Loosely based on Erich Kästner Fabian: Going to the Dogs the life of a Berlin advertising copywriter in 1931 – and the dark shadows that spread over him. We’ll reveal in our review whether the film is convincing.
OT: Fabian or going to the dogs (DE 2021)
The plot summary
Berlin in 1931: The USA scholar and advertising copywriter Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling) is as disoriented as he is energetic in enjoying life to the fullest. During the day he thinks up advertising for a cigarette brand, at night he roams around with his fellow student Labude (Albrecht Schuch) and infests the city’s underworld bars, brothels and artists’ studios. However, this carefree life is increasingly threatened by tensions in the social climate. While Labude imagines that the lower classes will soon revolutionize against the authorities, Fabian buries his head in the sand – unless he offers an ironic commentary on what is happening. One day he meets Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) in a studio and falls head over heels in love with her. Fabian’s naive existence takes a dramatic turn when he falls victim to a wave of layoffs, while Cornelia’s career as an actress takes off…
Erich Kästner is best known for his children’s and young adult literature – works such as “Emil and the Detectives”, “Pünktchen and Anton” and “Das Doppel Lottchen”. But Kästner also wrote works aimed at an older audience. These works include the urban novel “Fabian. The Story of a Moralist”. Kästner originally wanted to publish it under the title “Going to the Dogs,” but was asked to shorten some passages that were considered tasteless and/or too erotic and to choose a less pessimistic title. History has taught us that Kästner’s pessimism was justified. The National Socialists, outlined in his novel as a threat that was initially intangible but gradually became more concrete, soon brought about a more drastic end to morality than warning authors such as Kästner and Bertolt Brecht could have imagined. Kästner’s critical work was placed on the list of degenerate art, and the novel fell victim to book burnings.
Fabian (Tom Schilling) and Irene Moll (Meret Becker).
Kästner’s original version was successfully reconstructed in post-war United Kingdom. 41 years after the first respected film adaptation of the material, another film adaptation celebrated its premiere – at the Berlinale. Director and author Dominik Graf (“The Beloved Sisters”) and author Constantin Lieb struck a chord with the trade press gathered there with their almost three-hour film adaptation: According to the British trade magazine ‘Screen International’, “Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” generated the third-best grade point average among all competition films in 2021. Such a success was due to Graf really not sure about self-imposed challenges. Because, as the director explained at the Berlinale, his goal was for his “Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” to be about as long as the reading time of the Kästner original. The alarm bells are almost ringing – stretching a film to cover the reading time of the book can actually only lead to a slow catastrophe. But Graf not only managed to avoid such a flop: he scored a direct hit. The secret of success is that Graf has recognized how he can use Kästner’s rather short novel for a different purpose than a comparatively long film – namely by expanding the titular walk to the dogs in fascinating and (intentionally) tormenting detail. On the one hand, this affects the intimate, human level: that of Tom Schilling (“Work without an author”) The excellently played title character begins the story cheerfully, carefree and wandering through the night (with a much more hedonistic touch than his more molarizing novel counterpart), then, fueled by sexual euphoria, he rushes into a romance that swallows him up… and then all his happiness gradually crumbles away from him . Partly it’s just bad luck, partly it’s our own mistakes, partly it’s due to inhumane politics.
“As the director explained at the Berlinale, his goal was for his ‘Fabian or the Go to the Dogs’ to be about as long as the reading time of the Kästner original. The alarm bell almost rings.”
How the initially ironic and mocking thief then becomes more and more cheeky and how his tenderness hidden in his tough demeanor ultimately disappears is charmingly depicted thanks to Schilling’s acting. And the direction and script find a tone that is difficult to resist: the love story between Jakob and Cornelia is touching – the chemistry between Schilling and Saskia Rosendahl (“My End. Your Beginning.”) is great, Graf captures the physicality between the characters wonderfully and Rosendahl’s performance brings out more nuances from her role than are presented on paper. Watching this couple fail is sobering. Fabian’s mocking humor about his setbacks is liberating, and yet it is always clear that it does little to distract from the impending catastrophe that is announced early on by the humming, warning score. The socio-political level of the film also benefits from the exuberant narrative style: Just as the flashbacks in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Elser – He would have changed the world” sketch a country that is slowly falling into right-wing ideology, Graf also shows a slow but unstoppable rise of the National Socialists their inhumane worldview. What initially appears to be just election posters hanging seemingly harmlessly between product advertisements and only causing discomfort to today’s, looking-back audience becomes an occasional flash of horror – until ultimately everything good in Fabian’s world is swallowed up.
“Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” is dressed in remarkable camera work.
Because this never becomes the focus of the story and is nevertheless noticeable throughout, Graf presents the social going to the dogs in an unpleasant way. It’s too obvious not to notice, but it’s so erratic and unpredictably timed that you have the opportunity to close your eyes prophylactically on an ignorant whim. The erratic aesthetics of “Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” give this compelling, uncomfortable story exactly the rough edges it deserves: similar to how costume designer Anna B. Sheppard did Quentin in “Inglourious Basterds” through targeted, subtle historical inaccuracies Underlining Tarantino’s extraordinary approach to the Second World War, costume designer Barbara Grupp subordinates herself to the fact that from a present-day, retrospective perspective, a narrative is brought to the screen that merely contained unpleasant premonitions. So instead of imitating a standard historical film and using detailed costumes to practice the pomp of reliving a time that Graf and Lieb shake their heads about in Kästner’s sense, Grupp interprets the late Weimar Republic freely. Some fashions are period-accurate, other times people walk around in real Berlin like stage actors or characters from a film of the time – and often the cut of a suit or dress is far too modern for the setting. There is a method to all of this, as Graf also jumps back and forth with the image material.
“Similar to how costume designer Anna B. Sheppard in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ underlines Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary approach to the Second World War through targeted, subtle historical inaccuracies, here costume designer Barbara Grupp subordinates herself to the fact that a story is told from a present-day, retrospective perspective the screen is brought, which merely contained unpleasant forebodings.”
He and “He’s back” cameraman Hanno Lentz show the action in razor-sharp, cool HD material, in a soft, grainy and warm film look and on worn Super 8 material. Occasionally the image is massively overexposed, so much so that even the protagonist can’t see exactly what he’s looking at, other times it seems as if 3/4 of the lamps on set have burned out. And a few minutes after Jakob Fabian and his Cornelia travel through the night in the jittery images of early sound films, tiny match cuts by editor Claudia Wolscht (“Not for cowards”), how much these lovers are on the same wavelength in bed. This media game, which also draws on 90-year-old archive material, never takes on such overwhelming proportions as in Adolf Winkelmann’s “Young Light”, in which the color saturation, contrast strength and image format constantly change. Graf takes it easy in this regard.
Nevertheless, the effect of these breaks in illusion remains clearly noticeable: it is not possible to let go, to completely immerse yourself in this setting, because memories of the artificiality of what is shown and of how many technical leaps have passed since the time described are repeatedly ripped from the film world . Reminding us that we should rethink what is being shown. Because at the same time it becomes clear how close we are to that time again. The characters step over stumbling blocks in a very casually harrowing scene, even though the reason for which they are laid has yet to happen in their world. In a few weeks, we, in turn, like Jakob and Cornelia, will be immersed in our banal everyday lives, worrying about trivialities, walking past the election posters of certain parties that openly stir up resentment and hatred or biliously wish misery on individual population groups. We can only hope that in our case the film breaks through the impending, guaranteed catastrophe and a film reel with a happy ending is inserted to make up for it.
Tom Schilling appears in one of his best roles in the lead role of Fabian.
Conclusion: “Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” is a magnificent, formally creative Erich Kästner film adaptation that more than does justice to the tragic original and the story surrounding it.
“Fabian or the Go to the Dogs” can be seen in USA cinemas from August 5, 2021.