There is depth to Fassbinder’s characters – he could not have made it any other way – but when the opportunity to play a character of real pedigree arises, his actors are up to the challenge. Is Hanna Schygulla Effi Briest? - she doesn’t look the age of the character, and sometimes the character’s naivety and innocence comes across as something much more playful – Schygulla being a much more knowing person herself. She loved the idea of playing the role, and really wanted to do it, and Fassbinder achieved what he did in Effi Briest by constraining her acting style to the fullest.
Fassbinder casts Effi as being aged 20 (when in the novel she is 17) and Scygulla was aged 30 when this was shot. This aside it is still one of her strongest performances, and one to which German people may attach great gravity – Effi Briest being one of the most famous and celebrated novels in the language.
The novel is one of an informal trilogy of adultery tragedies which include Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and although the three are decades apart, they are all seminal enough texts of realism to maintain their interest, even if the stories aren't up to modern standards. Those three novels have many things in common though – something Fassbinder reminds us about when he frames Hannah Schygulla with the train, quite near the beginning. The train, metaphor for progress that it is, is of course going to kill Anna Karenina, although all this one does is smother Effi in steam. A classic of storyteling still used today.
The faults of late C19th society are well known to us, and so the marital expectations of the young Effi are a plain tragedy. A child of nature (as her father says), Effi enters the marriage happily, finding her new home in provincial Prussia (Kessin) which she describes as ‘exotic’ – a new world in fact.
But marriage is not happy, or at least there are so few novels about happy marriages, and the sadness is looming much like a steam train itself – unstoppable in the distance, in the post, going to mow you down. Everything is wrong in fact in a society in which so many serve so few, and with Instetten away on business so much of the time, this leaves Effi alone, save for the resentful staff of the house.
Ghosts are a theme. Sometimes Schygulla is portrayed as a ghost herself, as when she appears to Roswitha in the graveyard, and Roswitha who would at least have been a faithful companion is left on her own while Effi romances with Crampas on the nearby beach. Effi’s character is ramped up when she spies on Roswitha and Kruse flirting, and interrupts it, and then treats Roswitha to a most hypocritical lecture on fidelity. It is a tipping point, because any absolution you may have been hoping for for Effi is dissipated by the knowledge that she is typically hypocritical, as the rest of her class.
Effi’s punishment is couched in the terms of the 19th century’s own emotional prison’s – as she brought herself to this pass, and deprived herself of air and sunlight, so she will be smothered by her fate. ‘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, it is also essential (under the same codes which meant that Instetten and Crampas were obliged to fight) she is also banished from her parents’ home. So Effi becomes what she was before, in a manner of speaking; a woman prisoner in a house by herself, only this time she is in banishment in Berlin.
The meeting with her daughter is of course suitably depressing – it is a classic and typical Fassbinder shot – filmed through an open door – viewed from one room to the next.
After this the guilt descends on Effi, and she learns what a real schoolmaster her husband is, the lesson is fully underway and it will never end. It's Hannah Schygulla's star moment, maybe the centrepoint of her life. She seems to play a young, intelligent happy girl one moment, and a much older dying mother the next.