Monday, July 15, 2013

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Effi Briest

too vast a subject
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer, based on a novel by Theodor Fontane, and director) Fontane Effi Briest, order 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 (Effi Briest) / 1974, USA 1977

I have now seen Fassbinder’s film Effi Briest three times, once in the theater back in 1977, and two times within the past couple of years. Even though the events and themes of Fassbinder’s work are fairly straight-forward, based so faithfully as they are on Fontane’s turn-of-the-century narrative, I passed on reviewing it the second time round, and almost felt not up to writing about it this time, as if, as my title suggests, it was too vast a subject. And in some respects this movie is, in its social and political implications, a work that encompasses nearly all of the director’s major concerns, from the effects of sex (as opposed to love) upon the lives of individuals, the restraints of society that bind and destroy individuals, to the individual’s—once they defined by the society or self as an outsider—own self destruction, and, as Fassbinder’s subtitle suggests, their own confirmation of the brutal “ruling systems’” values. These issues, the last in particular, are heady intellectual dilemmas with which Fassbinder demands that his audience contend.

    Some critics have criticized Effi Briest as being too cold and calculated in its method and tone, and there is little doubt that Fassbinder, unlike in so many of his other works (for example the film of the same year, the emotionally-charged Fox and His Friends), does purposely take an objective viewpoint, allowing each of his central figures to reveal their own strengths and failings. But that does not mean that the director of this fascinating film is “uninvolved.” Not only does Fassbinder tell much of Fontane’s story, verbally interlinking the visual scenes, but, at times, even speaks in Effi’s voice. The vast subtitle, also a creation of the director’s, is an outright statement of how Fassbinder has read the novel, perceiving it as a work that reveals “Many who have a notion of their potential and needs, and who nevertheless in their heads accept the ruling system and thereby consolidate and downright confirm it.” The ruling system of this film is the horrifyingly rigid Prussian society of the Bismarck era, the world that ultimately brought about World War I and, in turn, generated the later Nazi thinking that would result in the holocaust and World War II.

While it is true that Fassbinder purposefully delimits any sexual and most emotionally-leaden scenes, describing them only through the narrator’s voice or having them occur off screen, that does mean that Effi Briest is without intense feelings one can experience in nearly every frame. First of all there is the very beauty and innocence of its young heroine, Effi (the remarkable Hanna Schygulla), a truly naïve woman right out of a Fragonard painting, swinging her way to the sun and stars. A true product of her fiercely bourgeois parents, her doting father (Herbert Steinmetz) and mother (Fassbinder’s own mother, Lilo Pempeit), the spoiled Effi is without moral principle but, particularly like her mother, clearly still has ambitions, as she herself admits. Although she does not even know the man, Baron Geert von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck)—whom we observe voyeuristically watching her early in the film—who asks for her hand, she is perfectly willing to marry this much older, not very handsome, but politically rising figure. She may fear that he is a bit too principled, but she ignorantly has no worries whatsoever about being taken out of the gentle community of her childhood to an isolated Baltic town, where even Instetten admits there are very few intellectuals or people of high taste.

     Accordingly, Instetten takes this innocent, like a stolen trophy, from her mirrored, somewhat narcissist paradise into an even more closed society which Fassbinder reveals not only through the hostile glares of the housekeeper Johanna (Irm Hermann)—at moments reminding one of Mrs. Danvers of Hitchcock’s melodrama, Rebecca—but through the sorry condition of the Catholic Roswitha, whom cannot find employment because of her religion, even though she admits she is “lapsed.” Highly corseted, Effi is presented at most moments behind lace veils and lace beddings almost as if she were living in a burka, a world which blurs her vision and often appears to the audience like somewhat decorative bars of a prison. If that we’re enough, her “highly-principled” husband tells her tales, described in the narrative as “An Artifice Incalculated to Instill Fear” about a dead Chinaman whose ghost supposedly roams the upper rooms of the house (a story confirmed by Johanna and servants), which absolutely terrifies the young married girl whenever Insetten leaves the house, and might serve as warning for any infidelity.

     The one woman Effi meets who is both beautiful and able to sing quite lovely songs, she is warned against. Even motherhood is denied her, the nanny doing almost all the work having to do with her new baby’s care, allowing Effi only, from time to time, to take up the child as she would a doll. Fassbinder’s presentation of this event is painfully stunning, after which the child’s caretaker, Roswitha, takes back the child, swaddling it as if, in its mother’s hands, it had been in danger.

     Is it any wonder that, mostly out of boredom and the failure of her husband to demonstrate any love, Effi takes up with the witty, unhappily married rake, Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel)? If the affair also occurs only off-camera, it is, in part, because it hardly matters. But we do recognize her emotional delight in the simple, if momentary, freedom it allows her as each day she walks to and picnics at the beach. If this is sex without love, we have already been presented, quite emotionally, what does matter in this house: the imprisonment, bodily and intellectually, of its young mistress.

      Her husband’s appointment to a Berlin ministry is the only thing that temporarily saves Effi, as she is sent off to rent an apartment, she herself determining never to come back. Like hundreds of women of the era, the young woman counterfeits rheumatism and other such maladies in order to remain bed-bound until her husband can join her in the capital. Yet, in behaving like so many others, Effi, has in fact, doomed herself to her inevitable fate. It is clear that Insetten cannot show love and that does not love him, but by remaining in such a relationship, she confirms the ethics of repressed hate, not even a repressed love. And that is the true tragedy Fassbinder’s film reveals. Had Effi found love in Crampas’ arms she might have, at least, been able to break with the values of the world to which she is bound; without even that, she is allowed nothing. When discovering her stupidly-preserved mementoes of that six year-old “romance,” Insetten ridiculously feels he has no choice but to fight a duel with Crampas, a dilemma as outrageous as that described in Schnitzler’s Lieutenant Gustl, published five years later. But whereas Gustl discovers, fortunately, that his would-be opponent has died during the night, Insetten must go through with the duel, killing his former friend and divorcing his wife. The child remains with him, and the woman he once proclaimed to love must face life alone in a boarding house.  Even her parents, in their conventionality and their fears for neighborhood gossip, refuse to take her in.

      Despite what we now perceive as the inner horrors of the outwardly ordered world wherein Effi is entrapped, she refuses or is simply unable to rise up and reject its values. She, now an outsider to society, perceives herself as just that, as one unworthy of any other treatment. It is now clear just how her own parents have conspired to keep her ignorant of any comprehension that might have saved her. Twice in this film, the father utters the cliché that to discuss such an issue is “too vast a subject.” The first time it is as he speaks with Effi, attempting, we presume, to talk about love. We might simply perceive that as a problem many parents face of being unable to talk forthrightly to their children about sex. But even after, in her isolated world Effi finally recognizes that her husband has turned her own daughter against her, and falls ill—the parents finally indulging their beloved child by allowing her to return home to die—Briest and his wife cannot admit to their involvement in the series of events, cannot admit to themselves their own guilt. Briest comments, once more, “It is too vast a subject,” refusing, in short, to give the matter any deep thought.

      If one still feels that this sad story is clinically presented, I suggest that they also are not giving this amazing work the careful attentiveness it deserves. Like so many Germans throughout that next century (and, of course, not only Germans, but people all over the world), Fassbinder suggests, refusing to independently think or to teach others to do so is the greatest of all crimes, issues which, more recently Austrian director Michael Haneke has revisited in his The White Ribbon.

Los Angeles, July 13, 2013

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