Lilo Pempeit as Louise Briest, mother of Effi Briest, raises a few eyebrows in the critical camp, but I am not so sure that the significance is that important. If you were to look at Fassbinder’s regular actors at the time of Effi Briest, and do the casting yourself, you would alsp cast Pempeit in this role, without worrying about the psychoanalytical implications which have bothered subsequent generations of commentators. Yes, you could have picked Brigitte Mira, but Pempeit is much stronger here, perfectly harsh, tall and not as peasant or pleasant as Mira could be.
Effi’s mother is a sympathetic character, as are both parents. Indeed, their only problem in the conclusion is in fact that even though they know perhaps only vaguely that they are responsible for their daughter’s hardships, they still do not dare question the social constructs which caused the tragedy.
Throughout the opening of the film, it is Pempeit as Effi’s mother who remains the poor girl’s greatest confidante – and Pempeit is every bit the actress, with an amazing variety of ambiguous expressions. No mother today would advise her daughter marry a person she is scared of, but there you have it – it’s the uber-repressed Prussia of the 1890s – and although it is little stated in the film (I don’t know why) the Baron is so much older than Effi that he courted her mother before Effi was born, but was turned down due to the insufficiency of his social position. This is an important note, showing that social status ruins everything in this world, even those for whom it seems to serve.
Effi’s punishment is couched in the terms of the 19th century – it is herself that has brought her to this pass, and deprived herself of air and sunlight. ‘It will be a lonely life if you don’t want to descend below your class’ she is told by her mother. In fact, not only is she banished from all polite society, she is also banished from her parents’ home. When Effi has to return home for health reasons, her mother is the one to understand. This is because she had the foresight to settle into unhappiness rather than to seek fulfilment, and it is acted brilliantly.
One of the hardest things to do in any art is to recreate the strangeness of another period; indeed it’s easy to frame history through the present day. It’s Lilo Pempeit more than anyone early on who creates the tranquil rhythm of the film. Something of the ambience of 19thC photography is achieved with the white leader introducing each scene, with the lens opening to achieve the correct exposure – and Lilo Pempeit just seems by the end as a fragment of a memory, something appropriate to the slow and distant effect that the ensemble worked so hard to achieve.