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Monday, August 05, 2013

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896) d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Book Review
Effi Briest
by Theodor Fontane (1896)
Penguin Classics Edition

Movie Review
Fontane Effi Briest
d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974)

  A rare (first?) double, thanks to Criterion Collection to upload Fassbinder's Effi Briest to Hulu Plus- apparently out of the goodness of their heart seeing as it is not part of the Criterion Collection itself, nor a part of the recent Eclipse Collection of early Fassbinder films that Criterion just released last month. I'm not complaining!  It felt cool to read a recent-ish(1990s) translation and then watch Fassbinder's take on it in the same general time frame.

  Effi Briest is who you would call the German Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina- i.e. the cheating wife whose exploits form the basis for a break out novel which uses adultery as a theme.   Briest is closer to Karenina then Bovary- her milleu is the landed aristocracy of late nineteenth century Prussia.  Young Effi Briest (17 going on 18) is married off to the "much older" Baron Geert von Innstetten (38) in literally the first chapter of the book.  She is spirited off to the Baltic resort town of Kessin, where her new husband is the head Prussian in charge.

  While there she has a brief illicit affair with the charming though strangely named Major Crampas, a "cavalier" but not  a "gentleman" who knows her husband from back in the day.  A major difference between the book and film is that the book only alludes to the actual infidelity through the off hand comments made by Effi until the point at which her husband finds evidence.  In the film, it is clear that they are meeting up for illicit physical rendevous because you see them kissing and embracing.

  A huge difference between Effi vs. Bovary/Karenina is that the ruinous affair is not discovered in Effi Briest for more then six years.  During that time life continues as normal until a freak accident with her child causes a maid to force open her desk drawer in search of a bandage.  When he goes to replace the contents post accident, husband discovers the incriminating letters.  He then challenges Crampas to a duel, kills him and divorces Effi.  Effi of course lives for a few years and then dies because she lacks a will to live.

   I was expecting a more arty take on the source material from Fassbinder then what I got.  It was more or less a straight up adaptation.  The one thing he does do that is slightly unconventional is use lengthy quotes from the movies as interstitial title cards to draw audience attention to particular themes in the novel.  The best example of this is the ghostly Chinaman that Innstetten invents to keep Briest in line.  After Crampus points out to Effi that Innstetten has created this story to keep her in line, Fassbinder refers to it on multiple occasions through the use of the interstitial title card, with a quote from the book summarizing Innstetten's controlling motivation.

   I'm just personally fascinated by stories of disintegrated marriages- I can't get enough of the theme. What I'm doing right now- reading all these classic books and watching films, is an attempt to gain perspective on my own experience without having to bore my friends and family to death talking about.  One of the themes from my own failed marriage: a serious minded man with a woman who wants to be fun and free, is echoed by almost everyone of these 19th century novels which deals with the subject.  Inevitably though in these books the marriage is between an older, wealthy man and a younger, poorer woman.  That was not the case with me.

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