by Renny Harrigan
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 3-5
Two 19th century German prose works dealt with the oppression of women under the guise of love and marriage and then divorce or remarriage. They were recently made into films: Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, The Marquise of O... (1808) which was filmed by Erich Rohmer, and Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1894) by Rainer Fassbinder. Both films illustrate the women’s lack of choice in a patriarchal society, although Rohmer’s film becomes a comedy of manners while Fassbinder opts for didactic drama.
The Marquise of O... is a story of a young widow with two children living with her parents. She becomes aware that she is pregnant but has no knowledge of having had intercourse. As a matter of fact, she had been saved from rape by a group of Russian soldiers through the timely arrival of one of their officers. In an effort to provide her unborn child with a name, the Marquise places in the local paper an advertisement with an offer of marriage for the unknown assailant. The Russian officer, who meanwhile has become her less than welcome suitor, answers the ad: her savior is now her rapist. Horrified, she goes through with the mere formalities of her offer. Sometime after the birth of her child, she remarries the officer in real love and surrender.
Effi Briest is the more typical 19th century heroine. Married to an eligible older man at the age of 17 and thoroughly bored, she starts brief affair with another man, which is discovered six and a half years after it is over. The husband’s wounded pride and sense of honor prompt him to ban Effi from the house and challenge the ex-lover to a duel. The latter dies. Later, on the one occasion she sees her child, an emotionally damaged Effi completely collapses, and her parents are persuaded to take her back. There she dies.
Although both films contain the material for a critical analysis of women’s oppression and its application to women’s experience today, each film’s effect is very different. An Upper East Side audience in New York laughed through the Rohmer film while they followed sympathetically Fassbinder’s relentless portrayal of Effi’s demise. Rohmer’s intent is to entertain, I think, and his film is playing in first-run theaters across the country. Fassbinder’s film simply opens to question the events presented. In this sense Fassbinder’s is a political film, which no doubt leads it to have only one-night screenings in “art” theaters despite the growing number of Fassbinder retrospectives and festivals. In terms of form, both films remain faithful to the original texts. In each, a deliberate narrative, created by means of voices-over and quotes on the screen, retards the action and establishes a definite episodic structure, however, with different purposes in mind.
Rohmer—as does Kleist—leaps directly into the action. The scene opens with the newspaper advertisement being read by incredulous and amazed men at the local pub. A flashback, in the fore of a narration begun by the Marquise’s brother, fills in the background to the event. The woman’s virtue emerges. Her initial uneasiness and queasiness, all too familiar to her as the mother of two children already, was confirmed as pregnancy. We see first her horror and disbelief, then her soul searching, and finally her acceptance. The character of the Marquise is played by Edith Clever of the Berlin Schabühne as an attractive and mature woman whose rounded fullness and normally fluid movements emphasize her concrete sensuality and charm. Clever lends her character dignity and grace even in the face of general ridicule and disbelief.
Meanwhile, the Russian officer has become a persistent and impetuous suitor, much to the amusement and amazement of the whole family and to the Marquise’s occasional embarrassment. Even though she has vowed never to marry again, Julietta, as she is called, declares herself at least receptive to the count’s attentions.He is at this point a bumbling, ineffective, all-too-callow suitor. Her mother’s joy indicates the pressures the young woman is under. That Julietta manages to fall in love with the count, or at least find him attractive, only underlines her desire for a life more to her own design. Love and marriage provide the only acceptable, “decent” response open to her if she is to realize the attraction she has felt towards him who appeared as an “angel” to her from the beginning.
Both Kleist and the filmmaker are concerned with Julietta’s moral character. Rohmer inserts on the screen a title containing the sentence which provides the original novella’s turning point. When the Marquise accepts the fact of her pregnancy and is banned from her parents’ home, she takes her two children with her. The decision is a particularly strong and independent one, given the mores of early 19th century Italy where the story is set. Here Kleist wrote, and Rohmer prints on the screen.
There is little doubt about her moral perfection as she proves true to her inner feelings and needs. How then reconcile the contradiction between her person and the man who raped her? How can any woman, let alone one so virtuous as the Marquise, accept in love the man who raped her? Marriage is a different question.
Kleist, who died in 1811 by his own hand, may have been confused about the brutality that motivates rape. Rohmer certainly cannot be. His very choice of subject matter here reveals itself as reactionary. Kleist seems to imply that rape was motivated by unconscious and uncontrollable love, but he also saw this love as a transgression which had to be atoned for. Rohmer is only interested in the initial attraction and follows it to what I presume is, for him, a logical conclusion: consummation of sexual attraction, here in marriage. Precisely because the Count appeared initially as an angel, he becomes the devil in the Marquise’s eyes. Kleist’s use of these terms repeatedly in the original is neither sentimental nor effusive. It reveals Kleist’s interest in real ethical questions underlying the irrationality of human behavior.
Although both Kleist and Rohmer narrate the same events, it is only Kleist who emphasizes the moral choices the Count is forced to make after he has sunk to the degradation of raping an unconscious woman. He must love Julietta as an equal in his wish for marriage. He must be willing to take on her “public” disgrace by renewing his offer even after she places the ad. He must announce his own wrong publicly by answering the advertisement as the rapist. And he must finally prove himself her moral equal by waiting patiently and proving himself decent and trustworthy until she accepts him voluntarily sometime after the birth of their child. To be sure, the path of his repentance is shaped totally by Julietta’s demands for absolute clarity. But the Count answers her demands, and his character is only possible given Kleist’s erroneous assumption about the nature of rape. Kleist’s novella borders repeatedly on tragedy and contains many grotesque elements. In each constellation of events, the action can go either way. We are disturbed by the possible outbreak of tragedy at each new development.
With Rohmer we know the outcome from the start, from the first scene when the reader of the advertisement is incredulous and bemused. We are led to assume throughout that the course of true love never did run smooth. Even Julietta’s parents regard the advertisement as an artifice enabling her to secure the lover she really wants, perhaps against her will. By the end, the mother has accepted the truth of her daughter’s ignorance about her condition. In contrast, the mother’s matchmaker’s delight when she discovers the future father’s identity is expressed in her exclamation, “Of course, silly goose. Who else?”
Julietta herself is the only contradiction in this network of events. Only she has trouble combining savior and rapist in one person. We know that she is truly ignorant of how she became pregnant. Yet the audience laughs as she agonizes about how it could have happened and who the rapist could be. We tend to forget this anguish and her horror when she discovers it is the count, because she is clearly attracted to this man and he to her (or he wouldn't have raped her, both Kleist and Rohmer say). So it’s just a matter of time before the fleeting foibles of the flesh will be sated with what they desire.
This theme is not at all out of keeping with Rohmer’s other moral tales. (People’s unconquerable and appealing dependency on sexual drives or sexual fantasies seems to be at the base of CLAIRE'S KNEE, CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON, and even MY NIGHT AT MAUDE'S.) The episodic structure of Rohmer’s film reflects the onlookers’ cognizance of the film’s basic assumption. It implies that sexual attraction influences all the elaborate mystification and machinations of human behavior, including rape. Personally I find the theme unpalatable. A feminist interpretation could choose to regard the conclusion as yet another illustration of women’s lack of choice in a patriarchal society. Julietta’s necessarily self-deceptive choice of alliance with the rapist can be interpreted as the only way she can lead a satisfying life as a sensual parson. Yet such an assumption about her self-deception would certainly be different from Rohmer’s.
Judging from Rohmer’s deviations from the original, I suspect he is not at all concerned with the Count’s moral development. His method of making the Count palatable is through “boyish” charm and “thoughtless” impetuosity caused by “true love.” Rohmer’s Marquise is not raped in a faint immediately at the scene of the other attempted rape, but after she has gone to rest having drunk a sedative of an opiated tea. The fade-out shot of her sensuous body reclining on the makeshift couch is calculated, I suppose, to impel even the most judicious of men to rash deeds. An off-screen gun salvo, which wakes her from her presumably exquisite slumber immediately after this, is the only reminder we have of the Count’s responsibility in allowing the soldiers who attempted the rape to be executed.
Although Kleist’s readers know exactly who the culprit is, Rohmer’s do not because of two omissions and one structural change. The first omission is the Count’s reported attempt to die bravely in battle (suicide is the coward’s way out) with Julietta’s name on his lips. In the end, Rohmer has the Count tell Julietta about a recurrent dream of a swan which he had covered with mud as a child and which always rose cleansed from its pond. The Count confesses that he confuses the Marquise with the swan, which seems obvious enough. At this point, Julietta decides to marry the Count in the normally accepted, full sense of the term. The most serious omission is Roomer’s deletion of the material impetus for the remarriage and thereby also the increased unspoken but obvious pressure on the Marquise to relent. There is a gift of 20,000 rubles to his child and a will in which its mother is made heiress of all he owns. At this juncture, the Count is received into the parents’ home once again, giving him their tacit acceptance as a suitor.
I do not think a prose work necessarily has to be slavishly reproduced on screen, even though the terseness and lack of psychological exposition in Kleist’s prose lend themselves ideally to film and drama. However, Rohmer’s changes are worth explaining because I think they reveal both his intent and the reasons for the audience reaction. It seems to me there is always potential for social criticism in art which portrays a woman confined by the injustices of patriarchal society. It often shows that society’s mainstay is monogamous marriage, which assures the transfer of private property from one generation to the next. And the Marquise’s refusal to allow her parents to denigrate her or to keep her children is a truly progressive moment in the film. But both Rohmer’s treatment of his theme and his particular choice are anything but progressive.
It should come as no surprise that Julietta is not particularly excited about spending her life with her parents, although as a good daughter, she is there voluntarily rather than on the estate which she inherited when her husband died. Although she herself could not state it in this manner, we can assume that marriage really would provide the only acceptable way she could leave home. Both the parents are preposterous in their own way. Rohmer milks them for comedy in a manner reminiscent of Molière. The brother is simply a dolt, a foil to the Marquise’s intelligence and sensitivity, the bearer of parental orders. It takes very little to push the story’s comedy into a tragedy, which Kleist threatens at every turn. But Rohmer never takes us there because all the possibilities other than the one chosen are excluded from the start by the film’s silent assumption. The mother is the traditional mediator between the father and the rest of the family and a tireless matchmaker, at least if the match be under the guise rather than the actual fact of propriety.
The father is domineering and petulant, possessive to the extreme: he “loses” Julietta as he had previously lost his home and given up his sword in battle with the Count. The reunion of father and daughter, set up by the mother/mediator who becomes so angry that she will have her husband’s apology to Julietta, is that of two lovers. The father kisses his daughter passionately on the lips and she regresses to childish, wordless cooing on his lap. The neurotic patterns of possessive love and unresolved Oedipal conflict, so common in the patriarchal nuclear family, seem obvious. The father’s passionate love had been equaled only by his passionate rage, which he felt when he saw or thought that Julietta could have a sexual life of her own, independent of his wishes and control. His passionate response in both cases is subconscious at the deepest erotic level.
Julietta has only two possibilities of liberating herself: either she can withdraw to a secluded life of chastity or she can remarry. Her rebellion against her parents is brief, isolated, contained, and therefore ineffective. Unlike in the Fassbinder film, there is not the slightest hint of resignation on the part of the heroine, which has a lot to do with the intent and style of the directors.
The problem with THE MARQUISE OF O... is that even a meager rebellion on the battlefield of sexual and social politics is undermined by the film’s silent assumption, which trivializes Julietta’s behavior, although it shows what few choices she has—at least for the few who don't laugh. Rohmer has neutralized all the elements of social criticism by playing the material for comedy, which propels it to an apparently “happy end.” The quick reversal of Julietta’s decision seems almost tacked on, but it is in keeping with the way sexual attraction and rape are dealt with throughout. Kleist, it can be argued, was operating in a different context from ours, a romantic notion of the 18th century that sex was connected with the dark side, the evil side of nature. Platonic love, friendship, and sentiment ennoble humanity. The context just isn't the same for Rohmer. The Marquise is made into a woman who doesn't really know, as Rohmer does, that all she really wants is a rationalization and cover for her sexual preferences.
Fassbinder’s film of Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is quite different. Like Kleist, Fontane is one of the many on a “must read” list of German students everywhere but, contrary to Kleist, who was neither known nor read during his life time. Fontane was popular enough to be able to support himself and his family through his writing. Although readers then would have found stories of adultery and suicide in aristocratic circles shocking, Fontane’s avoidance of “unnatural” or grotesque sexual and psychological implications made him less disturbing to his audience. The stereotypical story of the young neglected wife’s adultery is familiar fare. At the end of the 19th century, women already made up 20% of the work force in Germany. First the Communists and then the Social Democrats had been agitating for female suffrage and protection laws in the factories for a good 50 years. However, none of this is evident in the milieu Fontane portrays. He was bourgeois in his outlook and displayed an aesthetic weakness for the aristocracy all his life.
Like Rohmer, Fassbinder has portrayed a passive, suffering heroine of the upper class—there weren't many others available if the plot was to be at all realistic—and he remains faithful to his original. Rather than obscure the dialectical moments of the original he has chosen to emphasize and comment on them. He immediately adds a subtitle. “A Story of Renunciation,” and it is the implication of that posture of renunciation which we are directed to study. The comment Fassbinder adds, in obvious appreciation of Fontane’s message, is that many who seem to accept a prevailing social opinion reject that opinion through their actions. The didactic technique is continuously emphasized by voices-over narrating the original text. In the Rohmer film the voices-over generally complete the action and close it to a variety of interpretations. In Fassbinder’s they illuminate the open-ended nature of the narrative and take a stand in opposition to the events. It is the same technique Fassbinder plans to use with another 19th century novel (Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben, known for its praise of bourgeois industriousness and anti-Semitism).
Effi stands as the almost perfect, textbook example of someone who must capitulate to the sterile prerogatives of an aristocratic society, which interests itself in rank, possession, and little else. Because she is sympathetically portrayed, her position as a woman in a male dominated hierarchy inherently reflects critically on the status quo (as does Julietta’s). The opening image of her on a swing—also one of the last glimpses of her—abides with us. As a lighthearted creature of wind and imagination, she does, as her mother says later, let herself drift with the current. Effi is asked at the age of 17 to end her childhood by marrying a suitable, established, and ambitious man. He had courted her mother and her mother had then refused him for an older, more established, suitable rival. Fassbinder makes the mother’s interest in such a match as obvious as did the Rohmer film, but here the mother has no antagonist. The mature Julietta had few illusions about either love or marriage. Effi’s mother manipulates her daughter skillfully into a position that she herself would have envied at Effi’s age: marriage to a man bound for success. The mother knows that Effi will rise to even greater heights than she, through the daughter’s connection with the suitor, Baron von Innstetten. Frau von Briest herself has not done so badly by her own husband, whose joviality appears a product of his unwillingness to take a risk or a definite stand on anything.
Does Effi love the man her parents have chosen? Here too she shows herself a child, for she accords him the same warmth she does to her friends and her parents. Besides, she respects him as a man of wealth and title. But she fears his moral severity and “fundamental principles.” She has no real choice in the matter, nor does she think she should have, which attitude again differentiates her from Julietta, who would rather not remarry, one concludes, in order to avoid a choice imposed by her parents. Julietta opts for life, even if it is life with the exploiter. Effi finally arrives at accepting death.
Removed to her husband Innstetten’s estate in Northern Germany, Effi is presented to the social “elite,” whose materialism, stupidity and provincialism Fassbinder ruthlessly details. Innstetten doesn't know how to love or appreciate his young wife and leaves her to her own devices. His strictness takes the form of pedantry and judgmental mental behavior. She does not have to tow the same mark he does, but the fact that he regards her as a flighty and frivolous creature with only childish interests cripples her. Fassbinder uses the same sort of symbols or correlatives that Fontane did to point out the differences between them. Psychology is detailed in the settings, in the characters’ reactions to things about them, rather than exclusively in their own words and actions. The mood is one of restraint, which seems to prohibit the actors’ speaking of themselves directly in front of the audience. A continuing conversation between Effi and her husband about the ghost of the Chinaman exemplifies how an object is used to illustrate their differences. Effi fears the noises upstairs in the house, which she believes, are the traces of the ghost of an exotic Chinaman who is buried in the town, exotic because of his nationality and his anonymity. Only someone with Effi’s imagination and her demands for attention could believe the house is haunted, but the husband takes it half seriously. He insists that Effi use this moment to test her character, and he refuses to have the blinds shortened, which would have eliminated the noise. For what would the neighbors say if he had his house remodeled to suit the fancies of his little wife? Innstetten reminds Effi of the Chinamen from time to time. He even has his housekeeper take to their new home in Berlin the seal on one of the upstairs chairs, which embodies the ghost. In short, he uses Effi’s fear in what her lover describes as a deliberate plan to intimidate her. The lover analyzes the situation in a way that Effi cannot, for she’s still impressed by the strength and seeming moral fiber of her husband and incapable of thinking badly of anyone. Effi’s impassioned “Thank God” as she learns of Innstetten’s transfer to Berlin first indicates to us how real her suffering is. She knows she is neglected, but she accepts it as every woman’s lot.
Her affair disturbs her only because she has to hide it. Neither does it make her feel guilty, nor does she particularly went to continue it. When Innstetten later defends his honor, he does so in the name of “that something which forms society and of which we are all a part.” It doesn't matter that his society is corrupt. He must avenge his besmirched honor—even though only he and the two lovers know about the affair. Innstetten cannot satisfy himself with only the proprieties of apparent possession. He must own Effi to use or discard, a fact evidenced early in a conversation in which Innstetten said he hoped to take Effi with him when he died. At that time, Effi had pointedly and simply replied, “I am for life.”
Effi appears passive, for she has no power and her sheltered existence has impeded the growth of her character. But this passivity is more properly a passive resistance. It culminates in her outburst when she sees the mindless martinet, which Innstetten has made of her child, who parrots society’s bankrupt values. Her pent-up resentment—in isolation—attacks Innstetten for the careerist, small-minded and mean person he has always been, concerned only with social advance and personal control. “It’s al ways the same with people like you,” Fassbinder has her add, the filmmaker’s attempt to include the audience.
Effi has a physical breakdown, a concrete manifestation of her enforced capitulation. There is an undeniable, tremendous ambivalence and criticism in her resignation. She demands that her maiden name be placed on her grave (although we cannot accept her reasons for it at face value—that she had done her maiden name more honor than her married one). She stopped growing when she married and became a mere vehicle for Innstetten’s aspirations. She forgives him, she says, but her words do not have the ring either of passion or of truth, as did her attack on Innstetten described above. And the ambivalence of her forgiveness is evident: he was a fine man—as fine as one can be who is incapable of real love. These words thus criticize the very society by whose standards Innstatten is a sterling specimen.
Fassbinder, like Fontane, has made Effi lovable and irresistible, and that is how Hanna Schygulla acts her in a restrained performance. Effi is naive as the young women and knowingly saddened as the mature one, but Innstetten doesn't see the change. Just as she let herself be talked into the marriage, so too does she drift into an extra-marital relationship with her persistent pursuer. We already know from her mother that Effi has no strength to swim against the current, but where would she have had the opportunity to develop this skill in her sheltered existence? Innstetten thinks the arrival of their child will provide Effi with the plaything she needs to amuse herself. He cannot regard his wife as an equal, a type of respect which, along with love and tenderness, Effi had told her nether she wanted most out of marriage. Even those closest to the couple fail to comprehend the situation. They wear their own self-interested blinders. When Effi’s mother sighs over the passing of such a “model pair,” her statement represents mores governing marriage in that period and ruling class marriages in our own.
Fassbinder’s camera emphasizes the repeated thematic motif of many white-light fade-outs to frame the individual scenes and emphasize their static quality. The first couple of scenes reveals or indicates the whole plot and its themes, a narrative technique of which Fontane was very fond. Framing compositions abound: Effi, catching a glimpse of the future husband, is shot through an open door looking into a confined interior, in which she is motionless behind the banister on the stairs. Her face appears as in a cage. The scene fades out on a stilted family tableau as Effi lays her hand in Innstetten’s. As early as MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS, Fassbinder used the tableau for affective satire although here, in keeping with Fontane, his dominant tone is irony. (This is not at all the case with the MARQUISE.) Effi’s departure on the wedding trip is seen through a pane of glass in the station house door, again underlining her beginning a life of even greater confinement then she had known. The camera repeatedly captures faces reflected in framed mirrors. When the person is photographed along with her/his reflection, lines of conflict seem to be indicated. Thus, Effi is reflected in a mirror where the dominant and here spectral image is Innstetten’s housekeeper, who perpetuates his pedantry and manipulates Effi’s fears. In another place, we see the reflection of Effi’s father proclaiming for yet another time, “That’s too wide a field,” i.e., life is too complicated for one to take a stand. This shot signals not only Fassbinder’s distance from his character but also Briest’s colossal ineffectiveness.
Insofar as Fassbinder usually ruthlessly unmasks bourgeois mystifications of cruelty, and justifications for monetary and social advance, EFFI BRIEST is a film we expect of him even though its characters are aristocratic. The use of Fontane’s narrative stylizes and distances the filmed materiel for a modern audience; its overall effect is less melodramatic than ALI or THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS. Fassbinder avoids in EFFI both the sentimentalizing of the main characters which occurs in ALI and the deliberate brake on audience identification with the characters in MERCHANT and in FOX AND HIS FRIENDS. Common to all these films is that social relations have been made into commodity relations (see Judith Wayne’s article on ALI in a forthcoming issue of New German Critique). What I find particularly noteworthy of Fassbinder here is the subtlety and restraint of his criticism, which in no way renders it less forceful. Fontane’s way is Fassbinder’s —at least in EFFI BRIEST.
Both Fassbinder and Rohmer show us women’s oppression and confinement, even when she is born into a privileged class. Rohmer would have us believe that a women is satisfied with the trade-off of sex for money; his film emphasizes this assumption wherever possible. Particularly noticeable is the speed of the last sequence where the Marquise changes her mind and accepts the Count’s love. Rohmer’s film prohibits questioning that flimsy assumption. Julietta’s other options, we must conclude, are not to be taken seriously, because Julietta is attracted to the Count and because of her own sensual nature. Even though most of us might be appalled at the conclusion’s implications, our reasons for being appalled are not to be found in the framework of the film as Rohmer presents it. Fassbinder, on the other hand, uses Fontane’s narrative to question and criticize the events. Effi’s resignation cannot in any way be construed as acceptance, for it contains within it Effi’s moral superiority and implicit criticism of the apparent victor.
In 1884, there was perhaps no other solution to Effi’s marital plight then the victim’s death, yet we are startled to realize how little has changed. Women are still regarded as possessions, although their sexuality is admitted and accepted when used by its owner, who is seldom the women herself. Assigning guilt to one person still often motivates divorce. And proving one of the parents unfit is often the only way to decide a custody battle. Children are possessions, too. The neurotic patterns created by the one-to-one exclusive relationships of the nuclear family have not changed much, despite increased demands for other structures to provide childcare and nurturance. In the 19th century and up until the 1920s and 30s men could automatically get custody of children. (Who else had the jobs and therefore the financial means?) But today it is almost impossible for a woman to lose a custody case, since the courts emphasize her role as the only “natural” parent. Joint custody is still very difficult to get. (A proposed law in Wisconsin, where I live, will make “marital misdemeanors”—formerly infidelity—irrelevant grounds for settlement, unless of course, such behavior can be proven harmful to the children.)
Effi luckily had wealthy parents, and the Marquise had inherited a spare estate. Most of us, however, have inadequate welfare payments or expensive, deficient daycare and poorly paid, low-priority jobs. The age-old sexual division of labor with its traditional trade-off of child bearing, rearing, and nurturing in exchange for food and shelter remains. For woman in the work force the situation is only slightly better. The value of such films as EFFI BRIEST and, to a lesser extent, THE MARQUISE OF O... is that they show us situations which we clearly recognize as unjust and which in turn cause us to think about similar situations today. In so doing, we realize that the prejudices and habits which govern sexuality, reproduction, and socialization of children in bourgeois society today are the same as those which dominated 19th century aristocracy. They are inherently oppressive.