Premiering at the 2021 Berlinale and acquiring an armful of trophies at the German Film Awards, Dominik Graf’s version of Erich Kästner’s Weimar Republic-set novel recreates the hedonism, nihilism and economic pressures of early 1930s Germany.
This latest version of Erich Kästner’s seminal novel Fabian: Going to the Dogs comes in at just under three hours long but hand on heart, it did not in any way feel overlong.
There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that veteran German director Dominik Graf has firm control over proceedings, which allows him to use a variety of images, film stock, and pacing choices to mirror Kästner’s writing and bring to life the exciting and yet troubled world of Berlin in 1931. Split screens, authentic black and white footage and even working on Super 8 create a (deliberately) chaotic feel to the world which his characters inhabit.
Graf’s casting choices are another positive. Tom Schilling plays Jakob Fabian, an advertising copywriter with ambitions to be an author. Wartime experiences have left him cynical, and he spends much of his time observing his surroundings from the sidelines, using what he sees as fodder for his personal writing. Even on evenings out at the cabaret with his wealthy friend Labude (Albrecht Schuch) he mostly takes a back seat – until he meets Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) and begins a whirlwind romance. Cornelia is a law student hoping to become an actress and is every bit the match for Fabian – they sweep each other off their feet and seemingly exist above the economic crisis and political rumblings around them.
Intriguingly, Schilling and Rosendahl manage to be both modern and yet of the period at the same time. While their costumes and makeup are absolutely not 21st century, nor do they feel entirely 1930s either – they appear to inhabit some kind of timeless space where they are part of the contemporary Weimar experience, and also extremely relevant to undercurrents happening now, 90 years on.
Because what viewers already know is coming – and what is faintly but increasingly in the background of the couple’s day-to-day experience – is the spectre of National Socialism. Kästner’s own books were burned under the Nazi regime, and Graf skilfully references this as the story reaches its conclusion.
The narrative events span only a few months in historical terms, but pack in so much both in terms of political and social changes, together with a spectrum of lifestyles and individuals struggling to survive in uncertain economic times. Like its main characters, Fabian: Going to the Dogs is at once historical and contemporary – surely we’re not destined for a repeat in the 21st century?
Were it not for the success of I’m Your Man as Germany’s favoured home-grown film last year, I’m sure Fabian: Going to the Dogs would have received a much higher profile, and I heartily recommend investing the time to watch it.