× Current About Archive Submit Editorial Board Salisbury University

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest

The cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder has as one of its most recognizable characteristics moments in which characters hold a mute and motionless pose, often for uncomfortably long moments. This formal tendency with its clear Brechtian affinities evokes the tradition of tableau vivant, a practice often depicted in nineteenth-century novels in which a group of people reenact celebrated scenes by holding a pose in silent immobility. In her discussion of the tableau vivant in Fassbinder, Brigitte Peucker notes that the “impulse toward tableau vivant” characterizes all of Fassbinder’s films to a greater or lesser extent, and plays a “crucial structuring role” in his work (Peucker, “Incorporation” 148). While rarely representing preexisting scenes or works of art, Fassbinder’s tableaus participate in a broader sense of the term; they are moments of arrested action that interrupt narrative continuity and constitute what Peucker describes in reference to the tableauin Diderot’s bourgeois tragedies as “a temporally circumscribed and ‘out of time’ moment within the flow of dramatic action” (Peucker, “Filmic Tableau Vivant” 294). The suggestion of another temporality affords a double effect: on the one hand, the tableaus evoke mortification as they bring about a kind of death in life, but on the other hand, the fetishized scrutiny of the immobile body by the camera exerts eroticism (ibid.). Whether it is the stasis of death or the fetishized objectified body, both the thanatic and the erotic effect constitute the filmic tableau vivant as a break in continuity, trading in, in the words of Ágnes Pethő, “the drive of the narrative for the compelling visual attraction of carefully crafted imagery” (Pethő 52).

As it “interrupts the flow of images in cinema” (Peucker, “Filmic Tableau Vivant” 295) the filmic tableau vivant can be said to offer a kind of suspended cinematic temporality, distinct from the regular flow of narrative. The tension between types of temporalities which the filmic tableau vivant begets shall guide the following account of Fassbinder’s 1974 film Fontane Effi Briest,1 where the tableau vivant is repeatedly paired with voice-over passages from Theodor Fontane’s 1895 novel Effi Briest on which the film is based. Fassbinder’s adaptation is remarkable in many ways and critics noted its use of uncommon cinematic devices such as the fade-to-white, the intertitles with quotes from the novel, and the abundance of mirrors and statues in the mise-en-scène.2 One aspect of Fontane Effi Briest that received less attention, if any, is the film’s complex use of temporality. This essay looks into the merging of the static event (presented by the tableau vivant) and the concluded event (reported by the literary narration in voiceover) within the dynamic flow of film in Fontane Effi Briest, and presents this intermedial hybrid of incompatible temporalities not only as an overarching metonym for the interiorized, and gendered, oppression of German society in the story, but also as a model for thinking about social power-dynamics in terms of cinematic time-images.

An Intermedial Clash

Effi Briest tells the story of seventeen year-old Effi who marries the much older Landrat Baron Geert von Innstetten; the couple settle in the town of Kessin in East Pomerania where Innstetten serves as a high-rank official, and Effi becomes romantically involved with an acquaintance of her husband, Major von Crampas. The affair ends when Innstetten is appointed to a ministry in Berlin and the couple moves to the city, but it comes up again years later when the husband incidentally discovers Crampas’ love-letters to his wife. Innstetten reacts in killing Crampas in a duel and divorcing his wife, who is now compelled to live in social isolation, which eventually leads to her death.

Presenting substantial unaltered portions of a novel recited in a film—as in Fontane Effi Briest—constitutes perhaps the most basic intermedial interaction between film and literature. But unlike other movies which engage with such an interaction—Jules and Jim and A Clockwork Orange immediately come to mind—Fassbinder’s film employs its literary voiceover narration in quite a different manner. Comparing parallel scenes in the novel and the film easily demonstrates the striking shape that this intermedial encounter takes in Fassbinder’s adaptation. The first meeting of the eponymous protagonist with one of Kessin’s locals, chemist Alonzo Gieshübler, provides a good example. The encounter is presented in Chapter Eight of the novel, when Effi hosts Gieshübler in her new home. The amiable conversation between the two is rendered by Fontane in direct-speech, accompanied by minor interventions on the part of the narrator. By the chapter’s end, however, the narrator makes a paragraph-long intervention that reveals the tremendous emotional impact Effi has on the man:

What Gieshübler would now most have liked to do would have been to make a declaration of love and ask to be allowed to fight and die for her, as El Cid or some other campeador. Since all of that was out of the question, and his heart could stand it no longer, he stood up, looked for his hat, that he fortunately found, and, after kissing her hand once more, quickly withdrew without uttering another word. (Fontane 50, italics in source)

The confluence of direct speech and the narrator’s commentary hardly attracts special attention to the medial execution (or the “discourse,” in Émile Benveniste’s terms) of a novel in this case, as in literature in general. When such confluence is carried out in film, as occurs in Fassbinder’s rendition of the passage, its significance is striking. In the filmic rendition, after a short conversation between Effi and Gieshübler, the two fall into a twenty-eight-second-long silent stillness while voiceover narration intervenes to reveal, in the novel’s own words, Gieshübler’s romantic emotions. Even when the voiceover remarks that Gieshübler “stood up, looked for his hat, that he fortunately found, and, after kissing her hand once more, quickly withdrew without uttering another word,” the two characters sustain their silent immobility. This moment reveals a split in the film’s timeline into two temporal modes: a present tense (rendered visually) and this present’s respective future (rendered orally). Although the relatively long tableau moment is markedly artificial, it is far from being a single occurrence in the film. Moments in which action and dialogue are completely or almost completely halted occur often during Fontane Effi Briest, and in most cases are accompanied by voiceover narration. A count reveals that during nineteen of the twenty-six instances in which voiceover narration is employed in the film all movement and dialogue is halted, as though movement as such, if not time itself, “steps aside” in order to give center-stage to oral narration.

Both the use of tableau vivant and of voiceover narration in the film have been commented upon. Edward Plater, for one, suggests that the many instances of tableau vivant, much like the long takes, the confining framing shots, and the unemotive acting, function to “express the pervasive atmosphere of oppression and constraint that characterizes the society into which Effi was born” (Plater 28). Commenting on the film’s voiceover, Peucker notes that the renditions of passages from the novel work as a “reminder of film’s relation to written texts that tell their story only in words” and that by combining literary narration and filmic presentation “[t]he film seems meant to complement the novel, and thus to offer a more complete and answerable texture of reality than the novel alone could offer” (Peucker, “Incorporation” 147). Elke Siegel adds to this in suggesting that this way of rendering passages from the book, along with the use of intertitles with quotes from the novel, fades to white between scenes, and dialogues which are spoken like written dialogue “foreground the fact that this film is working with and from a book” (Siegel 378-379).

Instructive as they are, these comments fail to address the temporal significance of the film’s parallel activation of tableau vivant and voiceover. Plater’s attention to social oppression, Peucker’s attention to film as complementing and enriching its text source, and Siegel’s attention to the film’s alliance with the medium of the book3 do point, however, to the perspective that this essay takes on the film. More specifically, the present essay views the juxtaposition of voiceover and tableau vivant in Fontane Effi Briest as moments of tension between stasis and motion. The film articulates these moments through an encounter, or clash, between literature and film, and between the incompatible metaphysics of temporality that these two modes of storytelling engender. The essay further shows that this intermedial encounter is instrumental in conceptualizing social and gender dynamics as temporal relations. In other words—film being most fundamentally a medium of duration (Rodowick 73)—these power dynamics are conceptualized in essentially filmic terms.

Temporality in Literary and Cinematic Narration

In his discussion on the procedure of “description” in literature and film, Seymour Chatman points out that in literary description “the time line of the story is interrupted and frozen. Events are stopped, though our reading, or ‘discourse-time,’ continues, and we look at the characters and the setting elements as at a tableau vivant” (Chatman, “What Novels Can Do” 123, italics in source). Chatman recalls a scene from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectation in which Magwitch assaults Pip and all action freezes in favor of a paragraph-long description of the assaulter, which leaves readers to “dangle in suspense” (Chatman, “What Novels Can Do” 129). When Chatman examines a filmic adaptation4 of the passage he notes:

[I]n the movie version, the sense of continuing action could not stop. Even if there were a long pause to give us a chance to take in the fearsome details of Magwitch’s person, we would still feel that the clock of story-time was ticking away, that that pause was included in the story and not just an interval as we perused the discourse. […] the feeling that we were sharing time passage with a character would be a sure clue that not only our discourse-time but their story-time was continuing to roll. And if it is the case that story-time necessarily continues to roll in films, and if description entails precisely the arrest of story-time, then it is reasonable to argue that films do not and cannot describe. (ibid.)

For Chatman, the arrested motion of the tableau vivant is inherent to literary description but deviant in film. Scenes from Fontane Effi Briest such as the one presented above execute Chatman’s portrayal of literary description, as viewers indeed “look at the characters and the setting elements as at a tableau vivant.” Such moments carry such a strong Verfremdungseffekt that they point at a substantial incompatibility between cinematic narration and the arrest of story-time. Indeed, the numerous tableau vivant moments in Fontane Effi Briest play out exactly the tension that Chatman points at between the sense that “story-time necessarily continues to roll in films” and that “description entails precisely the arrest of story-time (Chatman 129).”

The source of this tension seems to be the fundamental difference between narration in literature and narration in film: literature narrates with words while film narrates with moving images. This elementary difference entails far-reaching consequences with regard to temporality. The common temporal mode of literary narration, and the one Fontane uses for Effi Briest, is retrospective, which commonly uses past-tense to mediate between a “now” of narration and a “then” of narrated events. Such narration is, in the words of Matthew DelConte, “[c]omprised of a narrator who tells of events some time after those events have occurred” and as such “distinguishes story from discourse” (DelConte 428). Unlike literary narratives, narratives accompanying moving images lack an agent that is telling them. The question whether cinematic narration involves a narrator has been the subject of much debate, specifically in the writings of Chatman, David Bordwell, and Sara Kozloff. These scholars debate whether the concept “narrator” is at all required in film narratology,5 but even following Chatman and Kozloff and accepting that there is such an entity, one would still have to agree that, differing from the common literary narrator, this entity does not mediate between temporalities (of story and discourse), but rather presents images that are always unfolded—as the verb suggests— in a “present.” As such, cinematic narration can be associated with the less common literary present-tense narration which “eliminates the time between experiencing and narrating” (DelConte 429) thereby, like in moving images, consolidating story-time and discourse-time.

While narration in the moving image and in literary present-tense share a “flattening” of the distinction between story-time and discourse-time, there is a crucial difference between the two. Dorrit Cohn remarks that present-tense narration tends to be associated with arrested movement and paralysis (Cohn 144). Indeed, taking into account that present-tense narration collapses the story-discourse distinction and prevents retrospective analysis, which is “a crucial component of narrative” (DelConte 429), one sees how Cohn deduces that “[b]y using the present-tense, the act of narration is itself short-circuited and therefore becomes unreal.”6 This commonly results, Cohn continues, in the expressive form known as interior monologue, which indeed suggests detachment from worldly action. “It is not fortuitous,” Cohn concludes, “that the most famous interior monologue in literature, Molly Bloom’s, takes place in bed” (Cohn 144). This view of present-tense narration exposes an opposition between the literary and the filmic present-tense: while in literature present-tense narration takes the figure of arrested movement, film’s basic mode of unfolding events (in present tense) is produced by the ever flowing current of images and depends essentially on action. Hence, in looking at the relations between literary and filmic present-tense narration we see in this case that compatibility in time (the present) implies opposition in motion (paralysis/movement).

This opposition applies also to the relations between literary and filmic past-tense narration. In Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Laura Mulvey discusses a sequence in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera and maintains that the device of the freeze-frame yields a temporality other than the present-tense. The sequence presents a carriage drawn by a horse through a Moscow street. In the middle of the action the film freezes into a still frame. More still frames of faces and city dwellers follow, until the continuum is finally reestablished and the horse and other frozen elements regain their temporal thrust. Mulvey concludes that “when the image froze another temporal dimension suddenly emerged. While movement tends to assert the presence of a continuous ‘now,’ stillness brings a resonance of ‘then’ to the surface” (Mulvey 13). Mulvey’s account completes the inverted pictures of filmic and literary temporalities of narration: in literature, the present is associated with arrested movement and the past unfolds continuity, while in film present-tense narration is marked by the flow of moving images and the past is marked by the frozen image.

Power Dynamics and Temporality

Effi Briest deals with the constraints and oppressions that norms of society enact upon individuals, specifically women (Robertson xxi-xxiv). The story presents a “fresh, lively, imaginative, playful, spontaneous person” (Robertson xxii) who digresses from the norm and is consequently crushed by the confinements of society. Still, Effi’s relation to the dominant social order is not simply that of an innocent victim. While this is more salient in Fassbinder’s adaptation (Fontane does at times portray Effi as naïve), both Fontane and Fassbinder demonstrate Effi’s ambition to be the wife of a wealthy and respectable man and depict her involvement in a social order that deprives her of her freedom. One could say that within Effi there are two mutually-exclusive passions: her youthful passion for free-spiritedness, and her passion for social status. While the former feeds her attraction to Crampas, the latter nurtures her attachment to Innstetten.

The associations of Innstetten with law and order, and Crampas with the breaching of such an obedient position are explicitly articulated in the novel. In a passage in which Effi and the two men go picnicking on the beach, conversation turns to hunting restrictions. Crampas asks whether “everything has to be so terribly lawful?” and adds that “[a]ll lawful activities are boring” (Fontane 102). Effi responds by clapping, and Innstetten replies with an admonition. The following dialogue between the two men unfolds:

‘Yes, Crampas, that suits you and, as you can see, Effi is applauding. Of course. Women always shout for the police straight away, but the law can go hang as far as they’re concerned’

‘A woman’s right since time immemorial and we can do nothing to change it, Innstetten.’

‘No,’ Innstetten laughed, ‘and I don’t want to, either. There’s no point in attempting the impossible. But a man like you, Crampas, who has grown under the flag of discipline and knows very well that without it, without order, life would be impossible, a man like you shouldn’t talk like that, not even in jest’. (Fontane 103)

In addition to disclosing the characters’ different approaches to societal codes and norms, the dialogue discloses an outlook on gender as it dismisses women as irrational, irresponsible, and hopeless. This outlook is incarnated in Effi’s childish passivity (her only response is clapping) and complemented by her absence from the discussion on the “nature” and “right” of women: while the men converse, she wanders off along with her faithful dog Rollo to a place by the water. There she spotted a seal, and the young woman and the dog “looked up from the stone at the sea, waiting to see whether the ‘mermaid’ would reappear” (Fontane 103). The sentimental association with animals and nature accentuates Effi’s youth and innocence, but even more so, points to her exclusion from power and discourse, that is, from the realm of men. In this aspect, Fassbinder’s film is less sentimental than the book: both the reducing of her fascination with nature and association with animals,7 and the casting of the thirty-year-old Hanna Schygulla as the seventeen-year-old protagonist inform the film’s veering away from naivety in its portrayal of Effi. Fassbinder highlights the issues of gender that come up in the above quoted passage by setting the picnicking men and woman in a manner that evokes the composition of Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (see Figures 1 and 2). In doing so, he depicts the complex position of woman-sexuality within gender power-dynamics.8 Moreover, in associating the issue of law and its violation with a painting that is known to have caused controversy for disobeying the artistic conventions of its time (Boime 676), the scene highlights the relation of art (and by implication, of film) to societal demands and their threat to individual freedom. Finally, Fassbinder’s reproduction of Manet’s composition as a filmic tableau vivant accompanied by past-tense voiceover narration posits the film’s discourse of gendered oppression within the intermedial encounter of film and literature.

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Édouard Manet, 1863), painting included from the public domain, and located HERE.
The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Picnic at the Beach

As noted, in the moments when tableau vivant and voiceover narration are co-activated in the film, movement appears to “step aside,” giving center-stage to oral narration. In other words, these scenes play out a kind of power-dynamics between cinematic motion and literary narration. Revisiting these moments with attention to the opposing aspects of temporality and motion in literary and cinematic narration allows us to approach this power-dynamics as a clash of temporalities. The notion of a clash between types of temporalities in Effi Briest is not an innovation of Fassbinder’s film-making. Brian Tucker’s study of narrative speed in Fonatane’s novel reveals that different renditions of time through narration—strict concise order on the one hand, and stretching out of proportion on the other—mark the contrast between Effi and Innstetten:

The decisive contrast between Effi and her husband is that they relate to time differently, and that Effi allows time to slip out of order and to become long. In short, the order that Innstetten relishes (and upon which his bureaucratic career depends) is incompatible with Effi’s more flexible relationship to time. (Tucker 189)

The basic clash of the novel, between individual freedom and societal restrictions, is explained by Tucker as a clash between temporalities. The novel’s general commitment to past-tense narration confines its execution of this clash to the different registers of narrated past that Tucker detects. In the film, past-tense narration (which, we recall, renders events complete in total finality in a past) is set in opposition to present-tense narration (which is associated with contingency and choice), illuminating the contours of this clash. Cinematic narration, along with its embedded motion and its consolidation of story-time and discourse-time, constitutes a kind of temporality that accommodates Effi’s vitality and breach of decorum, while literary past-tense narration, along with its time-arresting descriptions, accommodates a temporality that fits the oppressing bourgeois society and its delegate, the law-abiding inflexible Innstetten. Film’s intermedial nature affords the juxtaposition of these two types of temporalities in a way which resonates Fontane Effi Briest’s concern with societal constraints and oppression of individuals: the parallel activation of tableau vivant and voiceover narration creates instances in which the open-ended spontaneity implied in the cinematic now-flow is subordinated to the determinism implied by literary past-tense narration.

A comparison between the scene which first introduces Effi in the film and that which first introduces Innstetten exemplifies this subordination of cinematic temporality to the literary. We first see Effi in the film’s second shot as she sits on a swing, swinging to and fro with such great agility that it actually sways her in and out of the film’s frame, symbolizing, as William Magretta points, her “breaking out of the rigid limitations of her world” (256). At one point Effi jumps off, runs to her mother, embraces her, and dances with her in a circle. Seventy seconds later, with the introduction of Innstetten, the film depicts completely different dynamics: confined into the frame of a mirror, Effi and her mother embrace, similar to the way they did in the second shot, only now instead of talking and dancing they are standing completely still; voiceover narration announces the intended marriage, and after eighteen seconds of complete stillness, Herr Briest and Innstetten enter. During the ninety seconds of the scene, none of the characters speak, and their movement is scant.

In reproducing the literary narrative-voice within the film, the voiceover narration forces annulment of movement, continuity, and dialogue (the elements of cinematic narrative), and as such functions as a proxy for society’s oppressing powers.9 Accordingly, following the scene above, Fassbinder inserts a still photograph of Effi as the backdrop to a voiceover narration which relates the purchasing of goods in preparation for Effi’s married life. The point, that as a wife Effi loses something of her innocent passion for life and freezes into a still image, is clearly made through the succession of these scenes. Later, just before Innstetten discovers the love letters, Fassbinder uses the still again, lingering on photographs of Effi and Innstetten, thereby implying by the same token that in his reaction to his wife’s infidelity, Innstetten himself becomes a victim of the law that he adheres to so firmly.

Time Out of Joint: The Crampas Letters

Effi’s intimate relationship with Crampas constitutes a violation of the relations of oppression and submission described above. The discovery of Crampas’ love letters is “a total and shattering revelation to Innstetten” (Radcliffe 150). The tremendous impact of the letters on Innstetten is evident in the novel in the change of conduct that they elicit in the husband, as the authoritative rigid man suddenly seems unbalanced: “his head started to spin” and he was “walking up and down on the carpet” for hours “on and on” (Fontane 186). The revelation is shattering not so much because Effi’s infidelity torments Innstetten’s emotions, but rather because it threatens his basic Weltanschauung on social conduct; in Stanley Radcliffe’s words: “his naive trust in Effi’s loyalty and his utter belief in the power of social convention are stood on their head, and life’s imponderability yawns before him for the first time in his sheltered existence” (151). The harsh violation of Innstetten’s world-view of an orderly and sheltered existence brings about in him an extreme response, especially when measured against his emotions: he summons Crampas to a duel and kills him, even though he feels no hatred. He then divorces his wife, even though he still loves her and is inclined to forgive her.

Looking into the moments in which the novel explicates Innstetten’s decision helps to account for the incongruity between his actions and emotions. On the evening of the day in which he discovers the letters, Innstetten invites his friend and confidant Geheimrat Wüllersdorf over with the request that he delivers the challenge and serves as his second. During their conversation, Wüllersdorf attempts to dissuade Innstetten by various means: by recalling that “[w]e’re both of us too well on in years, you to pick up a pistol, me to support you” (Fontane 187), by reminding that the deed was done many years ago, and by promising that Innstetten’s unhappiness will be doubled if he is to pursue those actions. Throughout their conversation Wüllersdorf keeps asking “do you have to do it?” and elaborates: “Do you feel so hurt, insulted, outraged that one of you has to be done away with, him or you?” (Fontane 188) In reply, Innstetten states that he “[doesn’t] feel any hatred at all and certainly not a thirst for revenge,” that he does not believe in “guilt beyond redemption.” He explains that the years that went by diminish the effect of the deed upon him, and that moreover he still loves his wife: “I’m still so much under the spell of her appeal, of her vivacious charm that is all her own, that right down to the bottom of my heart I feel, despite myself, inclined to forgive her.” Nevertheless, Innstetten concludes: “in spite of all that, it has to be” (Fontane 188-189). The reason, as Innstetten explains, is that one must follow the norms and conventions of society, because one’s existence depends on the functioning order of society (“we’re part of a whole […] we’re entirely dependent on it” [Fontane 189]) and if one (“we”) does not act according to the demands of society, “society would despise us, and eventually we would despise ourselves as well and be unable to bear it and blow our brains out” (ibid.).10 Finally, Innstetten provides the following summary of his view:

It’s not about hatred or anything like that, I don’t want to have blood on my hands because of the happiness that’s been taken from me; but that—tyrannical, if you like—social something is not concerned with charm, nor with love, not with the lapse of time. I have no choice. I have to. (ibid.)

Soon after, Wüllersdorf, reluctantly convinced, replies:

I think it’s terrible that you are right, but you are right. I won’t torment you any longer with my ‘does it have to be?’ The world is the way it is and things don’t proceed the way we want them to but the way others want them to. […] our cult of honor is worship of a false idol, but we have to submit as long as the idol rules. (Fontane 190-191, italics in source)

The conversation between Innstetten and Wüllersdorf, specifically their concluding remarks, constitute the heart of Effi Briest as a critical work that deals with the inclination to take part in (and thereby corroborate) society’s iniquities while also acknowledging them. In this heart of the novel, Innstetten responds to the jolting of his worldview via his reinforced submission to social determinism. This comes at the expense of his own feelings and wishes. Innstetten’s insistence on determinism (“it has to be,” “I have no choice,” “I have to”) can be taken as his attempt to balance his wife and her lover’s spontaneous, emotional, rule-less behavior.

This way of making amends is involved in an intricate array of narrational temporalities propelled by the Crampas letters. Effi Briest is commonly mentioned along with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as a realist novel about adultery. A reader who approaches the novel with this knowledge might be disappointed to find that no acts of adultery are explicitly described in it. Except for a paragraph of three short sentences in which Crampas “took her hand and released her fingers, that she was still clutching tight, and covered them with hot kisses” (Fontane 129) there are no descriptions of romantic or physical relations between Crampas and Effi in the novel. In fact, readers become aware of the existence of a lasting affair between the two only in retrospect, as they read together with Innstetten three of the love letters which the husband incidentally discovers.

The Crampas letters conjure the deed in retrospect. As they introduce information from the past into the diegetic present and enforce a reorganization of the novel’s fabula, they have the effect of “breaking the smooth forward flow of the narrative” (Radcliffe 158). The disruption of the social norm and of Innstetten’s Weltanschauung of orderly existence is also, then, a disruption of narrative continuity. Moreover, the three letters are written in either the imperative (“be at the usual place today” etc.) or the confessional (“I can’t abandon my wife” [Fontane 187] etc.) and as such shift the narrative tense from the common past-tense to the present-tense. In light of the notions about present-tense narration presented above it is possible to see the letters as planting contingency, choice, and revolt against the determinism that characterizes literary past-tense narration. Accordingly, we can say that the novel reproduces its dramatic clash between social philosophies on the level of narration. In view of Innstetten’s “faith in ‘Ordnung’ and ‘Gesetz’” (Radcliffe 152), his response of intensified determinism to Effi’s “unconventionality and spontaneity” (ibid.) can be understood as an enforcement of the laws of narrative, in the spirit of Aristotelian teleological development, on a mode of narration that threatens rigid temporal and causal relations. In this sense, Landrat von Innstetten, “der großer Erzieher,” stands for the laws of fiction.

As mentioned, the conversation between Innstetten and Wüllersdorf marks the heart of Effi Briest as a critical work that deals with the inclination to corroborate society’s iniquities, albeit acknowledging them. This part of the story with its social overtones must also be central for Fassbinder whose adaptation’s full title is “Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It.”11 Fassbinder’s rendition of the meeting between Innstetten and Wüllersdorf is not only one of the longest scenes in the film, but it is also unique in its cinematic execution. Although Fassbinder reproduces the conversation between the men verbatim in its entirety, the adapted scene differs considerably from the original in terms of dynamics: in the novel, Innstetten is agitated; he “was walking up and down again and, with the restlessness that was eating away at him, would have liked to remain in motion. But he saw that was not possible, so he took a cigar himself, sat down opposite Wüllersdorf, and tried to remain calm” (Fontane 187). When Wüllersdorf was asking him whether he must do it, Innstetten “[j]umped up, went over to the window, and tapped the glass, full of nervous agitation. Then he quickly turned around again, strode over to Wüllersdorf, and said…” (Fontane 188). In Fassbinder’s adaptation, Innstetten is balanced, either standing almost motionlessly or walking around calmly while Wüllersdorf is sitting at the piano playing excerpts from the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. The effect of this diversion from the novel is a more rigid, overpowering portrait of Innstetten. The Beethoven excerpt has a similar effect: as he is playing while talking, Wüllersdorf occasionally interrupts the music to arrange his thoughts, and so in repeatedly interrupting one of the most famous emotional pieces of the Western canon (Pathétique), the scene exclaims the ban of emotions from Innstetten’s deterministic worldview and actions.

The most striking aspect of the scene, however, is its employment of montage. Throughout the dialogue, images of the conversing men are intercut by means of dissolve with images of transportation in motion: a large intercity train, a smaller local train, and finally a small horse-drawn carriage. The scene alternates no less than five times between the Berlin apartment where the men converse and the journey to Kessin where the Duel is to be held. By the scene’s very end, just as Wüllersdorf utters the words “but we have to submit as long as the idol rules,” it cuts to a close-up of a firing pistol, creating a simultaneity of Innstetten’s decision and its effect. The scene presents yet another type of simultaneity by its uncommon employment of crosscutting. While crosscutting is conventionally used to signify parallel occurrences, here—in its only use in the film—rather than linking events that take place in the same time, it links events that take place in different times. The employment of dissolve, however, which literally synthesizes the two timelines into a single cinematic moment, actualizes a future that lies within the present (see Figure 3).

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Dissolve of Wüllersdorf and Innstetten and the Journey to Kessin.

Through its editing then, the scene introduces reinforced determinism, even fatalism, and as such reproduces in cinematic terms Wüllersdorf’s conclusion of submission to the rule. Indeed, the two types of simultaneity created by the scene are extents of purely cinematic temporality, implied in this case by the scene’s specific content. While the juxtaposition of near-stasis (of the two men) and motion (of the transportation) echoes the phenomenology of film-spectatorship, the feature of icons of the pre-history of film and early cinema such as horses and trains,12 specifically a locomotive identical to the one featured in one of the first Lumières’ motion pictures,13 points to the emergence of the moving-image as an inception of a unique temporality (see Figures 4 and 5). Certainly, this unique temporality also affords Fassbinder’s calculated employment of the tableau vivant.

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Steam-Locomotive in Motion in L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895).
The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Steam-Locomotive in Motion in Fontane Effi Briest

While Fassbinder’s utilization of stasis, long-takes, and unconventional crosscutting are all typical of the Deleuzian time-image, the filmic tableau vivant, in its exchange of action for observation, essentially converts movement-images into time-images. Moreover, the tableau-voiceover scenes in Fontane Effi Briest make abundantly clear that the parallel activation of tableau vivant and past-tense narration begets two temporalities enveloped in a single cinematic moment.14 These cases produce one of the characteristics of the “time-image,” what Gilles Deleuze calls “crystal-image,” i.e. moments that encapsulate inseparable, yet distinct timelines.15 The Deleuzian crystal is the fusion of (at least) two timelines, one actual which “makes all the present pass on,” and one virtual which “preserves all the past” (Deleuze 81). The crystal’s basic instance is the mirror and its coalescence of “the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Deleuze 69). Mirrors are almost ubiquitous in Fontane Effi Briest, but one distinct mirror-image which appears toward the end of the Innstetten-Wüllersdorf scene, deserves special attention with respect to the film’s sophisticated implementation of the actual and the virtual. Toward the end of the scene the camera peers into a small mirror and Wüllersdorf’s image is doubled in such a way that achieves the almost impossible task of reproducing René Magritte’s 1937 painting La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced) (see Figures 6 and 7). In this striking and impossible mirror-reflection (reflecting the back of the observer), the virtual is literally overpowered by the actual. Itself a tableau vivant in the original sense (i.e. representing an existing work of art), this moment encapsulates the film’s synthesis of temporalities and power-dynamics: submission to the rule—the conclusion in the Wüllersdorf-Innstetten conversation—is the inability to separate virtuality from actuality, potentiality from reality, future from present, and present from past.

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Not to be Reproduced (René Magritte, 1937), painting included according to fair use, and located HERE

The Tableau Vivant and the Intermedial Clash: Temporality and Power-Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest
Ido Lewit
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: Wüllersdorf and Innstetten in Fontane Effi Briest


1  The full title of Fassbinder’s adaptation is “Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It.” For the sake of convenience, I shall refer to the film by its common title Fontane Effi Briest. I will also discuss the significance of the full title.

2  See Siegel; Plater.

3  “Fassbinder is not retelling a story, but […] ‘truly filming the book’” (Siegel 379).

4  Chatman does not state which film he relates to, but it is most likely David Lean’s 1946 adaptation.

5  “Literary theory may be justified in looking for a speaking voice or narrator. But in watching films, we are seldom aware of being told something by an entity resembling a human being. […] Must we go beyond the process of narration to locate an entity which is its source?” (Bordwell 62)
“Film and other performative media often have nothing like a narrative voice, no ‘tell-er.’ Even the cinematic voiceover narrator is usually at the service of a larger narrative agent, the cinematic show-er. But that show-er can be reasonably called a presenter (if we want to avoid calling him/ her/ it a narrator), since a ‘presenter’ is not limited to some actual voice telling the action in words.” (Chatman, Coming to Terms 113)
“Films and television proceed instead through the unrolling of a series of moving images and recorded sounds. Yet we sense that someone, or some agency, is presenting these images in just this way – someone/something has chosen just these camera set-ups and arranged them in just this fashion with just this lighting, these sound effects, and this musical score. This narrating presence need not be thought of as a person, but rather as an agency which chooses, orders, presents, and thus tells the narrative before us” (Kozloff 78).

6  On narration and discourse in relation to power and gender see also MacCabe, Colin, “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses.” Screen 15, no. 2 (1974): 7-27.

7  This could also be the reason for the film’s elimination of the character of Rollo the dog.

8  Manet’s painting features two clothed men and a naked woman picnicking in a forest. While the woman’s nakedness implies her function as an object for the male gaze, her own nonchalant way of returning the viewer’s gaze implies power and mastery.

9  Stasis is imposed on all characters, but while Effi’s parents and Innstetten are already “tamed” members of bourgeois society, it is only Effi who still has to undergo transformation, which indeed occurs: by the end of the scene Effi’s young friends call her to join them outside; she however remains static, confined to a small room surrounded by the three silent adults.

10Innstetten’s reasoning here brings to mind the views he pronounced in the beach-picnic passage.

11Fassbinder also expresses this view in an interview: “[…] it isn’t a film about a woman, but a film about Fontane, about a writer’s attitude towards his society. It’s not a film that tells a story, but a film that traces an attitude. It’s the attitude of a person who sees through the failings and the weaknesses of his society and also criticizes them, but still recognizes this society as the valid one for him. […] So it’s also my attitude towards society that I see its failings and I see that it has to be changed, and yet I’m content to be a member of this society.’ (Fassbinder and Wetzel 149-151).

12I think here of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 The Horse in Motion and the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat.

13Here Fassbinder perhaps plays on the fact that Effi Briest was published the same year the Lumières made their first films. Incidentally or not, the resemblance between the locomotive that Fassbinder films and the one filmed by the Lumières is striking; Fassbinder also uses a very similar angle.

14There is in fact a third temporality, from which the voiceover narrator speaks.

15“Time has to split at the same time as it sets itself out or unrolls itself: it splits in two dissymmetrical jets, one of which makes all the present pass on, while the other preserves all the past. Time consists of this split, and it is this, it is time, that we see in the crystal.”(Deleuze 81, italics in source)

Works Cited

Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871. Los Angeles, CA: The University of   Chicago Press, 2007.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Chatman, Seymour Benjamin. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.

Chatman, Seymour. “What Novels Can Do that Films Can’t (and Vice Versa).” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 121-140.

Cohn, Dorrit. “Kafka’s Eternal Present: Narrative Tense in ‘Ein Landarzt’ and Other First-Person Stories.” PMLA 83 (1968): 144-150.

DelConte, Matt. “A Further Study of Present Tense Narration: The Absentee Narratee and Four- Wall Present Tense in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.” Journal of Narrative Theory 37, no. 3 (2007): 427-446.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta.    Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989 [1985].

Fassbinder, Rainer Werner and Kraft Wetzel. “‘Images the Moviegoer Can Fill with his Own       Imagination’: A Conversation with Kraft Wetzel about Effi Briest.” In The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A.Lensing, translated by Krishna Winston, 149-159. Baltimore, MD and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1984].

Fontane, Theodor. Effi Briest, translated by Mike Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 [1895].

Kozloff, Sarah. “Narrative Theory and Television.” In Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, edited by Robert C. Allen, 67-100. Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Magretta, William R. “Reading the Writerly Film: Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974).” In Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, edited by Andrew S. Horton and Joan Magretta, 248–262. New York, NY: F. Ungar, 1981.

MacCabe, Colin, “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses.” Screen 15, no. 2 (1974): 7-27.

Mulvey,Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

Pethő, Ágnes. “The Tableau Vivant as a ‘Figure of Return’ in Contemporary East European Cinema.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 9, no. 1 (2014): 51-76.

Peucker, Brigitte. “Filmic Tableau Vivant: Vermeer, Intermediality, and the Real.” In Rites of      Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, edited by Ivone Mrgulies, 294-314. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Peucker, Brigitte. “Incorporation: Images and the Real.” In Incorporating Images: Film and the   Rival Arts, 104-167. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Peucker, “The Fascist Choreography: Riefenstahl’s Tableaux.” Modernism/Modernity 11, no. 2, (2004): 279-297.

Plater, Edward. “Sets, Props and the ‘Havanaise’ in Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest.” German Life and Letters 52, no. 1 (1999): 28-42.

Radcliffe, Stanley. “Effi Briest and the Crampas Letters.” German Life and Letters 39, no. 2 (1986): 148-160.

Robertson, Ritchie. “Introduction.” In Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, translated by Mike Mitchell, vii-xxxi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.    

Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Siegel, Elke. “A Novel Film: Fassbinder’s Fontane Effi Briest.” In A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Brigitte Peucker, 372-397. Oxford: Blackwell, 2012.

Tucker, Brian. “Performing Boredom in Effi Briest: On the Effects of Narrative Speed.” The German Quarterly 80, no. 2 (2007): 185-200.