Effi Briest (1974)

2 05 2020

Theory is, at its core, a practice this requires citation. It would be exceedingly difficult in 2020 to write an essay without referencing a past work. It’s like thinking of a new number or color. It is necessary to quote. Among the many celebrated figures in the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin was especially remembered for his quoting. He equated his database of quotes to a collection, and he speaks of such a collection with a tacit understanding of its absurdity. Many would consider cinema’s equal to be Jean-Luc Godard. After all, his aesthetic is often shaped by the interjection of quotes. Although often lacking attribution, such quotations (be they intertitles or voiceover) work as cinematic footnotes to the image, rather than simply reinforcing or re-describing it. Fassbinder’s earliest films bear traces of Godard’s influence, but as his career progressed into the middle part of the seventies, Douglas Sirk took over as the guiding influence. The melodramatic conceit in Effi Briest reflects this shift but quoting informs the aesthetics. It is a film made entirely “in quotes” distanced from the source material. It is beautiful and compelling, but also maddening.

A teenage Effi Briest accepts a marriage proposal from the older and wealthier Baron Geert Von Instetten. Upon moving into his mansion in a secluded town she is immediately confronted with a sense of loneliness. The moments of social interaction she is treated to is anything but stimulating as the Baron’s social circle consists of individuals who find her primitive and uninteresting. She instead finds comfort in the companionship of Major Crampas, who is much closer to her in age than her husband. This infuriates the Baron who expects complete devotion from Effi and sees Crampas as little more than an opportunistic Lothario.

Much of what happens in Effi Briest can be described as “melodramatic.” The tension in the film itself is the fact that we don’t see much of the stuff that does happen. Fassbinder is (intentionally) at odds with “the text” of the film. The excitement that could come from such a narrative is stifled, artfully underlying the literal restriction placed on Effi herself. In a sense, she is given everything materially. She has the Baron’s wealth, access to his servants, and his unwieldy estate. Yet, she also lacks any personal mobility. Her predicament informs Fassbinder’s construction of the film. His compositions are exquisite, but he refuses to give us any of the juice in the narrative’s drama.

I should emphasize that I greatly admire what Fassbinder does here. Two of my favorite filmmakers ever, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu, did something extremely similar. At the risk of reducing the complexity of their work, I would also say that their films were also driven by characters. There is, of course, theoretical undercurrents in all of their work (if you want an elucidation on this, I’ve written considerably about both filmmakers on this website) but it situates itself differently than it does here. It pains me to say this and I know I undoubtedly sound like a rube in doing so, but Effi Briest is simply too stiff. When Fassbinder withholds the drama in say, Love is Colder than Death, it works. In that film, I am profoundly moved when he deprives us of the sensations one expects in a crime drama. When he attempts something similar with a period melodrama, though, it feels too much like the stuffy chamber piece that is the foundation for the abstraction.

As it stands, I find myself more fascinated by this particular experiment than anything else. I can even go back to the certain sequences and pinpoint their brilliance. Effi’s frustration with the Baron’s social circle gets expressed not in Fassbinder’s perfect compositions but in a brilliant and descriptive inter-title that follows: “An artifice inspired to calculate fear.” The stuffiness of upper crust society paradoxically describes the film’s own aesthetic aspirations. There are endless films that quote from a literary source, but there are very few that use a quote to actually inform the film’s actual syntax. Fassbinder’s absurd productivity suggests that he treated each film as a new experiment. Many of these experiments work for me, and I can’t even fault the ones that don’t. They offer something new and fascinating even as they fail to stimulate. Watching Effi Briest is a frustrating experience, yet it is entirely unique one as well. It reflects the genius of its filmmaker.


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