Criterion Prediction #92: Effi Briest, by Alexander Miller
Title: Effi Briest
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Wolfgang Schenck, Lilo Pempeit, Herbert Steinmetz
Synopsis: Based Theodor Fontane’s novel of the same name, Effi Briest follows the life of its titular character, a seventeen-year-old whose marriage to an older diplomat, Baron Geert Von Innstetten, is under strain due to social pressures and disingenuous peers.
Critique: Fassbinder’s body of work is enormous. After seeing remarkable features like World on a Wire, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The BRD Trilogy, and the mammoth Berlin Alexanderplatz, I was curious how else the maverick director could diversify himself. Effi Briest is one of Fassbinder’s most stately films and perhaps his most technically fluid that is dually lyrical, and moodily threadbare in its expressionism. I can’t pretend to know anything about the movies source material but Fassbinder’s temperament steers the elegant qualities with an aesthetic consistent with his fast-and-loose style of directing, that champions a technical atmosphere that arrives in dissolves, titles cards, and narration. The undulated camera work and classically balanced black and white photography indicate an emotionally intuitive mechanical instinct; the film is a deliberately composed with a natural ease.
Effi Briest is more reticent than his more Sirkian, colorful examinations of classism and wartime ennui but his treatment of Effi, played wonderfully Fassbinder mainstay Hanna Schygulla, is passive yet characteristic of the proto-feminist embodied by the works of Forster or Hardy. The director’s less didactic implementation of the character does reconnect with his thematic fascination with postwar German identity, the fate of his protagonist, a product of social mores, gender roles, and cultural customs maintaining her unencumbered individualism. The unencumbered display of fate dictated by influences beyond our modern context is self-sustained; I would like to think this comes from the mutual chemistry between Fassbinder and Schygulla.
Effi Briest feels like one of the director’s most genuine works. It might seem at odds with his more modern narratives but his aesthetic refinement and social commentaries aren’t buried beneath the period décor. They are complimented by it. Fassbinder’s expediency in becoming a fully formed filmmaker is attributed to his experience in The Munich Action- Theatre. Cultivating his stock company and taking cues, not from classic work of stage but cabaret shows, classic Hollywood films and revisionist influence thanks to the French New Wave, this accounts for his confident and persistent output of solid, character driven stories that also mirror the social erosion of postwar Germany.
Fassbinder was a rounded and powerful force in filmmaking whose classical and contemporary sensibilities made his filmmaking a unique posthumous document of virulent individualism and tenacious insight.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Among the big name directors in international cinema, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and Goddard have vast filmographies spanning decades and evolve through genres and themes. Fassbinder’s Herculean output in stage and screen is a drug fueled (how else?) concentration that defies categorization because of how consistently good his 40-plus movies turn out to be. Criterion and Arrow Films share a good portion of the director’s films and title cards for The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation show up in both Criterion and Arrow Films UK Blu-rays as well as the Los Angeles-based Fantoma DVD distribution company. With so many titles varying from distributors it almost feels like The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation is like a private-public domain, with a movie like Effi Briest it seems less like a “will they” and more like a “when they” case for a Criterion release. Meanwhile, there’s Satan’s Brew, Fear of Fear and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven on the backburner, not to mention that they keep uncovering lost articles like the recently unearthed miniseries Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. I say bring it on.