Effie Briest – Rainer Fassbender – 1974 – Hanna Schygula

Effie Briest – Rainer Fassbender – 1974 – Hanna Schygula

To thine own self be true

The titles that open the film are burnt in black letters on a white background, a shimmering field that sets the tone for a film that is an optical rendering to spirit what is spirit’s, to all that which is not of the flesh. And the eponymous subject of Effie Briest is not of the flesh.

Effie Briest – Rainer Fassbender – 1974
– Hanna Schygula

Viewed ICA London 6 May06 Ticket
price – £6-50


To thine own self be true

The titles that open the film are burnt
in black letters on a white background, a shimmering field that sets
the tone for a film that is an optical rendering to spirit what is
spirit’s, to all that which is not of the flesh. And the
eponymous subject of Effie Briest is not of the flesh. She is a
being totally vulnerable to the machinations of the world. The film
is structured as a series of shots that fade to white, a slow pulsing
surrendering of form to the intensity of pure light. There are fades
to black and there are straight cuts, but the dominant visual
experience of the film consists of long takes with Effie B as central
subject, that terminate with a slow burning of the image to white.

These rhythmic burnt in transitions
call in a realm governed by an idea about the non-corporeality of
life. Life without body. Life that is a becoming spirit. All
about Effie the social machines with whom she is trapped in space
engage in the machinations that will lead to her death. She alone is
unaware of the plot, alive in the clutches of convention she is
consumed. Effie has neither defenses nor understanding to withstand
the forces that destroy her. She can only be true to her nature.
And it is this only being true to her nature that is the essence of
the film, a burning into celluloid that makes of Effie B an imprint
of purity a spirit that is never broken. In that Effie is only true
to herself she is not a victim any more than Jeanne d’Arc. Both
are unbroken heroines. However mistreated however punished for being
what she is, Effie remains true to her nature.

Through each transition each event that
she transcends, she becomes more spirit so that in the end only death
can claim her. This is not a victim film. Had Effie changed to
protect herself or to turn to attack those who would harm her then
essentially she would have become victim – a woman forced to change
her nature, to be untrue to herself, in order to survive in the world
of social machines. In short she would be reacting to convention, but
in reacting would inevitably in herself set in train correspondent

From the opening shot of the house
exterior which contains the world of Effie’s childhood, to her
death, Fassbender creates an optical world which is a literal mirror
for the constancy and intensity of light. Mirrors dominate the mis
en scene and shot set ups to the extent that we become lost in the
competing domains of light and uncertain as to which world has been
exposed to our gaze, the real or the virtual. The mirroring opens
up different modes of understanding. For instance, the idea of not
looking directly at Effie, as if the camera were a very well brought
up entity that knows that it is rude to stare directly at people but
that it is permissible to look at them obliquely by means of
reflection. Fascination with Effie is indulged through direct
indirectness of the mirror. The mirror also works by presenting a
parallel universe: the real world and the virtual world where things
are other. Effie’s world not directly accessible but enterable as
another dimension, a dimension where time moves differently. The
social machines march and clank through secular clock time getting
from one place to another, engaging in one machination or another;
Effie moves through another type of space/time continuum that is of
her own creation.

It seems as if at some point in the
post production that Fassbender may have lost his nerve. Having
rendered Effie as a vision of constancy of nature, he suddenly,
perhaps at the last moment, had doubts about the way in which the
film might be seen. Did he become concerned that Effie B might be
misunderstood as a chronicle of female victim passivity. Perhaps the
nascent but ideologically ferocious women’s movement caused him to
question his motives or even lose his confidence. Consequently he
became concerned that Effie Briest might be attacked as another
example of a passive female victim unable to respond to male cultural
repression. So at the last moment he inserted into his opening
credits the following long didactic subtitle :

Effie Briest or many people are aware
of their own capabilities and needs, yet acquiesce to the prevailing
system in their thoughts and deeds thereby confirming and reinforcing
the system.

In terms of the film that he has
produced this long subtitle makes no sense. It might conceivably
refer to a film he originally intended to make out of Theodore
Fontain’s novel. But it’s nothing to do with film he made.
Somewhere in the dynamic of: vision, writing, and production, his pen
his imagination the camera and Hanna Schygula created a film that
comprises a world of sensibilities beyond action /reaction or the
logic of dialetics. A film that sets out a space beyond the
constraining logic of his long sub-title.

Watching Effie Briest it occurred to me
that Lars von Trier must have viewed Effie B and and taken some
notes. In Effie B, Fassbender uses voice over in a consciously
literary manner(acknowledging the provenance of the material) but
constructing the dynamic of the voice over so that it becomes as a
separate track in the film – having a life and logic of its own. The
nature of the Voice, which is probably Fontain’s writing, is
Dickensian and judicious in manner but not modulation. Through
different filmic modes, action shots with and without dialogue, it
interpelates, calling attention to some of the different planes that
are in play in the film: Effie’s state of mind and varying
perspectives, it fills out lacuna in time and space. Although
literary in origin the voice is filmic in form as it is structured
into Effie B as a separate entity that has a life in the film
distinct from the visual and affective components of the film. In
this the Voice resembles those in Dogville and Mandalay, though
unlike these two films the Voice in Effie B is never overused or
overdetermining of the action.

Adrin Neatrour


Author: Adrin Neatrour

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