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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Make Films Fast, Die Young and Leave a Beautiful Corpus
by Donald Levit

Cinema savvy but not all that young, an unusual group of people came to enjoy the old projector whirr, watch purposely throwback camerawork, and admire the third of five features of “A Director Who Died Too Soon,” the NYPL Donnell Center’s June Gay Pride Month retrospective of the controversial wunderkind, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. From resounding failure at twenty-three, Fassbinder came to some critical acclaim as knight of the new German cinema but never captured the wider public. Today’s mass-media younger generation has not taken to him, either, despite his uncompromising insistence on truth, criticism of social mores and hypocrisy, championing of the weak outcast, and counterculture personal life.

A high school dropout of educated middle class origins, the raggedly dressed, openly gay Bavarian (although married to leading lady Ingrid Caven) could oscillate between brilliant and third-rate, in combining “my discoveries of the American cinema” -- the ‘fifties, particularly Douglas Sirk -- with “investigations into German actualities.” Later learning first “to satisfy the audience, and then to deal with political comment,” he did over forty-one movies in the decade-and-a-half before he wore out and died at thirty-six of cocaine abuse. Founder of the rebellious Anti-Theater company, as well, and so brutish with his stock company family of technicians and performers that talented Hanna Schygulla would not work with him for five years, he targeted racism, fascism, homophobia, discrimination against woman, and the evils of laissez-faire capitalism.

Effi Briest is also known as Fontane Effi Briest in acknowledgement that the director’s script came from an already thrice-filmed nineteenth-century Theodor Fantane novel. Criticism has generally classified this 1974 film as one of Fassbinder’s best, for “sharply observed drama,” “extraordinary delicacy and reserve,” and subtle depiction of the victimization of an inexperienced seventeen-year-old girl.

In structure and visualization, the work returns to theater and its source in popular literature, as for instance the authorial voice-over that instructs us in the truth beneath surfaces or reads frequent Frakturscript title cards, the long static conversations and short sequences that open as frozen tableaux vivants to end by fading into embarrassing white cuts. Indeed, the severe black and overexposed white, stiffness, simple yet stifling décors and few artificially grouped exteriors, the styles and wardrobe, call to mind moralistic Victorian prints of wronged but fallen daughters denied the parental doorstep during a raging snowstorm.

Lifted from numbers of romantic paintings, a wide tree-swing at her parents’ country home stands for innocent freedom, and on it Effi (Schygulla) will first appear, just as to it she will repair at the end, the two scenes patly sandwiching more than six years of loss and initiation, love and rejection, hatred and forgiveness. Lacking any firmness of character, the young blonde is to be married to an upright but stuffy Baron and move to a provincial Baltic town of 3,000. Looking younger than he is supposed to be, the politically and socially climbing Geert von Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenck) seems kind, if physically distant, in loving and lavishing luxuries on his child bride, to the displeasure of severe housekeeper Johanna (Irm Hermann).

Though she tries and even rests a head on her husband’s shoulder or lap, the dutiful child-woman is anxiously aware of her social inadequacies. Sinisterly bespectacled but innocuous Gieshübler (Hark Bohm) would love her but lacks all courage; not so the gambling, suave, unhappily married Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel), who works his way into Effi’s lonely affections, even though she already has a daughter, Annie (Andrea Schober).

Distrustful of the seducer but taking no action beyond giving advice,  District Councillor Innstetten rises within the service, resulting in a transfer to Berlin, effectively ending Effi’s liaison. Years later, furnished with love letters sniffed out by officious Johanna, he has proof and, after monotone philosophical sophistry about honor and loyalty -- in flashforwards nicely interposed with the “present” -- challenges the scoundrel to a duel and banishes his wife.

Well and good, but it has taken too long to reach this pass. Fassbinder’s point -- the injustices done victim-figure Effi -- is rushed, given short shrift in a few minutes of her parents’ (Herbert Steinmetz and Lilo Pempeit, the director’s mother) socially motivated refusal of the erring daughter, whose very child is brainwashed against her. Faithful Catholic nanny Roswitha’s (Ursula Straetz) lamenting her own atrocious treatment in a parallel situation is too brief to count and, in any case, counterproductive when a prissy Effi hypocritically scolds her flirtation with married groom Kruse (Karl Scheydt).

In spite of achieved small-budget period flavor, the film is, in short, ponderously top-heavy in its setting up and complication, and cannot overcome its portrayal of the Baron as honest, decent, loving and dull, equally a victim of time and place. Nor does the child Annie’s final-straw formality with her shattered mother work, either, for the former has been no more than a cipher, anyway, a byproduct-image of marriage’s unseen consummation.

Of course, such an appraisal will sound harsh to some. Nods and sympathetic clucks seemed to approve and second the film. But there were also laughs at unintentionally funny moments, perhaps because unrelieved melodramatic earnestness must necessarily slip from time to time. 

(Released by Tango/New Yorker Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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