The black-and-white film uses Fontanes's words in dialogue, narration, and the text of letters.
The film begins with Effi Briest using a swing set in her family’s back yard, where her mother, Louise Briest, comments on her wild nature, saying that she has an aerial spirit. Later, Effi is seen talking to some of the other teenage girls outside her house about when Baron Instetten was younger. She recalls a story her mother had told her about Instetten visiting her at her family estate while he was still a soldier. However, the man who would become Effi’s father was already in the council of nobles and owned Hohen-Cremmen, so when he asked to marry Effi’s mother she chose to accept. Afterward, Instetten chose to resign from the army and study law. When Effi returns inside, Effi’s mother informs her that Baron Instetten has asked for her hand. With her parent’s encouragement, along with her own desire for prestige, she accepts the proposal.
From there Effi and her mother began to prepare for the honeymoon in Italy. Although Effi did not want for most possessions, when she desired something only the best would do. However, just before Effi leaves for her honeymoon with Instetten, she admits to her mother that while he is considerate, principled, and dashing, she is nonetheless frightened by him. After Effi leaves on a train for Italy, her parents discuss married life, during which Herr Briest comments that Louise Briest would have suited Instetten much better than Effi had.
Later, Effi and Instetten return to his home in northern Germany at Kessin. During her first night there she is unable to sleep due to being frightened by ghosts. During dinner the next day, Effi learns that they are the only elite in town. Effi soon begins to entertain guests who come to visit her and Instetten. Eventually, though, Instetten has to leave for the night, leaving Effi alone. Again she is unable to sleep, causing her to request the servant Johanna to keep her company through the night. Instetten rebuffed her for this, as he did not want people discovering that his wife was afraid of ghosts, but neither did he relieve her fears.
Soon Effi becomes pregnant. While taking a walk one day, she meets a Catholic woman named Roswitha in a garden. Seeing that she was a kind woman, Effi asked her to become a nursemaid for her child. Eventually, Effi gives birth to a girl that they name Annie.
One day, Effi goes to the beach with Instetten and his companion, Major Crampas. Instetten believes Crampas to be a ladies man while Crampas believed Instetten was a born schoolteacher. Effi realizes that Instetten had been using the ghost she was frightened of to educate her, as well as a way to distinguish himself from normal men. Eventually, Instetten is unable to continue the excursions as his attention is required for a political campaign, leaving Crampas and Effi to continue alone. Soon, Effi began taking walks every day, to the point that even inclement weather cannot stop her.
After at least several years, Effi, Instetten, and Annie move to Berlin after Instetten gains a prominent position in the government. Effi is glad of this since she always found Kessin to be spooky. However, one day Instetten finds some love letters that Major Crampas had been writing Effi. They are all old, with the latest one being several months old, revealing that although the affair had continued right under him, it had not been continued in quite some time. After going to his friend Wullersdorf for advice, he commits himself to initiating a duel with Major Crampas, in which Major Crampas is killed. Afterward, Instetten divorces Effi and gains custody over Annie, who he raises under the belief that she has no mother. Meanwhile, Effi moves into a small apartment in Berlin with Roswitha, as her parents refuse to allow her to return home. Although Annie and Effi meet each other a few years later, they behave distantly to one another. Effi becomes enraged with Instetten, blaming him for teaching her daughter to act like a stranger to her.
Soon, Effi develops a disease causing her parents to accept her back home. At the same time, Instetten remains unhappy. Despite numerous achievements, he still believes his life had been ruined. As Effi’s disease drew her close to the brink of death, she requested that her mother tell Instetten that she forgave him and that she was at peace. After Effi’s death, her parents wonder if they are somehow at fault for causing her fate, but they refused to analyze such notions too deeply.Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest
Wolfgang Schenck as Baron Geert von Instetten
Ulli Lommel as Major Crampas
Irm Hermann as Johanna
Barbara Kwiatkowska-Lass as Polnische Köchin
Karlheinz Böhm as Geheimrat Wüllersdorf
Eva Mattes as Hulda
Rudolf Lenz as Geheimrat Rummschuttel
Lilo Pempeit as Louise Briest (Effi's mother)
Herbert Steinmetz as Herr Briest (Effi's father)
Ursula Strätz as Roswitha
Karl Scheydt as Kruse
An Dorthe Braker as Frau Pasche
Theo Tecklenburg as pastor Niemeyer
Andrea Schober as Annie von Instetten
Barbara Valentin as Marietta Tripelli
Peter Gauhe as Vetter Dagobert
The original novel, Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, was inspired by real-life events, as it was based on a scandal between an army officer and his wife. Apparently, the wife had entered an affair, and once the husband learned of it, he challenged and killed the lover in a duel. Although this was illegal, it was still considered an appropriate means maintaining honor in Prussian society during Fontane's time period. Thus, the man was hardly punished at all, while the woman would resort to nursing for the remainder of her life. Fontane turned this story into a condemnatory portrayal about how the 19th-century code of honor can both constrain and ruin a person's life.
While in the year of 1968 the student-led protests movement known as the German student movement or the movement of 1968, and the attempted assassination of their leader, Rudi Dutschke all occurred. These students were infuriated that many leaders of the Nazi regime continued to hold positions of power, as well as various restrictive legal reforms and their lack of power in the running of their universities.
In the 1970s, the women’s civil rights movement gained popularity and began to form an individual movement, having previously been a part of the student protests since 1968. Women were coming to realize that they were being suppressed by society’s double standards for men and women. Perceiving the patriarchal nature of society, they aimed to change their position. This movement would ultimately prove successful when in 1977 legislation granted married women the right to divorce and the ability to work outside of home.
Similarities between Effi Briest and 20th-century Germany were easily found, helping to explain the popularity of the book and its subsequent film adaptions there. During the 1970s, West Germany was being racked by civil unrest as people sought to effect change, among these movements was the women’s civil rights movement, which became a major influence for the film, as it compared the repressive nature in society between 19th century Prussia and 1970s West Germany.
As the double title of the film indicates, the ultimate purpose of the film is to analyze how a social system can restrict the freedom of people. During the Theodor Fontane's time, it was actually common to include a second title by adding an or statement. With such an arrangement, the first title was usually the name of the main character, while the second is used to describe the social stigma being critiqued. However, Theodor Fontane did not include the second in the original novel Effi Briest, but was instead added by Fassbinder in his production of the film.
Throughout the film, Fassbinder attempts to demonstrate the effects of the restraints of society on the suppression of emotions. This is done by distancing the audience from the action, primarily through techniques such as keeping the most dramatic scenes off-screen and the segmentation of events. For instance, there is never a single scene depicting the affair between Effi and Crampas, with all of it remaining off-screen. And rather than being shown Annie’s birth, the narrator rather tells us about it, further separating the audience from the action. With such techniques the audience is denied the melodramatic scenes expected from a film about adultery, using this restraint to heighten the theme of repression.
Although the ending to the film is very tragic, it is not due to Effi’s death. Rather, it is because she believed that she died believing that the guilt had been her own responsibility, and because it demonstrates how social conventions are able to prevent one from loving one another with their entire capacity. Through this the film demonstrates how being a principled man will often result in their own enervation.
This movie was of extreme personal importance to Fassbinder, as he hoped that it would become his directorial debut. However, it would take three years of both conceptualizing Effi Briest, and raising the funds necessary to produce it before he would actually be able to film it. As Fassbinder described it, the reason he was so enraptured with Effi Briest and Fontane was due to how he “rejected everybody and found everything alienating and yet fought all his life for recognition.” The production of this film became took an even more personal turn for Fassbinder when he chose to cast his own mother, Lilo Pempeit, as the mother of Effi Briest, and decided to narrate the movie himself, personally rereading and interpretting Fontane’s own words.
The film received primarily positive reviews. According to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes Effi Briest had received a 75% approval rating with an average rating of 7.1/10 among 8 professional critics. IMDb gave the film a similar rating, with an average score of 7.1/10 among 1,559 IMDb users. Effi Briest was also named one of the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made by The New York Times.Awards
The film won the 1974 Interfilm Award at the 24th Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Bear.