Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla) is a seventeen-year-old girl in late nineteenth century Germany, a place where social conventions, especially in her middle-class strata, are the most important, and staying within those unwritten rules of behaviour are paramount if you wish to survive with any kind of reputation intact. However, Effi is sailing into potentially stormy waters when her parents, who are not as well off as they would like to be, decide to marry her off to a local Baron, Instetten (Wolfgang Schenk) for the purposes of raising revenue for their own selves, never mind the effect it will have on their daughter. She is initially willing to go along with this to please her mother and father, but as time goes on temptation of a different sort arises...
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder surprised his fans by including one of the most supreme, high octane car chases that the seventies ever saw in this unorthodox adaptation of Theodor Fontane's celebrated novel, a staple of German literary must-reads for a very long time. Well, not really, in fact Effi Briest, no matter how faithful it was to the letter of the book, was one of the filmmaker's most static works, consisting mostly of long discussions with the occasional monologue thrown in to break up the monotony. Except for the fans of this, it was anything but monotonous as they genuinely experienced the suffocation the title character was enduring in a community she simply did not stand a chance in.
There may have been one single act of violence in the whole thing, and that was filmed from afar to further distance the audience from the action, but emotionally our heroine was utterly savaged by the close of the story thanks to the tenets of a supposedly polite society she was just too young to appreciate until it was too late. This factor of her youth and beauty is used against her by the older characters who surround her, as if they wished to punish her for still having what they had lost yet yearned bitterly for, and the Baron seems to feel that most of all, if you could discern any emotion beneath his stony countenance. He never shows her any affection, so it's almost a surprise when she falls pregnant and bears him a daughter.
Indeed, there is barely any affection to be seen in the entire narrative until Effi gets to know her neighbour Major Crampas (future director in his own right Ulli Lommel; he believes this to be Fassbinder's finest work), who is unafraid to let her know he is captivated by her. Bad move in this setting, for any affair they may embark upon is doomed to utter failure, and worse, which echoed the kind of premise in the melodrama of Fassbinder's beloved Douglas Sirk movies out of Hollywood in the fifties, though while that constricting national mood was similar, the approach was consciously different. Where Sirk would often opt for a candy box of colours to underline the raging passions that could be accessed and channelled into something positive should the players see sense and come to terms with themselves, this was shot in black and white and offered no such hope.
So hopeless was Effi that you could more or less fathom things were not going to turn out well for her, so brutal in their denial of decency and sympathy were the others in her life, the Major aside, and his reciprocation of her love did not do him any good either. From this remove, this was akin to watching a science fiction movie set in a dystopia where any flicker of reason or warmth between people has been banned, and should the foolish few not be able to keep their affections in check then they will be punished accordingly and without mercy. Those doing the punishing may excuse their ghastly actions as doing right in the face of a potential upsetting of the mores of the day, but Fassbinder's camera saw them for the morally bankrupt monsters they were, destroying this young innocent almost as if it was a sport, to keep themselves on their supposed high ground, unchallenged since the fear of pointing out that they may be acting abominably is overwhelming, hence no one stands up against them for long. But my, was this heavy-going, dampening the righteous anger with a fixated style that shooed away all but the most dedicated Fassbinder aficionado: if you were new to him, don't start here.