Effi Briest (1974)

Polished, precise and beautifully-shot in black-and-white, but its cold and austere treatment can be a long, alienating slog.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dir. R.W. Fassbinder
1974 | West Germany | Drama | 135 mins | 1.37:1 | German
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Wolfgang Schenck, Ulli Lommel
Plot: In the 19th century, 17-year-old Effi Briest is married to the older Baron von Instetten and moves into a house in a small isolated Baltic town. Effi is lonely when her husband is away on business, so she spends time riding and walking along the shore with Major Crampas.
Awards: Won Interfilm Award (Berlin)
Source: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex, Abstract
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

So far, the works of R.W. Fassbinder have been more hits than misses for me, but Effi Briest is the first one that I seriously struggled with.  It has, however, been regarded as one of the director’s most ambitious works, and occasionally appearing in the best-of lists of the filmmaker’s prolific filmography. 

Made in 1974, a year in which he made three other features, including one of my favourites, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest is adapted from Theodor Fontane’s landmark novel, which depicts from the female perspective the institution of marriage in the 19th century. 

Fassbinder’s approach is very methodical, so precise in its technique that its formalism can be a turn-off.  Scene transitions aren’t faded to black, but to blinding white, intensifying the psychologically suppressive atmosphere whilst adding a touch of claustrophobia.  

However, at more than two-and-a-half hours long, it can be a lengthy, alienating slog.  The cold and austere treatment of its subject matter doesn’t allow for any emotional connection to Effi as a character, even as we witness her psychological torment that is marked by irrational fears and guilt. 

Through the film, she seeks to find her own identity and purpose as wife to an older Baron, though one suspects that what she truly wants is to understand what it takes to be a woman in her time. 

Verbatim quotes from Fontane’s novel are used as intertitles to give literary credibility to Fassbinder’s cinematic vision, but I much rather be flipping the pages for this one.

Grade: C+



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