Though little known in the English-speaking world, Erich Kästner’s slim novel originally translated in 1932 as “Fabian. The Story of a Moralist” is a brilliantly astute rendering of life in Weimar Berlin, straightforward and yet surreal, witty and perverse. To tackle it in cinema would seem like an impossible task, and while Dominik Graf’s “Fabian – Going to the Dogs” is to be commended for getting quite a lot right, the movie is blowsy where the book is succinct, awkwardly paced and portentous where Kästner is consistently rhythmical and unpretentious. Set in a teetering world of dissoluteness and disillusion in which a good man without professional ambition awakens to life’s promise only to have it all torn away, the story has modern resonances that Graf (“The Beloved Sisters” among many others) keenly underlines, and while the film’s core is affectingly developed, the rest tries too hard to expose the empty rapaciousness of exhausted decadence.
Given the evergreen popularity of depictions of life in the Weimar Republic, “Fabian” will generate a certain interest, yet the three-hour running time is going to hinder sales, and the opening section’s determined jumble of images, seemingly designed to evoke the cinematic equivalent of a Georg Grosz painting, could well turn viewers off before they get to the meat of the film. When Fassbinder made “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he built up the story with such narrative cohesion that the final surreal episode shatters any complacency, mimicking Germany’s rupture when the Nazis took over. Graf does almost the opposite, bombarding us with quickly edited images that destabilize before we’ve had a chance to get our bearings. Moving from that to more traditional storytelling feels like a misguided experiment.
The opening consists of a clever tracking shot in Berlin’s Heidelberger Platz metro today, gliding through the station and up the stairs into daylight, when the time frame suddenly shifts to 1931. Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), 32, lacking professional direction, works as an advertising copy writer for a cigarette company. At an underground club, he meets Irene Moll (Meret Becker), a voracious sexual predator springing from some Freudian fever dream; she takes him home, where her unperturbed husband tells him he needs to sign a contract before sleeping with his wife. To Mrs. Moll’s frustration, Fabian leaves.
These scenes and the ones that immediately follow are a bombardment of visual teasers, mixing split-screen, fast-forward and black-and-white archival footage in a rapid montage interspersed with cheap cabaret scenes, overlaid with an artificially solemn voiceover that adds a postmodernist vibe conveying an unwanted level of derision. The goal appears to be sensory overload, full immersion in a recreation of frenzied Weimar hedonism leading to perdition, but the placement is all wrong, and it’s with relief that we arrive at the film’s literal heart, when Fabian meets international film lawyer and wannabe actress Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Rosendahl).
The encounter takes place in a nightclub (in the book, it’s in the studio of lesbian sculptress Ruth Reiter). He offers to walk her home, only to discover they’re both boarding in the same house. Graf satisfyingly teases out the electric connection between these two, capturing Fabian’s love-induced sense of purpose alongside Cornelia’s calming intelligence, and the way their story is developed makes us feel even more invested in the relationship than Kästner’s words. When Fabian’s comforting mother (Petra Kalkutschke) comes for a brief visit, everything seems perfect, even though he’s lost his job. But then Cornelia agrees to become the mistress of film producer Makart (Aljoscha Stadelmann) while still wanting to maintain their relationship, and everything starts to crumble.
Added to the mix is Fabian’s best friend Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a graduate student with a thesis on German Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Though the son of a wealthy lawyer, Labude is a firm believer in leftist political change. Disillusionment makes him the film’s tragic figure and a stand-in for the fragility of idealism soon crushed under Hitler’s juggernaut. Labude is the disenchanted scion of exhausted capitalism, sympathetic but weak, contrasted by Fabian’s unaligned bourgeois moralist whose search for basic goodness will equally, banally, lead to catastrophe.
Graf is especially eager to make audiences draw parallels between then and now, underlining wherever possible an equivalence between the heated pre-War atmosphere of dissipated pleasure-seeking and today, deliberately acknowledging all the history in-between — he even incongruously includes a shot of people walking over “Stolpersteine,” those brass plaques covering cobble stones that commemorate people deported to Nazi concentration camps. That’s a subtler silent commentary than many others, and it’s perplexing why the director felt the need to repetitively over-signal upcoming plot points, such as frequent shots of posters advertising swimming lessons.
Also curious is the way he doubles down on the nightmarish depiction of women that Kästner himself was criticized for, turning Mrs. Moll into more of a monstrous succubus than in the novel. That’s not even mentioning the parade of crass lesbians and tired prostitutes who equally appear in the book, juxtaposed with the pure goodness of the mother figure, yet precisely because legitimate accusations of misogyny dodge the original, one would expect Graf to address them in a more balanced manner.
A saving grace through it all is Schilling and Rosendahl, anchoring the emotional pull with projections of warmth and sincerity so appealing that Fabian’s initial cynicism is saved from feeling off-putting. It also helps that Graf and co-writer Constantin Lieb keep much of the book’s witty dialogue. Though styled in a vaguely period way, the two characters are deliberately made timeless in order to further the connection with the present. The same applies to the camerawork, which plays on the contrasts between highly stylized sequences (including some shot on Super 8) and a very modern sensibility despite being shot in Academy ratio.