"Effi Briest," a literal-minded, adaptation of a noted German novel of the late 19th century, is the dressiest movie by Rainer Werner Fassbinder to open in Washington, but his style hasn't been energized by working in period or transposing a literary classic. On the contrary, "Effi Bries" may have provided him with a pretext for aggravating a static approach to both film composition and narrative.
The material is concerned with a staid, oppressive social milieu, but it's the movie itself that seems stiff and insufferable. If your own energy level is higher than Fassbinder's, you feel a powerful urge to bail out of this picture for livelier impressions and diversions before being incapacitated for the rest of the evening.
Seeing the movie at the K.B Studio can become an adventure of a kind, since the sight lines make it difficult to read subtitles through and around the heads of people sitting in front of you, but this may not be quite the kind of adventures one finds dramatically satisfying.
Like Eric Rohmer's film version of Kleist's "The Marquise of O . . .," Fassbinder's film betrays a preoccupation with formal perfection at the expense of dramatic involvement and clarification. The social tragedy of Theodor Fontane's heroine, a young woman cruelly ostracized because of a feckless flirtation, never imposes itself as concretely as Fassbinder's mannerisms, especially his chapter-ending, scene-terminating device of fading to white. Unfortunately, the performances and episodes evoke such a ponderous, inert mood that one begins waiting for those fades. Despite the sheen on the black-and-white images, one's thought is not "How perfect!" when each scene ends but "At last, the other shoe has dropped!"
The anticlimactic effect increases as the movie fades along. You may feel the dramatic necessity of something rebellious in Effi's nature of something seductive in the personality of the route who leads her into indiscetion, but you despair of seeing those traits realized in the performances of Hanna Schygulla and Ulli Lommel, who might as well be dress extras or stand-ins. Fassbinder's intertia seems to fascinate some people, but it suffocates me and "Effi Briest" is no less suffocating for looking "exquisite."