Film Review | Effi Briest, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder at TIFF Nov 3


Image courtesy of the TIFF website

Effi Briest shows at TIFF Bell Lightbox November 3rd at 6:45 pm, as part of Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a retrospective that runs from October 28 – December 3.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, a 1974 film starring Hanna Schygulla, feels very faithful to the format of its source material. While I haven’t read the 1896 novel Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, Fassbinder’s approach in this film feels so novelistic in its quiet tone that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the scenes and dialogue have a one-to-one correlation to the original book. Take for example the opening scene, where the screen shows a still image of a house and a narrator describes the house in great detail and says that across it, “the village street lay still, bathed in the midday sun.” There are also scenes where there is no dialogue, but rather the narrator relays an earlier conversation or the characters’ inner thoughts while the actors move about silently on screen.

This style fits particularly well with the restrictive 19th century social conventions explored in the story, which is about an unhappy marriage told from the perspective of a 19th century woman and has been compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Effi Briest’s parents arrange her marriage to Baron Innstetten, a man over twice her age who had courted her mother many years ago. As her mother told her, the marriage would increase her status and let her achieve at 20 what many women do at 40.

Unfortunately, Baron Innstetten is a scary, controlling figure, and rather than comfort Effi when she has trouble sleeping, Innstetten dismisses her fears about a ghost in their home, and worse, Effi later realizes he had been trying to use the ghost to ‘educate’ her. Effi finds a much-needed friend in the handsome and dashing Major Crampas, an acquaintance of the Baron, and as anyone who’s read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary can predict, this cannot end well.

The main highlight of the movie for me is the performance by Hanna Schygulla, who plays Effi which such lovely innocence that it’s heart-breaking to see her transform from the joyous ‘aerial spirit’ in the first scene to the more restricted, fearful wife and tragic figure that she becomes. I wanted her to find a happy ending with Major Crampas, yet knew she was restricted by the unfortunate reality of her time.

Effi Briest is a beautiful film, and it’s no wonder the book on which it was based was a literary classic.


Image from Berlin Alexanderplatz courtesy of the TIFF website

About Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Running from October 28 to December 23, Imitations of Life showcases 34 feature films and 2 short films (28 of them presented on 35mm), including several restorations, rarities, and Toronto premieres. From November 22 to January 5 will present Fassbinder’s favourite films in All That Heaven Allows: Fassbinder’s Favourites. This sidebar offers a rich selection of classic films that shaped Fassbinder’s acidulous vision, ranging from Hollywood noirs and melodramas to masterpieces of European cinema. See the TIFF website for a full schedule.

About Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder was a German film director, screenwriter, and actor who remains as one of the most controversial, highly praised, and greatly influential directors of postwar cinema. During the 17/18 years of his professional career, he maintained a frenetic pace and completed forty feature length films; two television film series; three short films; four video productions; twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays; and thirty-six acting roles in his own and others’ films. He died in 1982 at 37 from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates.

Underlying Fassbinder’s work was a desire to provoke and disturb, he focused on outsiders, his films are populated by misfit characters that often reflected his own fluid sexuality and self-destructive tendencies. His phenomenal creative energy, when working, coexisted with that wild, self-destructive tendency that earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, as well as being its central figure. He had tortured personal relationships with the actors and technicians around him who formed a surrogate family. However, his films demonstrate his deep sensitivity to social outsiders and his hatred of institutionalized violence. He ruthlessly attacked both German bourgeois society and the larger limitations of humanity.

Also at TIFF: Berlin Alexanderplatz : An adaptation of the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin

In the mountainous ex-con protagonist Franz Biberkopf, Fassbinder found an image of himself, a true alter ego. Fassbinder rarely revealed as much tenderness as he did in his portrayal of Franz’s struggle to go straight after being released from prison, as he is pulled between the embodiments of Good and Evil. Offering some of the most memorable characters and greatest acting in all of cinema, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the summa and summit of Fassbinder’s career.
The first two events in this series will be introduced by Barbara Sukowa, who won the Best Young Actress Award in Germany for her breakthrough role in this wildly controversial and immersive epic.
Thanks to TIFF for a screener of this film in exchange for an honest review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s