Effi Briest (Fontane Effi Briest) Review

A classic German novel, Fassbinder style. Released on Blu-ray by Arrow.

Germany, the late nineteenth century. Teenaged Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla) accepts a marriage proposal from the Baron von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenk), a man more than twice her age. Left alone while her husband is often away, and soon with a child, Effi soon becomes very lonely, and seeks companionship in Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel)…

Theodor Fontane (1819-1998) had a long writing career, for much of his life as a journalist. He didn’t start writing novels until the age of fifty-seven. Effi Briest – serialised in 1894-5 and published in book form as 1896, his first real commercial success. Its classic status is secure in German-speaking countries, where it is taught in schools. Some would place it alongside two other nineteenth-century novels centering on a woman (written by a man) and dealing with the consequences of adultery, but for some reason in English-speaking countries it is less well known than Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, though like them it was written in a language other than English. Fassbinder’s film was the fourth of so far five adaptations of the novel, all of them German-made.

Fassbinder had wanted to film the novel since the beginning of his directing career, but the money was not forthcoming. Also, he felt, he lacked the expertise to do the subject justice. The production was originally intended to shoot for sixty days (a Fassbinder shoot at the time averaged ten) but a series of setbacks extended the filming, begun in 1972, and the original cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann was replaced by Jürgen Jürges. Effi Briest (Fontane Effi Briest) premiered at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival. Dialogue, narration (by Fassbinder) and the text of letters we see on screen is lifted directly from the novel. Fassbinder included the author’s name in the title of his film, which is in full: Fontane Effi Briest oder 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. That subtitle translates as Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It. After The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in 1972 up to now, Fassbinder’s completed films were for German television, four of them, plus two serials (one of two parts and another of five), with Fear Eats the Soul being shot in a two-week gap in Fassbinder’s schedule.

While Effi Briest is by no means Fassbinder’s only film adapted from an existing literary source it does stand at odds with the films around it. Fassbinder’s earliest films were influenced by his work in the theatre, in particular the work of Brecht. In his film, Fassbinder makes use of distancing devices, intentionally keeping us at arm’s length and not being swept up by the drama, instead asking us to take a more analytical – and indeed sociopolitical – stance to the material. This is one of Fassbinder’s more visually stylised film, not just because of its being in black and white (like his earliest films), but makes use of narration, fifteen captions dividing the film into sections, and often selfconsciously composing shots in depth and often filming through mirrors, panes of glass, bars, lace curtains, these characters trapped by the society they live in. He also dubs all but three of the cast with other actors’ voices, to emphasise the artifice. We also do not see certain key events but are told about them by the narrator afterwards. That is in keeping with Fontane’s novel, which hints at Effi’s adultery with Krampas, say, but we don’t actually read about it happening. In fact, the first definite indication of it is a scene where Instetten discovers a love letter.

Fassbinder’s use of alienation effects became less overt when he took on the influence of Douglas Sirk, so in a way Effi Briest is a fascinating example of his harking back to his earliest work, but given the budget of his later work. Given her first leading role, Hanna Schygulla easily holds the attention of the audience, and the film is unfailingly beautiful to look at. Fassbinder would return to black and white much later in his career with Veronika Voss. Schygulla and Fassbinder fell out during the making of this film and they would not work again for six years, on The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Effi Briest played the 1974 London Film Festival but had a somewhat belated British cinema release, in 1978, with the U certificate it still bears. Its television premiere was on 14 March 1984 on Channel Four (I was watching) as part of one of their Fassbinder seasons. (Thanks to Sheldon Hall for the information regarding the television showing.)

The Disc

Effi Briest is part of the ten-film, seven-disc limited edition Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection Blu-ray box set, available since 28 March 2016 exclusively from Arrow here, though may have sold out by the time you read this. It is now available as a standalone release. The on-disc contents are identical, but the boxset has a 192-page hardback book exclusive to it. There was a previous VHS release from Connoisseur and a DVD release from Arrow as part of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection box set. The latter was reviewed by Noel Megahey here. The film ends with a fade to black and no end titles, but this edition adds a page of restoration credits.

Effi Briest was shot in black and white 35mm (worth mentioning as that’s almost extinct nowadays – latter-day black and whites are more usually shot on colour stock or digitally). It is in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which appears to have been Fassbinder’s favoured ratio for much of the 1970s, and not just for the films made for television. I suspect many cinemas would have shown Effi Briest cropped to 1.66:1, though it’s clear that the narrower – and, for the big screen, all but commercially obsolete, ratio is the intended one. This Blu-ray transfer is derived from a 2K scan and restoration, supervised by Jürgen Jürges. This disc is a test case as to how beautiful black and white can look in high definition, especially so as watching this in a 35mm print is increasingly unlikely outside of a visit to an archive. Blacks and whites are true, with a wide scale of greys between them and the contrast so vital to monochrome seeming spot on.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. As mentioned above, there is almost no direct sound at all, with all but three actors’ voices redubbed, but it’s clear and well balanced. The English subtitles for this German-language film are optional.

The commentary is, as with other commentaries in this set, is carried over from Madman’s previous DVD edition, and is the work of Ken Moulden, from the Germanic Studies department of the University of Sydney. Moulden has an advantage in that this film is longer than the others in the set, but he makes good use of his additional time with a thorough talk bringing in Fassbinder’s career up to that point, the original novel and its place in German literature. Very much worth listening to.

Also on the disc are interviews with Ulli Lommel (6:45) and Jürgen Jürges (10:44). The former speaks in English, the latter in German. As he is talking about a black and white film, Lommel’s interview starts in monochrome (and Academy Ratio) before shifting to colour and widescreen. Lommel admits to wondering why Fassbinder had picked this material, as it is not something originating with him, but even so considers the film the director’s masterpiece. Fassbinder also asked him to do the sound as well, which harked back to their first collaboration, Love is Colder Than Death, where many of the cast doubled up as crewmembers to save money. Jürges recalls how he was asked to take over the shooting of the film, then on hold with about a third completed. He contacted Dietrich Lohmann, who had shot the film up to that point. However, he had to shoot the film with no sight of any rushes until the end of shooting.

The back of the case says that original theatrical trailer for Effi Briest is included as an extra, but it is not on the disc.

The book (exclusive to the boxset) contains an essay, “The German Madame Bovary”, by Erica Carter, Professor of German and Film at King’s College, London. This is a thorough discussion of the novel and film, with much attention paid to Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène, in particular the role played by looks, of one or more characters at another. Plenty of spoilers, so read after the film if you’re unfamiliar with either it or the novel. Also in the book are stills and transfer notes.


Updated: Aug 14, 2016

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