Effie Briest - Rainer Fassbender - 1974 - Hanna Schygula
Viewed ICA London 6 May06 Ticket price - £6-50
To thine own self be true
The titles that open the film are burnt in black letters on a white background, a shimmering field that sets the tone for a film that is an optical rendering to spirit what is spirit’s, to all that which is not of the flesh. And the eponymous subject of Effie Briest is not of the flesh. She is a being totally vulnerable to the machinations of the world. The film is structured as a series of shots that fade to white, a slow pulsing surrendering of form to the intensity of pure light. There are fades to black and there are straight cuts, but the dominant visual experience of the film consists of long takes with Effie B as central subject, that terminate with a slow burning of the image to white.
These rhythmic burnt in transitions call in a realm governed by an idea about the non-corporeality of life. Life without body. Life that is a becoming spirit. All about Effie the social machines with whom she is trapped in space engage in the machinations that will lead to her death. She alone is unaware of the plot, alive in the clutches of convention she is consumed. Effie has neither defenses nor understanding to withstand the forces that destroy her. She can only be true to her nature. And it is this only being true to her nature that is the essence of the film, a burning into celluloid that makes of Effie B an imprint of purity a spirit that is never broken. In that Effie is only true to herself she is not a victim any more than Jeanne d’Arc. Both are unbroken heroines. However mistreated however punished for being what she is, Effie remains true to her nature.
Through each transition each event that she transcends, she becomes more spirit so that in the end only death can claim her. This is not a victim film. Had Effie changed to protect herself or to turn to attack those who would harm her then essentially she would have become victim - a woman forced to change her nature, to be untrue to herself, in order to survive in the world of social machines. In short she would be reacting to convention, but in reacting would inevitably in herself set in train correspondent conventions.
From the opening shot of the house exterior which contains the world of Effie’s childhood, to her death, Fassbender creates an optical world which is a literal mirror for the constancy and intensity of light. Mirrors dominate the mis en scene and shot set ups to the extent that we become lost in the competing domains of light and uncertain as to which world has been exposed to our gaze, the real or the virtual. The mirroring opens up different modes of understanding. For instance, the idea of not looking directly at Effie, as if the camera were a very well brought up entity that knows that it is rude to stare directly at people but that it is permissible to look at them obliquely by means of reflection. Fascination with Effie is indulged through direct indirectness of the mirror. The mirror also works by presenting a parallel universe: the real world and the virtual world where things are other. Effie’s world not directly accessible but enterable as another dimension, a dimension where time moves differently. The social machines march and clank through secular clock time getting from one place to another, engaging in one machination or another; Effie moves through another type of space/time continuum that is of her own creation.
It seems as if at some point in the post production that Fassbender may have lost his nerve. Having rendered Effie as a vision of constancy of nature, he suddenly, perhaps at the last moment, had doubts about the way in which the film might be seen. Did he become concerned that Effie B might be misunderstood as a chronicle of female victim passivity. Perhaps the nascent but ideologically ferocious women’s movement caused him to question his motives or even lose his confidence. Consequently he became concerned that Effie Briest might be attacked as another example of a passive female victim unable to respond to male cultural repression. So at the last moment he inserted into his opening credits the following long didactic subtitle :
Effie Briest or many people are aware of their own capabilities and needs, yet acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds thereby confirming and reinforcing the system.
In terms of the film that he has produced this long subtitle makes no sense. It might conceivably refer to a film he originally intended to make out of Theodore Fontain’s novel. But it’s nothing to do with film he made. Somewhere in the dynamic of: vision, writing, and production, his pen his imagination the camera and Hanna Schygula created a film that comprises a world of sensibilities beyond action /reaction or the logic of dialetics. A film that sets out a space beyond the constraining logic of his long sub-title.
Watching Effie Briest it occurred to me that Lars von Trier must have viewed Effie B and and taken some notes. In Effie B, Fassbender uses voice over in a consciously literary manner(acknowledging the provenance of the material) but constructing the dynamic of the voice over so that it becomes as a separate track in the film - having a life and logic of its own. The nature of the Voice, which is probably Fontain’s writing, is Dickensian and judicious in manner but not modulation. Through different filmic modes, action shots with and without dialogue, it interpelates, calling attention to some of the different planes that are in play in the film: Effie’s state of mind and varying perspectives, it fills out lacuna in time and space. Although literary in origin the voice is filmic in form as it is structured into Effie B as a separate entity that has a life in the film distinct from the visual and affective components of the film. In this the Voice resembles those in Dogville and Mandalay, though unlike these two films the Voice in Effie B is never overused or overdetermining of the action.