Ranking: #31/111

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)

Genre: Period Drama/Romance

Effi Briest is a masterpiece of New German Cinema. It is also a classical period drama of the highest order. Rainer Fassbinder wrote, directed and narrated the film, adapting Theodor Fontane’s 1894 novel of the same name for his screenplay. The novel traces the rise and fall of a young 19th century woman whose extra-marital affair damages her marriage to an older man, as well as her relationship to her daughter.

Although it’s a very literary film, the visual imagery is dazzling, some of the best ever seen in black-and-white films. Dialogue and narration are always one with the setting and the imagery. The cinematic palette is pale, with whites predominating, giving the whole film, which is about women being trapped in a rigid, hierarchical, strait-laced society, a delightful feminine look and feel. From the opening scene showing 17 years old Effi on the swing in her parents’ garden, Fassbinder takes us on an aesthetic journey through a world of elegant imagery which hides well a heart-breaking and deeply significant story.

The editing is very innovative, with remarkable use of fades-to-white, rather than fades-to-black, to add to the soft, white aura of the photography. Fassbinder also uses still photographs and portraits in between scenes as a transitional tool. He even uses text, as in a silent film. By breaking filmic conventions, he creates a layer of irony, given that he’s depicting a society which resists anyone who defies its conventions, including Effi.

The whole film is highly stylised to reflect the conservative nature of the society of this period. The pace of the action is disciplined, too, for the same reason. The director isn’t just conveying the period through the stunning costumes, or the pitch-perfect acting, but through the very nature of the photography and editing.

Effi Briest is just so beautifully and delicately shot. There is a good balance of exterior and interior shots. The complex layers of a society based on status and appearances are metaphorically represented in well-placed shots of veils, lace, mirrors, windows and door-frames. It is a life of surfaces, a society of empty forms and customs, and Fassbinder systematically and subtly deconstructs it with artistic brilliance.

The film succeeds in being beautiful, without the need for any musical score, just on the strength of its visuals. So many of the shots and scenes are attractively composed.

The acting is finely done, too. Hanna Schygulla as Effi carries the whole story, effortlessly recreating the character of a woman suffocating in the emotional confines of high society, with its inflexible class structures and expectations of women. While being gracious and lady-like, she just doesn’t fit in. She is a creature of Berlin and she marries into a family of wealthy country elites and aristocrats who are jealous of Berliners. Status is the main social value of these times. Servants and women are seen as lesser beings in a traditional patriarchy. It’s a world where appearances count more than substance, a society ruled by vanity.

After her affair with philanderer Major Crampas, her husband Baron Geert von Instetten, makes her life a misery and divorces her. He turns their daughter, Annie, against her, using her as a weapon to bring further shame upon her. He gains custody of their daughter in the divorce. Now an outcast, Effi returns home to Berlin, following a breakdown. As her life comes full circle, the film ends as it began – in the garden of her childhood home.

The film, ultimately, is a tragedy. It is about the guilt of social failure and how to find personal peace in reconciliation. At the end, when Effi dies, she is reconciled to God (there is a cross near her memorial plague) and to her past life. Effi Briest is not just a social critique, within a period drama, it’s also a powerful moral parable.