Fabian: Going to the Dogs (Kino Lorber, NR)

It’s 1931 and Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling) is enjoying the freedom available to a young man in Weimar Berlin. At age 32, he’s already lived through World War I, hyperinflation, and the stock market crash, and is inclined to grab his pleasures where he can. Fabian lives in a rooming house and works in the advertising department of a cigarette factory, but his real life begins after dark, where he crams in the maximum possible amount of debauchery. There are signs of the Nazi rise to power, but they don’t affect Fabian directly, and overall he’s pretty pleased with himself and his lifestyle.

Fabian falls for Cornelia Battenberg* (Saskia Rosendahl), who is beautiful and has ambitions to be an actress. She’s also no fool, and is willing to use her charms to gain the favor of a film producer (Aljoscha Stadelmann) who could help her career. Fabian condemns her, but then he loses his job (for tardiness or excessive literary ambition, take your pick) and begins to learn what life is like for those less fortunate than his former self. Occasional appearances by a rich friend (Albrecht Schuch) and his family serves as yet another reminder of how different life is for the rich and the poor.

Director Dominik Graf and Constantin Lieb adapted the screenplay for Fabian from a 1931 novel by Erich Kästner (yes, the same guy who wrote Emil and the Detectives). The film throws a variety of disruptive techniques at the viewer—including odd camera angles, distorted palettes, newsreel fragments, title cards with a piano soundtrack recalling silent films, and narration by a voice much older than that belonging to the Fabian we see—which create a strong distancing effect and echo Fabian’s preference to live life at a remove.

At 176 minutes, Fabian is a long film, but it’s never boring, due in part to commited acting performances and top-notch production values as well as the variety of visual material Graf throws on the screen. It can be a bit disconcerting to watch, particularly if you’re used to the Hollywood invisible style, but Graf’s approach is true to the spirit of the novel and mimics the confusion in Fabian’s head as well as the disruption of German society in the 1930s.  

Fabian: Going to the Dogs was nominated for Best Film at several festivals, including the Berlin International Film Festival, and won three awards at the 2021 German Film Awards (Lolas): Golds for Best Cinematography (Hanno Lentz) and Best Editing (Claudia Wolscht), and Silver for Outstanding Feature Film (Felix von Boehm). | Sarah Boslaugh

*The choice of her name is likely no accident: the Battenbergs were a branch of the ruling family of Hesse, and many of them emigrated to Britain in the early 20th century, where they changed their surname to Mountbatten to hide its German origins. You could say they were opportunists—in the sense of people with special privileges using them to better their position in life—just as Cornelia is doing in 1930s Germany.

Fabian: Going to the Dogs is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and is available for digital streaming through Kino Now. I reviewed it through a streaming link, but the Kino Lorber web page indicates that the DVD and Blu-ray discs include an audio commentary by film critic Olaf Möller and the film’s trailer.

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