Dominik Graf has been busy turning out termite art for decades. Finding a home on German TV shows like Tatort and Police Call 310, which air feature-length episodes with self-contained storylines, his work is modest but powerful, somewhere between Michael Mann and Johnnie To. Though subject of a retrospective at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in 2019, he has only recently received much attention outside Germany. His dedication to genre cinema––to which he has devoted two documentaries––and disdain for New German Cinema helps explains this, as does the infrequency with which subtitled TV is imported here. Two of his best films, Cold Spring and Bitter Innocence, are acridly cynical examinations of capitalism’s effect on German family life, mixing family melodrama with thriller.
Fabian: Going to the Dogs takes seemingly familiar ground and breathes new life into it. Set in 1931, it shows the gradual rise of fascism as a backdrop to the tragedies of its characters’ lives. The title character (Tom Schilling) has a degree in literature but gets laid off. He finds new work as a doorman, meeting the madam of an all-male brothel. He spends his nights in Berlin’s thriving cabarets, lit to a beautifully warped yellow glow. His friend Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schucht) engages in leftist political activism, and he meets an actress, Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), and falls for her. While evoking films like Cabaret and Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fabian creates a sense of the past as a real, vivid place where the viewer spends three hours as we know these characters will have to compromise to carry on living under the coming Nazi regime. Graf’s use of split-screen, aggressive editing, and variety of film and video formats create a vibrant urgency.
The Film Stage talked with Graf shortly before the U.S. release of Fabian: Going to the Dogs, which is now playing at Metrograph in-person and virtually, and will expand.
The Film Stage: What appealed to you about Tom Schilling as the lead for Fabian?
Dominik Graf: I would not have made this film if Tom Schilling had not wanted to play the role. For me he is the ideal actor for this complex main character Fabian, and as an embodiment of Fabian he is uniquely able to connect Kästner’s era and the Berlin of the Weimar Republic with our present time with great immediacy. I also think Fabian is a timeless figure, completely anchored in those Berlin years, but at the same time a stranger in the flow of his time. Trying to be uninvolved, he is an almost joyful chronicler of the decline around him, but then his emotions sweep him away.
How do you perceive the love story in relation to the rise of fascism in Fabian‘s background?
I find it interesting when we try to approach history through personal, private, and intimate stories: what interested me most in our adaptation was the character triangle of Labude, Fabian, Cornelia. In this constellation, of course, one senses an incredible emotionality from the moment Cornelia enters the terrain, though with a “tilt” toward despair early on. Fabian, after all, suspects from the start that this cannot end well. He is built in such a way that the moment he meets Cornelia he already sees her saying goodbye. Then it actually happens at an early point in time where he is totally surprised by the way it happens—he is caught off-guard and thinks that the temporary separation might even be good for the future.
The most hypocritical, insidious cliché of all the euphemisms about catastrophes: “We have to change so that things stay the same.” Fabian and Cornelia—it’s a really great kind of love story, which actually makes it very clear that poor Labude has no business being in there. He still has another world, another kind of misfortune as an outcast of his parents. And so the three of them are, emotionally, very strongly drawn together in the film—”pushed together” in sorrow, so to speak. I find that in Constantin Lieb’s script the three create a community of sufferers that is somewhat different from in the novel.
Parts of Fabian were shot in Super 8. How much of it was digital?
About 80 percent of the film was shot digitally, and then we integrated self-shot Super 8 sequences as well as black-and-white archival footage of Berlin into the montage. It was a very musical process.
Did you find any danger of simply copying old films’ styles when evoking ‘30s newsreels and Expressionist cinema through interpolation of real footage and the use of split screen?
The basic idea was to imbue this cosmos, where we are going to spend the next three hours, from the very beginning with a sense of chaos, simultaneity, and mental overload. People are being torn away by time, washed away. You cannot—and should not—get it all at once. That’s what we wanted to achieve, so once the love story begins, we can concentrate entirely on the three characters.
Was Fabian shot entirely in Berlin? If not, how did you choose settings around Germany? Did you want the illusion of seamlessness?
We shot most of the film in Görlitz and the surrounding area. There’s a very good stock of building quite reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Berlin. In the selection of the architecture we wanted to use, my production designer Claus-Jürgen Pfeiffer and I were particularly interested in the contrast between the heavy historicism of the Emperor Wilhelm era and the crisp modernism of avant-garde architects like Mies van der Rohe: part of Villa Labude is shot in his pavilion.
What was the film’s budget? Did that bring any constraints?
We had less money than for my film Beloved Sisters. On the other hand, the film turned out to be relatively long because we allowed it to play out the more lush moods in detail: the “Cabaret of the Anonymous,” the pubs, the cafés––all that already gave the film a certain breadth in terms of the concept. Kästner himself has said that his novel has no story. No, it’s not a Netflix series with mechanized plot points and cliffhangers; it’s a string of situations arrayed like pearls. And at the same time it also became a kind of “little dirty movie”––a term coined by Alexander Kluge that I’ve always loved. Small, dirty, and long. On the big screen.
When did you first read Going to the Dogs? How long have you wanted to direct an adaptation?
I first read the novel in 1979—appropriately enough, in West Berlin. I found much of it entrancing, great literature, the love story above all, the dialogues, the descriptive observations. At the time, Wolf Gremm was filming his version of the material. Then, in 2014, the unabridged Fabian was published for the first time. The plan to make another film based on it arose immediately. After a futile first attempt, Felix von Boehm approached me in 2016, already with a screenplay by Constantin Lieb in hand. His adaptation stayed close to the characters, bypassing some narrative escapades and figures that also seemed too metaphorical to me, like the figure of the inventor.
I saw the chance to turn it into a kind of love story between Fabian and Cornelia, played out in the street and the café––episodic and sprawling, trying to capture the time around it with sparse means. You can’t boil down such a book to a dramatic engine in the manner of modern serial dramaturgy. You have to shorten it, but I think all of Kästner’s scenes and situations and moods that are in the film must be fully told. In every respect. I also think of Fabian as a timeless figure––completely anchored in those Berlin years, but simultaneously a stranger in the stream of his time. Trying to be uninvolved, he is an almost joyful chronicler of the decline around him, but then the emotions sweep him along.
Is the scene in the tunnel at the beginning meant as a way of saying “we’re going into the past”?
I wanted to create a connection to the present. The idea came from a shot that Felix von Boehm––the producer––made for himself, just for fun. He walked through the entire train station. I thought it was great to start in a documentary way, in the here and now, in the banality of the 2020s, surrounded by turn-of-the-century architecture and all the little people with their little backpacks and their hip leisurewear who then all pile up and stand in line at a staircase on the left—which leads to where, please? It seemed almost eerie to me. They move like lemmings or disciples of a new cult, and at the same time we take our camera through the tunnel, into the past. We reach the light and at the same time we land in one of Germany’s darkest times—when it does not even know yet how dark it will become.
Fabian: Going to the Dogs is now playing at Metrograph in-person and virtually, and will expand.