German author Erich Kästner is most celebrated for the children’s novel Emil and the Detectives, but he was one of the more renowned men of letters of his day, publishing poetry, reviews, and satirical columns in Berlin liberal newspapers like Berliner Tageblatt and Vossische Zeitung––both of which were shut down as the Third Reich ascended to power. His novel Fabian – Going to the Dogs was published earlier in 1932, but is now perceived as a prophetic harbinger for the Weimar Republic’s demise. And of course, notions of liberal democracy’s twilight are rich in the minds of artists and commentators today, so here we have German literary film-specialist Dominik Graf with a timely and maybe predictable adaptation of Fabian.

Except, as sundry early viewers of Fabian have identified, this is a story and milieu bathed in overfamiliarity, and Graf’s three-hour film version doesn’t distinguish itself well enough from definitive prior takes on this era. These number Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and its blander but still potent transposition in Cabaret, the more modernist Berlin Alexanderplatz novel and film, István Szabó’s Mephisto––even the pioneering Amazon Prime series Transparent was able to put the era’s climate of sexual liberation and experimentation in a fresh context. Graf’s Fabian resolutely attaches itself to a perspective afforded far more scrutiny and hesitation now: that of the fashionably shambolic, priapic white male anti-hero, the complex sexual and social mores of the time filtered through his gaze and agency. Although Graf applies some interesting, modernist distancing techniques, this is still a semi-classic literary tale related in a dourly classical manner, absent of a sense of self-awareness or Barry Lyndon-alike ironic distance that would truly identify it as a product of 2021. 

Our protagonist is Dr. Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a one-time German literary specialist disenchanted with academia, and now writing cigarette factory advertising copy whilst dreaming of artistic fame. He’s the kind of brooding man who would surely have a despondent and wisecracking Twitter account now. His recreational life is depicted in more detail, not really examining a certain underachiever-pathology––moreso showing, in the British sense, what a ‘lad’ or committed hedonist he is: bulldozing through his locale’s finest sex clubs, cabarets and beer halls, and lolling around indulgently with his more upper-class writer pal Labude (Albrecht Schuch). 

These immoderate appetites begin to plunge Fabian into a greater inferno, abetted by a relationship he initiates with the young, beautiful Cornelia (Lore’s Saskia Rosendahl), a legal assistant at a prominent Berlin film studio (not specified, but clearly based on UFA––the domain of Lang and von Sternberg, before it was handed over to Goebbels). His relationships with Labude, whose academic work is suppressed by the Nazi-sympathetic establishment, and Cornelia, whose thespian talents catch the eye of an unpleasant film mogul, form dual, parallel pathways leading inexorably towards tragedy.

It’s worth celebrating the stylistic panache and sense of proportion Graf does convey here. The film’s first hour has the twitchy restlessness of Olivier Assayas’s 90s work: dueling male and female voiceovers pepper the scenes, offering the odd tart aperçu––say, the male one will hint of a coming sexual humiliation, and then we see it happen with mordantly fatalistic effect. Period-appropriate exterior scenes are rejected in favor of black-and-white archival footage of Berlin streets. And Graf draws the tragic denouement out with an unfashionable degree of patience, admirably showing rather than didactically telling. 

The film’s polemical thrust is in showing the recursiveness of history: almost a century on, the apparent lure of fascist thought is still alive and well as a reaction to feelings of exclusion and disenfranchisement in popular society. But Christian Petzold in Transit found a more intuitive way with his Brechtian embrace of artifice, to blend our respective experiences of mutual social collapse. Fabian – Going to the Dogs is well-meaning, but Schilling’s portrayal of Fabian is a poor symbol for this malaise.

Fabian – Going to the Dogs premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and will be released by Kino Lorber.

Grade: B-

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