Wolfgang Schenck as Baron Geert von Instetten in Fassbinder’s Effi Brest, is described early on as a ‘man of principle’ – a phrase which is a euphemism for a horror of bourgeois attitudes. Indeed, it’s an expression that will alert any viewer to the fact that the repression levels in the movie are going to be through the roof – which they are. Indeed, Wolfgang Schenck is almost terrifying in this role, and when you add the stillness Fassbinder employs, you have a horrific combination and the sense that something is going to go very badly wrong.
It’s odd, but when Baron von Instetten does act human, or displays more noble characteristics, the effect is mildly shocking. Wolfgang Schenck is ideal, and draws on deep resources to horrify us with a fully rounded character that we can’t simply dislike, because he is the oppressor of the piece.
Instetten is not just a man of principle, but scarier still – ‘a man of great probity’. And it is all of this that causes Effi early on to confess to her mother that she is actually scared of him. 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. The ghosts are everywhere – and note how Instetten says to Effi that should he die, he would like her to die also so that they could go together, a remark made out of jealousy. There are, in Instetten’s words, no good families in town, nobody worth speaking to that is; and in classic ghost story format, he and the mysterious housekeeper seem to hold the answer to the mystery of what is shuffling about in the upstairs room.
Throughout Fassbinder’s Effi Brest, it is a marvellous irony that the characters that are so scared of ridicule, are of course permanently ridiculous, which Wolfgang Schenck displays to perfection. It isn’t strictly fair to poke fun at 19thC Prussia, merely for being repressed; and Insttetten demonstrates that this repression got that society where it was. There is a lot of talk of happiness in Effi Briest, though try looking for a character who is happy and you may be stuck. There is in the rigid conservatism of the ear a stranglehold on ideas, and when Crampas suggests a disregard for the law it is Instetten that dresses him down, warning him not to say this, even in jest; a century of war and revolution is coming and yet he still hopes to postpone it.
Aside from stuffy bourgeois moeurs and the repressive society at large, Wolfgang Schenck is I expect the villain of Effi Brest. He introduces his wife to her lover and then turns against them both; but Wolfgang Schenck is so good, so reasonable, that you simply can’t make judgements such as that. Instetten is as misunderstood as everybody else and I think this is something of a triumph. He is the villain; anybody that has ever been to the cinema will tell you that with a beard like that – he is the villain – but this is Fassbinder and it doesn’t work quite in that resepct.
In almost Scooby Doo fashion however, Instetten enacts a comedy of ghosts, bringing the ghosts to life in order to frighten his wife into staying put. The servants talk about the ghosts, in particular the ghost of a Chinese man reputed to haunt the area, but in fact Instetten never lets up with his spooks, especially that of the Chinese person. It makes a change from the spirits of God and Jesus, which are both strangely absent from the tale, which relies on much darker superstitions to give it a true supernatural nature, always suggested but never manifest.