The subtitle to Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest is: ‘many people who aware of their own capabilities and needs, yet acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds, thereby confirm and reinforce it’; which is a fairly sound anti-Bourgeois principle an one that may apply to many a Fassbinder production.
There are always mirrors in Fassbinder films, in shot, reflecting, refracting, duplicating and subtly expanding screen=space to be something more like a theatrical space. Most commonly in fact, the mirrors used by Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus allow actors a more theatrical expression, and have them actually stand at real distances from each other, while we can see motions from afar. Herbert Steinmetz, who plays Herr Briest, Effi’s father, along with Wolfgang Schenck as Baron Geert von Instetten, all appear for the first time in Effi Briest in a rather strange mirror shot, in which we would not know that we are even looking at the scene in a mirror, were it not for the frame.
Given the inordinate amount of tableau in this film – perfect I would argue for retelling a C19th novel – the frame seems apt. There are in fact so many scenes which are low in action and movement, that we have a new meaning to the expression ‘faithful to the novel’ – in a director not just faithful to the novel, but actually as faithful as one can possibly be in cinema to the novel form.
The tableau and the soft focus stills continue to serve this idea throughout. Fassbinder makes his own rules, and these tableau scenes and the stills between them, create such a feeling of nostalgia, that the period is evoked instantly.
Herr Briest is a warm character in many ways, and Herbert Steinmetz has an incredibly warm face, ideal for the part. It goes without saying that the repressions of Briest’s day have never really gone away. I enjoy the relaxed way he comments that he’s afraid Instetten will torment Effi, and how he praises Instetten for being able to describe the treasures of Regensburg to Effi – without her having to get off the train and see them for herself.
The Briest Seniors’ marriage seems to be unusually half decent; at least it is for him. This is because he doesn’t exists in the state of doubt that the women, most notably his daughter and his wife, do. Herr Briest sits and smokes and seems so happy (an effect of Steinmetz’ face) and although everything is static, he likes it that way, as it is some incredible sort of peace; and it is in that in which he lives.