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Fontane - Effi Briest
cast: Hanna Schygulla, Wolfgang Schenck, Ulli Lommel, and Irm Hermann

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

140 minutes (15) 1974
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
This film has an alternative title, one of the longest in movie history, and which basically sets out the social dilemmas that its characters are faced with. The source material is Theodor Fontane's 1894 novel, perhaps not as well known in the UK as in Europe, but an influential part of the 19th century canon examining love and marriage from a female perspective. Fassbinder, for all his robust depiction of sexuality in many of his films, was equally capable of expressing emotional depths, and was profoundly compassionate when dealing with the trials of the disenfranchised outsider.

This is a very literary adaptation, with the early scenes presented as little vignettes. Effi (Hanna Schygulla, The Marriage Of Maria Braun) is an untroubled young woman, still in her teens and living at the home of her parents; her great joy is playing on her swing in the garden, for the thrill of trepidation that she might fall, that it gives her. She recounts to her friends the romantic story of how her mother was loved and wooed by one Instetten, before marriage to Effi's father. Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), now an aristocrat rapidly rising through society, arrives and asks for Effi's hand in marriage, and despite the age difference is accepted.

Effi and Instetten travel to Kessin where the former's youth and new social standing sets her apart. She is cowed by the notion that Instetten's home is haunted, and the story seems poised for Effi to follow the path of a Jane Eyre or Emma Bovary. Effi is introduced to Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel, Zombie Nation) whose description of Instetten as having a 'schoolmaster' mentality, and his suggestion that the 'haunted house' is a ploy to keep Effi repressed, strikes a chord with the young bride. Despite having a new baby Effi inevitably embarks upon an affair with Crampas.

Instetten is summoned to Berlin as part of his inevitable advance to high office but a chance event allows him to discover evidence of Effi's past indiscretion. Despite advice to the contrary, Instetten uses his remorseless didactic logic to convince himself that the only available course open to him is to challenge Crampas to a duel. Effi is set adrift from polite society and her health suffers but eventually she is able to return to the parental home and despite everything achieves something like a distracted form of happiness.

Fassbinder's telling of Effi's story suffers from being a little overlong. The early short scenes, which seem to come alive, like the stories behind family photographs, have a hypnotic hold on the attention. Fassbinder uses his favoured techniques of framing the action, in mirrors and through curtains, veils, and screens. Some scenes seem to play slightly out of sequence, as if to anticipate an event, or deal with its repercussions. The arresting inevitability of the story seems to dissipate when Effi's old affair is discovered. While the social realignment around the now-disgraced Effi is well observed interest begins to wander.

Hanna Schygulla is beautiful to watch, as are Irm Hermann as Johanna the housekeeper, and Ursula Stratz as Roswitha the nursery maid, each bringing their own definition of beauty and sensuality to their roles, one glacial the other temperate.

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