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While reportedly a film of singular importance to writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Effi Briest feels less passionately engaged than distinctively detached. That affect is no doubt intentional; Fassbinder was nothing if not a self-conscious, sophisticated artist. The results nonetheless feel peculiarly studied and distant for a project on which the notoriously intense director worked off and on for years.

Based on a novel by Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest looks at the pressures and hypocrisies of late 19th century German society. As the story begins, Effi (Hanna Schygulla) is a seventeen-year-old girl married off to a former suitor of her mother’s. She does not object. Quite the contrary, she is perfectly happy with the marriage. Her husband Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), while a bit stolid, is basically kind, protective, even loving in his way. While Effi eventually slips into a brief affair with Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel), when the relationship ends, she is no more upset by the separation than she was excited by her infidelity. The complications ensue years later when Instetten learns of the affair and feels compelled to challenge Crampas to a duel and to throw out Effi. Not, it should be said, out of any real sense of personal anger, but because he feels it is what is expected of him.

Fassbinder stages all of this in a consistently cool, understated manner that verges on the clumsy—verges on, but never quite slips. He has seemingly chosen to make things slightly stiff and awkward. It is as if every camera set-up, cut and bit of decor is as deliberate and self-conscious as the characters’ lives, creating a distance between them and the viewer that mirrors the stultifying human interactions in Wilhelmine society.

That very success points to a problem. We may feel the starched formality of the problematic values that cause Effi’s tragedy almost as if we are living it, but just as the characters accept the attitudes, obligations and rituals with little question (even Effi has only one indignant outburst, which she regrets later) we recognize the injustice without necessarily caring all that much about it.

For a film to move beyond the surfaces of the past and make us experience the way its inhabitants felt is no small achievement. The lesson is particularly valuable when the habits exposed are from the recent past, demonstrating how quickly our tenacious assumptions of right behavior can change. When those values feel so foreign, however, we are left in hovering uncertainty. That Effi’s situation is unjust is obvious to the point of banality, but she accepts it. Nor is there any hint of an alternative. The film does not flatter contemporary morality by expressing an outraged feminist consciousness. That lack of attitudinizing is to the film’s credit, but it also leaves us hanging, aware of how transitory our own values are. Such recognition is no doubt Fassbinder’s goal, however emotionally unsatisfying.