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Three bright, talented young people in their 20s struggle to find their place in a rotten society, scarred by Germany’s defeat in World War I and menaced by the rising tide of Nazism, in Fabian — Going to the Dogs (Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde.) This second screen adaptation of Erich Kastner’s now classic 1931 novel (the first was directed by Wolf Gremm in 1980) marks a stylistically daring attempt to capture the zeitgeist by director Dominik Graf, who returns to Berlin competition where his historical romance Beloved Sisters bowed in 2014. Fabian‘s Fassbinder redux atmosphere first attracts and then tires, but should add value in German-speaking markets.
The film’s double title reflects some of the novel’s tribulations — it was originally published in Germany in a bowdlerized version called simply Fabian, but even cutting out much of the graphic sex and tawdry background ambience couldn’t save it from landing on the Nazi blacklist as “decadent asphalt literature.” It is set in the closing years of the Weimar Republic, after the 1929 world-wide market crash rendered everything and everyone for sale, and just before Hitler’s takeover in 1933. It was a time when Berliners could still give voice to political opinions, but did so at their peril.
That world is carefully described through the eyes of astute social observer Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling, A Coffee in Berlin) as a heady time of unfettered sexual freedom, bordering on abject moral decadence. For Fabian, an aspiring writer who pays the rent by writing advertising copy for a cigarette company, Germany’s moral decline is more frightening than its economic and political catastrophes. As he sits in the café reading the newspaper, headlines scream out about English airship disasters and an underage girl who commits a shocking sex murder, a chilling mirror image of Fritz Lang’s M, released the same year as Kastner’s book.
Jakob may be a wage slave by day, but at night he turns into the jaded denizen of noisy, crowded speakeasies and clubs like the Anonymous Cabaret, where the performers are lunatics and have to be dragged off the stage, or a lesbian artist’s studio where the nude models are sold to old sadists who drop by. The most colorful character we meet is Irene Moll (Meret Becker), a rich nymphomaniac who runs a male brothel and develops a creepy liking for Fabian.
Schilling’s engaging, complex Fabian is easily spotted in a crowd: He’s one of the only moralists around, attentive to the unemployed homeless men scrounging for food on the street (he himself soon loses his job) and emotionally alive to the suffering of disfigured war vets around him. Needless to say, in the blasé world he lives in, that is not the formula for a long and happy life. Even his visit to his aging, surprisingly normal parents takes place in pre-war Dresden, whose very streets and houses we see through the hindsight of doom.
Gracing the Berlin night scene is his friend Labude (award-winning actor Albrecht Schuch of System Crasher and Berlin Alexanderplatz), a lumbering blond idealist of bubbling intellect who has just submitted his literary thesis to a stuffed-shirt professor and is waiting anxiously to see if he will be accepted into academia. This opens a window on the university system of the day, infiltrated with Nazis and haters, and eventually leads to another of the story’s chilling denouements. Schuch makes Labude moving and laughable at the same time, a smart counterpoint to Fabian’s charm and dignity.
On one of their nights on the town, Jakob meets Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl, Never Look Away), an unconventional beauty who wants to work in the movies, either as a lawyer or an actor. The chemistry between Schilling and the fresh and original Rosendahl is convincing enough, but their love story is less so, seeing that it has been set up to illustrate the fact that even true love has a bottom line. This is where Cornelia signs a contract with a devilish producer twice her age, who fawns over his protégée in a most repellent way while he offers to launch her acting career — for the usual price. Somehow the choice she makes between Fabian and the big screen is not terribly surprising, having been flagged well in advance.
Graf has spent most of his long career as a director of TV series and movies, and much of the staging lacks great originality. But this is made up for, in part, by the striking way the story of Jakob and his friends is told mixing the narrative drama with now old-fashioned “modernist” tech devices borrowed from the past — screens split into multiple windows, black and white shots of the day, bursts of archive footage so appropriate they actually advance the story. It’s a hard thing to do well and to keep up, but editor Claudia Wolscht does a fine job pulling the film together, coming in just under three fast-paced hours. Claus-Jurgen Pfeiffer’s production design is always eye-catching and the locations are right on target.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Lupa Film
Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Meret Becker, Michael Wittenborn, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Anne Bennent, Eva Medusa Guhne
Director: Dominik Graf
Screenwriters: Constantin Lieb, Dominik Graf, based on the novel by Erich Kastner
Producer: Felix von Boehm
Coproducers: Marc Schmidheiny, Christoph Daniel, Wiebke Andresen
Director of photography: Hanno Lentz
Production designer: Claus-Jurgen Pfeiffer
Costume designer: Barbara Grupp
Editor: Claudia Wolscht
Music: Sven Rossenbach, Florian Van Volxem
Casting: An Dorthe-Braker
World sales: Les Films du Losange
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