Dominik Graf’s romantically charged epic period drama, an adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel, screens on November 17 at MMoCA.
Header Image: Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), with his signature cigarette, contemplates the crumbling of 1930s German society he lives in.
Film adaptations of classic literature trigger flurries of debate—questions of authenticity and a director’s ability to astutely translate the tone of another cultural moment and medium arise without fail. In his 2021 film Fabian: Going To The Dogs, German director Dominik Graf and co-writer Constantin Lieb boldly engage in this battle of art forms through their adapted screenplay of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel, Fabian: The Story Of A Moralist. Their contribution to the debate is getting a special preview screening on Wednesday, November 17, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Spotlight Cinema series. With the ill-fated Weimar Republic as a backdrop, Graf flourishingly depicts the social and political climate of 1930s Berlin, marrying the source material and the cinematic experience brilliantly.
The narrative centers on Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a disillusioned 32-year-old struggling to accept the seemingly inherent vulgarity of day-to-day German life after World War I. He dreams of writing the next momentous novel, but instead works as an advertiser at a cigarette company. During a whirlwind of drunken nights, he haunts the streets and underground establishments of Berlin with his best friend, Stephen Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a wealthy but staunch communist. Together, they lament their crumbling country and the foolish citizens who inhabit it, all the while participating wholeheartedly in the immoral activities they claim to loathe.
Fabian is startled from his depressing, nihilistic stupor when he meets and falls in love with aspiring actress and international film lawyer Cornelia Battenburg (Saskia Rosendahl). Cornelia and Fabian run headlong into intertwining their livelihoods together, but encounter numerous hardships, from the typical romantic arguments to post-war economic struggles.
Ultimately, Cornelia and Fabian’s relationship with each other and with external forces make up the most alluring and worthwhile bulk of Fabian: Going To The Dogs‘ storyline. But the film does take awhile to get there, and its opening sequences are formatted in a somewhat disquieting hodgepodge of cinematic techniques. Graf begins with a tracking shot of the modern-day Berlin subway system, slowly and magically taking viewers up concrete steps to the above-ground world of the 1930s. That cross-generation connection established, the next 30 minutes are a complex patchwork of black-and-white archival footage, split-screens, tilted angles and dramatic lens jumps, varying lenses and angles. Though admirable, the disorienting atmosphere Graf attempts to create, along with a three-hour runtime, may dissuade antsy viewers from sticking around until the credits roll.
However, sticking around is more than worthwhile. In one aspect, Schilling’s performance births a dynamic protagonist. Like other notable literary characters, Fabian initially comes across as a pretentious figure, bemoaning his own lack of purpose and fulfillment. Schilling never lets that affected manner become outrageously overblown and never attempts to ascribe an exaggerated depth to his on-screen personality. Instead, he realistically portrays a character meant to embody the crumbling Weimar Republic and adopts a flawless physicality to express the emotional flaws of an exhausted humanity, perpetual cigarette in hand.
As Fabian, Schilling translates Kästner’s intentions of character most successfully during his interactions with Labude and Cornelia. Whenever Fabian is with his trusted friend Labude, philosophical conversations abound, inviting the audience to participate in debates around topics like sexuality, communism, and more. Whenever Fabian is with his lover, Cornelia, the audience is instead invited to feel the tenderness brought on by close-up shots of bare skin, their embraces, and the general playfulness of a newly formed couple. Schilling’s Fabian balances this duality in a refreshing way, seemingly a star subject meant for a portrait of the ’30s and not the 21st century.
Part of Schilling’s ability to completely inhabit this “classical” aura, however, is the result of Graf’s dedication and loyalty to Kästner’s literary vision. In an interview with Christoph Huber in Cinema Scope, Graf mentions the French New Wave as the defining model for adapting literature to the screen, and it’s clear that the director took notes for his own transformation of Fabian. Throughout the entirety of the film, two rotating masculine and feminine narrators use language pulled directly from the novel, sustaining Kästner’s voice and satirical wit despite the difference in creative outlet. Every shot feels somehow pulled directly from the page, giving viewers the enchanting sensation of devouring a book’s lessons and tones without ever actually touching physical pages.
By the time one becomes comfortable with the experimental cinematography, Graf’s allusions to past eras of cinematic history are wholeheartedly appreciated and only further entrench the audience in a visceral nostalgia. In one scene, Fabian, his mother (Petra Kalkutschke), and Cornelia go out to lunch together. At the restaurant, Cornelia’s “mentor,” Markart (Aljoscha Stadelmann), appears. His appearance spurs an implied anxiety that is expressed by a sudden shift to silent film techniques, intertitles and all. The switch feels aesthetically successful after one has a firm grasp on Graf’s directorial objectives and characterizations.
Despite Fabian: Going To The Dogs‘ tendency to feel emotionally overwhelming—especially in its dramatic explorations of sexuality, artistically chaotic moments, and heart-wrenching plot points—it is well worth the three-hour dedication. Graf, following the novelist Kästner’s lead, fluidly and naturally draws connections across eras and mediums. Art, in whatever form it comes, deals in uncomfortable, boundless realities.
There’s more where this came from.
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