Fabian – Going to the Dogs / Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde (Berlinale review)

Fabian – Going to the Dogs / Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde (Berlinale review)

In this new film by Dominik Graf, we visit Berlin in the early 30’s. A period of shine for the underworld of the metropolis, where brothels are artists’ studios, Nazis are yelling abuse in the streets and Babelsberg is dreaming of producing “psychological cinema”. Our protagonist is the idealist Jakob Fabian. Everybody knows him with his last name, something his mother finds bizarre when she visits. He holds a doctorate in German studies, writes advertising copy during the day and frequents the city’s more outlandish establishments with Stephan Labude, his close friend, at night. Politics don’t really play an important role in Fabian’s life, even if they are everywhere in the film and in the 30’s Germany. While his friend, even though from a rich family, believes in communism, he believes only in his love for Cornelia, the only thing that makes him question his ironic fatalism. She becomes a ray of hope in his crumbling existence. But when he will lose his job, as many in this turbulent era, his life is going to shake up.

Graf’s film is loosely based on Erich Kästner’s deeply sad, autobiographical “Fabian” – one of the most important novels of the Weimar Republic.  The director selects a 4:3 ratio, and uses lots of montages of the past with political posters, night lights and the tram traffic on the streets. The film’s three hour length is it’s main problem, since the script loses about half an hour in meaningless setups for the meeting of Fabian with Cornelia, using an annoying voice over during this time, as long with split images and other montage techniques to portrait the decadence of Berlin. And while the montages eventually stops, the voice over continues to state obvious facts, ruining the cinematic magic of the film, fortunately not as much as it does in the beginning of the film.

The amazing chemistry of the protagonistic duo, Tom Schilling and Saskia Rosendahl, is the strength of “Fabian”, while Albrecht Schuch, European Shooting Star in this year’s Berlinale (2021) returns on screen for another mesmerizing performance after Systemsprenger and Berlin, Alexanderplatz, proving that even in a secondary role he can shine. The nice performances though, don’t mean a memorable film, no matter how well executed it is. Hence “Fabian” doesn’t offer much on the exploration of the era, with it’s fixation on its main character limiting its universe. Graf tries to paint lots of parallels between the era of his characters and today, either with moral dilemmas that could be modern, or by visuals like the beginning of the film that pictures a modern Berlin metro station, or the picture of the Holocaust commemorative plaques that one can find all over Berlin nowadays.

Grade: 3/5

by Dominik Graf
Screenplay: Constantin Lieb, Dominik Graf, freely adapted from the novel of the same name by Erich Kästner
with Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Meret Becker, Michael Wittenborn
Country: Germany 2021
Runtime: 176’

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