogue, some lines are spoken in voiceover by Fassbinder himself and others presented as intertitles between scenes—is lifted directly from the novel. (The movie’s original title, Fontane Effi Briest, suggests the extent to which Fassbinder saw the film as a kind of direct translation of the book rather than an adaptation.) But Fontane’s narration moves at a smooth, even tempo; it’s only gradually and retroactively, for instance, that the reader becomes aware of Effi’s affair. Fassbinder, in contrast, breaks the story up into short, isolated vignettes, often separated by jarring fades to white. I have seen it argued that these fades are intended to smooth over—as they often do in the Hollywood melodramas Fassbinder admired—the gaps formed by each cut. If anything, though, they tend to mark the narrative’s gaps and elisions more clearly. Each scene is created out of nothing and washed away back into nothing; what remains are pieces which rarely fit neatly together, in spite—or perhaps because—of their smoothed-out edges.

In cutting the novel down, Fassbinder went particularly hard on Fontane’s fastidious setups. Both tellings of the story give the same version of the event that leads Innstetten to discover his wife’s stash of Crampas’ old love letters—Effi’s daughter injures herself slightly while running up the stairs to the family house—but Fontane prefaces the scene with a paragraph laying out the day (Thursday) the time (midday) and the string of events leading up to the injury (the girl’s walk home from school, her rendezvous with the nanny, the latter’s reluctance when the child suggests a race up the stairs). Fassbinder opens on the girl rushing ahead. The injury, the treatment, and the maid’s innocent uncovering of the incriminating letters in Effi’s sewing kit move at the swift, efficient pace of a presentation of evidence in court. Fontane introduced the letters as an ominous, tossed-off detail. Fassbinder zooms in on them until they nearly fill the frame, then cuts to Innstetten opening the bundle with a sharp, jarring fade to white.  

One of the most striking aspects of Fassbinder’s Effi Briest is the lack of causal contact between scenes; each episode gives the impression of occurring more or less in isolation. What’s responsible for this effect—more, perhaps, even than those jarring fades—is the absence of internal momentum within each scene. In 1975, shortly before Effi Briest hit American shores, Manny Farber wrote that “the prime factor of [Fassbinder’s] syntax” was “the pull between characters and their diminutive, dollhouse environment.” In Effi, the characters have more or less made peace with their “captive settings,” to use Farber’s phrase, but at the cost of their freedom of movement and their naturalness of expression. Their gestures are slow, ritualized, and tightly circumscribed, their bodies framed and chopped up by doorways, lattices, curtains, and reflective surfaces. Innstetten’s confession of Effi’s infidelity to Wüllersdorf is captured by way of an ornate, multi-chambered mirror in which the two men’s faces float at odd, skewed angles, their eyes never meeting. For the length of her great denunciation of Innstetten two-thirds of the way through the film—he has just turned their only daughter against her—Effi comes to us from behind the wooden carvings of a bedpost, head bowed, like a penitent at confession.

Effi Briest Irm Hermann

Everyone in the film moves as if in suspended animation and speaks, for the most part, as if in a trance. Fontane’s dialogue, which is formal and stiff in syntax but oddly candid and direct in tone, is extremely difficult to film. (A sample line, taken almost at random: “No, there’s more honesty in it than you allow. It was you who wanted me to consult the doctor. I did so, and now I have to follow his advice.”) But Fassbinder refuses to adapt or colloquialize Fontane’s spoken lines; if anything, he magnifies their weighty, awkward grandeur. Wolfgang Schenck recites Innstetten’s dialogue in a dry, didactic monotone that takes on a bitter tinge over the course of the movie as the baron discovers the extent of his own coldness. The great Hanna Schygulla, as Effi, speaks primarily in a language of lilting sighs and softly exhaled breaths. It is only during her climactic soliloquy, in which she curses Innstatten’s pettiness and vain ambitions, that her voice breaks loose, travelling from a stifled whisper to three forced-out monosyllabic breaths (“Honor, honor, honor!”) and ending on a final, piercing cry.

Fontane allowed his characters to feel time’s passing as a kind of consolation. Life, they conclude, is short and disappointing, but it passes quickly, and provides enough moments of grace—what Wüllersdorf calls “auxiliary structures”—to get one by. The characters in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest are denied this kind of wide-angle stoic perspective. They are encased in the present, and it suffocates them. The same could be said of Petra von Kant, Hans in The Merchant of Four Seasons­, or nearly anyone in the stifling interwar urban inferno of Berlin Alexanderplatz. What sets Effi Briest apart from those movies is that its characters have no means of expressing their frustration with society outside of the terms of speech and conduct imposed on them by society itself. The outbursts of verbal mockery and physical violence scattered throughout many of Fassbinder’s films are as much a means of liberation (for the aggressor) as they are (for the victim) a source of constriction or pain. And it is, if anything, the absence of such outbursts that thickens the atmosphere in Effi Briest.

In the summer of 1973, when production had stalled temporarily on Effi Briest, Fassbinder took the chance to shoot the majority of Martha, a nightmare inversion of Fontane’s novel made on a mid-sized budget for German TV. Here, the camera—under the influence of a young Michael Ballhaus, in his fifth collaboration with Fassbinder—grew freer in its movements, more liberal with its embellishments and flourishes. Teenage, fresh-faced Effi became a virginal, repressed librarian in her early thirties under the thumb of her patronizing father and alcoholic, abusive mother. Innstetten, meanwhile, had become a sadistic architect intent on bringing his delicate new wife under his control, which he does, briskly and ruthlessly, by forcing her out of her job, holing her up in his imposing mansion, physically and sexually tormenting her, instructing her on which books she is to read and which records she is to hear, and—because he knows the depths of her devotion—pretending to abandon her when she fails to meet his expectations.

Effi Briest

Helmut is a figure of extreme, innate cruelty, motivated by forces darker and deeper than the need for social standing. But both he and Innstetten are guilty of treating their wives as students to be lectured at, taught lessons and occasionally punished. They are both, as Effi repeatedly describes her husband, “men of principles.” And Fassbinder’s suggestion across the two films, as I understand it, is that to be a man of good taste, high standards, and lofty ideals—whether those ideals are intellectual, social, or moral—means to risk becoming sterile (as in Innstetten’s case) or monstrous (as in Helmut’s). It means depriving oneself either of any capacity for irony or any room for compassion—two outcomes that, Effi suggests, are closer together than they seem. “I always felt small beside him,” she says of Innstetten, “but now I know that he’s the one who is small and petty. And because he’s small, he’s cruel. All things small are cruel.”