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.

Die Ehe der Maria Braun / The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

30 04 2020

Roughly ten years ago I sat down to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun. It was my first experience with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I trust very little of myself from ten years ago, but I knew I appreciated the film on some level. If I had to guess, my 18-year-old cinephile self probably liked that Fassbinder used a Steadicam and I probably also thought that Hanna Schygulla was pretty. In a way, I wasn’t wrong, but I was hilariously underprepared to fully comprehend Fassbinder. As one of his biggest International hits, Maria Braun is a popular entry point but as such it often gets decontextualized from its own author. This was Fassbinder’s 19th film in ten years (one can juke these stats by including Fassbinder’s many television productions made during the timespan) and he had evolved substantial. While I resist the rigid way his “eras” are sometimes catalogued, there’s something to be said in the fact that this film managers to synthesize his admiration for his two heroes, Bertolt Brecht and Douglas Sirk.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Maria marries a soldier, Hermann Braun. Unfortunately, the war isn’t over, and the ceremony takes place amidst an allied bombing raid. Days later, Hermann is declared dead. With little to no economic prospects, Maria becomes a hostess at a bar popular with American soldiers. Hermann is actually alive, and he walks in on Maria entertaining one of her patrons, Bill. In the ensuing struggle, Bill is murdered by Maria but Hermann takes the blame with the expectation that Maria will wait for his release. She finds work as an assistant for the wealthy Karl Oswald, and then graduates to his mistress with the hope that she’ll be able to provide for both herself and Hermann upon his release.

In Fassbinder’s robust filmography, The Marriage of Maria Braun is second only to Ali: Fears Eat the Soul in terms of popularity. Personally, I have never fully clicked with Ali. It’s one of those films that I should like more than I actually do. I think it has something to do with the fact that it is by far Fassbinder’s most tender and gentle work. He is often described as cynical, if not mean-spirited, and that film feels like a conscious reaction towards such criticism. In a way, it’s just too precious. To me, Maria Braun strikes a better balance. Fassbinder’s humor is still intact, and the characters needn’t spiral down the rabbit hole of melodramatic misery. The most striking thing about Maria’s suffering is that it isn’t dramatically apparent. Her pain is much duller than the kind depicted in Ali. Punctuated by Schygulla’s charisma, it cuts deeper and burns slower.

The film’s opening immediately displays this sort of balance. One can find countless plot descriptions across the internet that say something along the lines of “Maria gets married amidst the war” but this is an extremely literal description. There’s a staccato brilliance to this opening, one that calls back to Fassbinder’s start as a filmmaker. The Berlin Film School deferred him in 1966, which forced him to reroute through Munich’s Action Theater. He became fascinated with Bertolt Brecht and incorporated his ideas into his stage plays. The earliest Fassbinder films reflect this fascination as well as the theatrical background. The compositions in his first feature film, Love is Colder than Death, are static long shots. We tend to see the entire bodies of his characters and they speak out of the rhythm. A dismissive audience would describe them “as not acting like real people.” For many, this is difficult, but to me it is an accessible source of humor. On the surface, Maria Braun is completely unlike this, “the characters act like real people.”

This is an incorrect assessment. In both instances, Fassbinder is challenging the conventional dramatic demand for empathy. In a way, his withholding of any “identification” is a tease. It retrains us. This works wonderfully for Maria because she never keeps up a moral standard. We don’t look up to her, or admire her, and we shouldn’t do those things in film. Sure, she preservers, but she also manipulates and is ill-tempered. She’s not “good” and she’s not “bad.” Fassbinder played with empathy throughout his career. It’s obvious in his earliest Brechtian features, but he’s also doing it in his melodramas, where both the performances and misfortunes are extended to absurdity. Again, the balance is perfected in Maria Braun, Brecht and Sirk are both present. As it is, the surface often resembles a handsome and accessible entry point into Fassbinder’s world. Revisiting Maria Braun after seeing his stranger and thornier efforts is nourishing because of its similarities to those films, not the differences.