Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
Fassbinder born in Bad Wörishofen, Bavaria in 1946. Became a leading member of the alternative filmmakers known as the "New German Cinema." Applied to West Berlin Film and Television Academy but failed entrance examination. In the late 1960s active in radical New Left theatre groups in Munich. Begins making films with members of theatre group in 1969. Founds a number of production companies which ultimately fail. Begins full-time filmmaking after 1975 until his death from overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine in 1982. Famous for his ability to combine tradition of political cinema with techniques of modern Hollywood. Modified the German political cinema of the 1920s to accommodate the New Left of the 1960s.
EB played by Hanna Schygulla who had appeared in almost all of RWF's films since 1965. RWF sticks closely to the novel, including narrated exerpts and printed extracts to introduce chapter-like segments of the film, with white fade outs. Filmed in monochrome and frequent use of framed shots and mirrors. RWF planned EB to be his first film project but could not get the funds to make it in 1969. He described EB as his "dream film" and shot it in B&W because "they are the most beautiful colors I know." RWF was interested in showing TF's attitude towards society which he did by creating a certain "distance between the audience and what is happening on the screen". According to RWF:
(TF) lived in a society whose faults he recognised and could describe very precisely but all the same a society he needed, to which he really wanted to belong. He rejected everybody and found everything alien and yet fought all his life for recognition within this society. And that's also my attitude to society. (quoted in Christian Thomson, "Five Interviews with Fassbinder" in Fassbinder, ed. Tony Rayns (London: British Film Institute, 1980), p. 87.)
TF descended from French Huguenots who fled France when the Edict of Nantes (guaranteeing Protestants religious toleration) was revoked in 1685. TF born in 1819 in Neuruppin in Brandenburg. Father was an apothecary/pharmacist. Most likeable male character in novel EB was an apothecary. In 1826 moved to Swinemünde on the Baltic coast (the town of "Kessin" in EB). TF also trained as an apothecary and moved to Berlin in 1833 in order to complete his training. Completed apprenticeship by 1836 and returned to Baltic coast to work in father's shop. In 1844-45 volunteered to serve in the Grenadier Guard Regiment. Important because it led to first trip to London where he made contact with English aristocrats which he retained throughout his life. A source of tension for TF was between his bourgeois origins and bourgeois readership vs his sympathy for and attracion to the aristocracy who spurned him.
During the 1848 Revolution TF showed active support for the liberal and constitutional ideals of the revolutionaries. Elected a delegate to the Frankfurt Assembly. Wrote for democratic magazines such as the Berliner Zeitungshalle, Berlin correspondent for the radical democratic Dresdner Zeitung between November 1849 and April 1850. Following the defeat and collapse of the revolution a period of political reaction took place and the radical press was forced to close or go underground. TF had to put an end to his political journalism and took a job with the press section of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior writing cultural reviews for their Feuilleton. In 1855 he was able to move to London again as the editor of an Anglo-German news service backed by the Prussian government where he worked until 1859. Whilst in London TF read widely in English history, litrerature and politics. Particularly interested in the 17thC English Revolution (end result was constitutional monarchism) and the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. After 1859 TF was able to cease working for the government and was able to become a free-lance journalist and writer. Main areas of literary activity were travel writing (Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (1862-1882)), war correspondence on the German wars of unification, poetry and literary criticism, novels (began when 56 years old - Vor dem Storm (1878), L'adultera (1882), Cécile (1886), Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888), Frau Jenny Treibel (1893), Effi Briest (1895), Der Stechlin (1897)), journalism.
Depiction of the Prussian Junker class in his novels shows fondness for many of the qualities of the traditional landed aristocracy or Junkers. Included courtesy, courage, loyalty, simplicity of life style, honour, generosity, pride. This admiration is qualified by realisation that their time has come and gone, that their rigid and blind adherence to traditional "feudal" values will lead to their own destruction (and perhaps the nation they lead as well). TF believed that the Junkers were "better than their reputation," that behind the formal mask of the feudal lord there was an interesting and warm person, even a liberal person. TF's ideal Junker aristocrat is described in a passage in his travel book Wanderungen. It is a story about the refusal of Colonel Friedrich Adolf von der Marwitz of Friedersdorf to obey an order of Frederick the Great's to loot a castle. What TF admired was not the unquestioning obedience of the Junkers to the crown, but the independence of spirit and feeling of personal honour that would not allow him to comit a crime, even if ordered to do so by the king. TF believed that this spirit of honour and integrity was missing from life in 19thC Germany. What is called "Männerstolz vor Königthronen" (individual integrity before obedience to the throne). The Junker class had become decadent and had lost it. The middle class did not aspire to such virtues and the 19thC was worse off for its lack. In 1897 TF observed:
Prussia - and indirectly the whole of Germany - suffers from our East Elbians. We must get rid of our nobility; you can visit them like the Egyptian museum and bow before Ramses and Amenophis, but to rule the country in their favour, in the delusion: the nobility is the country - that is our misfortune... What we need is a different base. (Carsten, p. 126).
Effi is the young and vivacious daughter of Herr and Luise von Briest who live on their traditional family estate in Hohen-Cremmen. Effi's hand in marriage is asked for by Baron Geert von Innstetten, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and now a provincial governor in the district of Kessin (a Baltic port town). Innstetten is the same age as Effi's mother (38) and once courted her many years before. Innstetten and Effi marry and, after a brief honeymoon in Italy, go to live in Kessin (modelled on Neuruppen where TF grew up), a boring provincial adminstrative town where Innstetten is slowly climbing up the bureaucratic ladder. His aim is to be promoted to an important administrative post in Berlin the capital. Two things concern Effi about life in Kessin - it is extremely boring since she has no one her own age to talk to and all the people of the right social class live outside the town on their estates, and she believes the house Innstetten lives in is haunted by the ghost of a dead Chinaman. The foyer has a shark and a crocodile hanging from the ceiling and in an upstairs room Effi thinks she can hear the rustle of skirts and footsteps. Effi gives birth to a girl called "Little Annie."
One day she is introduced to an old friend of Innstetten, Major von Crampas who is married with two children. Crampas is attracted to Effi and, during the many periods when Innstetten is away on government business, begins to court her with attention and letters. They go for walks and horse rides in the sand dunes. On Christmas eve one of the sleighs is bogged in some ice and Crampas and Effi are forced to share a sleigh. During the ride home Crampas makes an advance at Effi, whispering in her ear and kissing her hand. Innstetten is promoted to position in a ministry in Berlin and Effi is pleased to be able to leave Kessin and major Crampas.
After six years in Berlin Annie falls and hits her head on an iron (boot?) scraper beside the stairs. The maidservants search through Effi's sewing room to find bandages and uncover a bundle of letters. Innstetten sees them and discovers they are the secret love letters Crampas wrote to Effi in Kessin. In a state of shock Innstetten consults his friend Privy Councillor Wüllersdorf about what to do. Wüllersdorf councils Innstetten to forget what happened six and a half years ago, but Innstetten believes that his sense of honour and the code of ethics of his class demand that he challenge Crampas to a duel. Crampas chooses a spot in the dunes in Kessin for the duel and is mortally wounded by Innstetten. The duel happens while Effi is taking a cure at a spring and she is told that Innstetten never wants to see her again by a letter from her mother who also turns her back on her discgraced daughter. Effi is forced to find rooms of her own in Berlin and is forbidden to see her daughter Annie again. With the help of a Minister's influential wife Effi arranges to see her daughter some three years later. However, she is appalled at how Innstetten has indoctrinated her with his code of values and false virtuousness. Effi is diagnosed to have tuberculosis (consumption), the typical disease of the poor, and so her parents finally relent and allow her to reurn to the family estate. Innstetten finally realises how empty his life has become, how little he has got out of his successful career as a bureaucrat. Effi dies of her disease and is buried at the family estate.
Dr. Hannemann patted the young mother's hand and said: 'It's the anniversary of the battle of Königgrätz today. A pity it's a girl. But the next one may be different, and the Prussians have lots of victories to celebrate. (Penguin edition, p. 110)
Shortly afterwards, old Herr von Borcke rose to toast Innstetten: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, we live in difficult times, rebellion, impudence, lack of discipline wherever we look. But as long as we still have men and may I add wives and mothers' ... he bowed and made an elegant gesture towards Effi... 'as long as we still have men like Baron Innstetten, whom I'm proud to call my friend, then all is still well with us, this old Prussia of ours can still hold its own. Yes, Pomerania and Brandenburg will hold the fort and we shall stamp on the poisonous dragon's head of revolution. Our firmness and loyalty will prevail. The Catholics, our brothers, whom we must respect while opposing them, have the rock of St Peter, but we have the rocher de bronze (a reference to Bismarck by Frederick William I). All health to baron Innstetten. (Penguin edition, p. 111)
Because it's got to be done... We are not isolated persons, we belong to a whole society and we have to constantly consider that society, we're completely dependent on it.... something has evolved that now exists and we've become accustomed to judge everything, ourselves and others, according to its rules. And it's no good transgressing them, society will despise us and finally we will despise ourselves and not be able to bear it and blow our brains out. (Penguin edition, p.215.)
We can't offer you any asylum in Hohen-Cremmen, there can be no refuge for you in our house, because that would mean cutting ourselves off from everyone we know and this we are emphatically not inclined to do. Not because we are particularly worldly and would look upon it as completely unbearable to have to say good-bye to so-called "society". No, that's not the reason, bu simply because we want to make our position plain and show the whole world that we condemn - I'm afraid I must use this word - your actions - the actions of ourt only daughter, the daughter whom we loved so dearly... (Penguin edition, p. 232).
I thought he had a noble heart... he's small, he's cruel... he always was a schoolmaster... He was always thinking of his career and nothing more. Honour, honour, honour... and then he shot that poor man, whom I didn't even love, and whom I had forgotten because I didn't love him. It was all just stupidity and then blood and murder. (Penguin edition, p. 249)
Frau von Briest: ... But we've not been sent into the world just to be weak and forbearing and show respect for all that's against the laws of God and man and that society condemns and, for the moment at any rate, rightly condemns.
Herr von Briest: Oh, really, Luise. One thing's more important.
Frau von Briest:Of course, one thing's more important, but what is it?
Herr von Briest: Parents' love for their children. And when one's only got one child...
Frau von Briest: Then the catechism and morality and the claims of society are to be brushed aside?
Herr von Briest: Oh, Luise, you can quote the catechism as mush as you like but don't quote society!
Frau von Briest: It's difficult to get along without society.
Herr von Briest: And difficult without one's child too... (Penguin ed., p. 251)