Dominik Graf’s German Berlinale Competition entry is based on the 1931 book Fabian by Erich Kästner, or more precisely the reconstructed, uncensored version of it, which was only released eight years ago as Going to the Dogs. It portrays the last days of the failing Weimar Republic, following the intellectuals Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling) and Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schuch) as they desperately try to hold on to their moral beliefs and hope in humanity, even as they lament the depravity they witness around them. After losing his job as a copywriter and his girlfriend to the film industry, the titular protagonist becomes more and more disillusioned.
At its core, Graf’s adaptation is a love story and the sequences that focus on this aspect are undoubtedly the strongest parts of the picture. Tom Schilling and Saskia Rosendahl, who plays Fabian’s beloved Cornelia, have incredible chemistry and are engaging to watch as they fall for each other, then attempt to weather the impending storm.
As a whole, the feature unfortunately suffers the same problem as many German historical dramas (Never Look Away, which also stars Schilling, comes to mind): it’s too long. There are segments that do not feel subservient to the plot, but rather an attempt to milk the setup that the piece has created.
There is a textual lull during the segue from the second to the last third of the film, as the audience is introduced to an artsy brothel and with it yet another set of “amoral” characters, whose struggle for survival is antagonised. The cunning prose that came before is replaced by clichéd phrases such as, “She’s only a lesbian because she’s in a sulk with men,” adding nothing of relevance to any of the narrative threads.
While this sexism and homophobia can undoubtedly be deemed typical of the period, at other stages Fabian – Going to the Dogs dares to present anachronisms in both form and content. For instance, there are deliberate shots of the “Stolpersteine” (cobble-stone memorials of individual victims of the Nazis, which were only introduced to German streets in 1992) and alienating split-screen effects. Hence, one could speculate as to whether this feature might have benefitted from an outright progressive approach to classical literature, in the likes of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which dominated last year’s Berlinale.
Fabian – Going to the Dogs does not have a UK release date set.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.