Close to the Abyss: Dominik Graf Discusses "Fabian: Going to the Dogs"

The German director talks about his bravura adaptation of Erich Kästner's iconic Weirmar-era novel.
Daniel Kasman

Fabian or Going to the Dogs

Dominik Graf, one of contemporary cinema’s most vigorous and engaged filmmakers—not to mention prodigious, having made nearly 20 features in the last ten years—is making a welcome return to movie theaters. After the commercial failure of Die Sieger (The Invincibles, 1994), a big screen crime epic, Graf pivoted to focus on television movies, whose verve and density easily put to rest any argument about the cinematic capacity of the small screen. (His last “movie movie” was the excellent Beloved Sisters, an epistolary 19th century love triangle about Schiller that feels like a Scorsese picture.) All his TV movies are good, many are great; almost all are unknown outside Germany. Thus the release in cinemas of a new feature is a relatively rare opportunity for audiences to see a special filmmaker at work.

The caveat here is that like Hitchcock and Kubrick before him, and Fincher and Soderbergh now, Graf is obsessed with the idioms of genre cinema, but is also too knowing to master its transparent experience. He so thoroughly knows what makes a good commercial movie that in their eagerness to cleverly engage with popular moviemaking, Graf’s movies somehow escape that orbit and feel like elaborate and contrapuntal reinventions of what is flat craftsmanship everywhere else. His films are expansive and clever, frequently exhausting, and, more often than not, thrilling to experience.

His new film, Fabian - Going to the Dogs, is just that, through and through: Loose and a little wild, ragged on all its many edges, breakneck as the default speed of life, over gesticulating at times, enthralling at others. An adaptation of the iconic 1931 novel by Erich Kästner (known in the U.S. as the author of the story adapted into The Parent Trap) and set in Weimar-era Berlin with its hedonism and encroaching tentacles of Nazism, the story’s wayward writer hero (Tom Schilling), his romance with an “international film lawyer” and prospective film star Corniela (Saskia Rosendahl), and friendship with a rich socialist agitator (Albrecht Schuch) suggest such cinematic touchstones as Cabaret and Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as the more recent Berlin Babylon. But Graf forges his own path, and through the 180-minute runtime mostly rejects the sinister romantic nostalgia of the setting in favor of careening speed. The life of this young man is accelerated to embody the urgency of the zeitgeist, an existence living on the edge in an epoch on the precipice of catastrophe.

Fabian, as he exists in the film, is an unusual protagonist in that he is not a forceful hero, nor a milquetoast observant, nor a bumbling blockhead. He is, in fact, decidedly average (though winningly embodied as such by Schilling), which positions his journey in the film—from employed to broke, in love to despondent, apolitical to confronting his country’s future aghast—as surprisingly unremarkable. “Doing a lot, but going nowhere,” as someone remarks. Yet that journey is charged by the febrile energy of the moment, which Graf evokes through radically loose handheld camerawork, with a healthy dose of Super 8 footage mixed with digital cinematography in a 4:3 frame whose frothing contents pointedly look like almost nothing from the era. It’s an aggressive and abrasive style, swiftly edited and constantly moving and twisting; early scenes are similar to Guy Maddin’s hyperactive fantasy version of 1930s cinema and later ones to Michael Mann’s groundbreaking approach to big budget period films in Public Enemies, in which impressionistic digital cinematography at once renders the past more present and more alien for being so tactile.

This paradoxical push-and-pull is replete throughout Fabian, which can be swimmingly engrossing one moment, fully aligned with the pleasures and despair of its protagonist, and deliberately discordant the next, pushing us to the outskirts of the drama, so that we watch the frantic passions with a wry, ironic distance. Even when we join with Fabian’s perspective, attending an absurd burlesque show or touchingly lovelorn at his parent’s home in Dresden, the young man’s existence is as a specimen thrashing under glass, trying to make his way in a new world emerging before his eyes: post-war, crashing economy, flourishing arts, rising fascism, no easy answers. Already in our face via Graf’s confrontative style, the distance between then and now feels disturbingly within reach. The film’s opening, in fact, is a snaking documentary shot through Berlin’s subway today, catching contemporary commuters unaware, and continuing up to the street and finding itself in 1931—forging an underground continuity between our reality and their history.

We conversed with Graf over email about his distinctive adaptation, making a period picture in an iconic setting, and the epic journey of his Weimar protagonist.

NOTEBOOK: What is your relationship with the source novel’s author, Erich Kästner?

DOMINIK GRAF: I read all his children`s books and loved them—as most kids in West Germany did in postwar time. He was writing sketches for the Munich cabarets in the ‘50s, in which my mother also played. I met him once. He was on a jury for a student's “reader contest” in 1964, where I was in the final against a boy from Nuremberg. I lost. He is buried in the same beautiful cemetery as my parents. The church of this cemetery was the place in Antonioni’s The Passenger where Jack Nicholson meets the arm dealers.

NOTEBOOK: What was the approach you and your co-writer, Constantin Lieb, took to adapting the novel? What did you find absolutely necessary to retain, and where did you desire to diverge?

GRAF: Cornelia’s story had to be longer and less abruptly broken than in the novel, we thought. Constantin wrote that quite beautifully to a new ending, I believe, which, in a way, is no less cruel than the original. And on the other hand, we threw a few figures out, who seemed to us more like shadows, symbols than real people: for example, the inventor, who hides in Fabian's cupboard.

NOTEBOOK: You have only made a few period films, and Fabian bears little resemblance to your 19th century films, Das Gelübde and Beloved Sisters. At times the film has the radical digital looseness that recalls Hotte im Paradies and the first features you shot on DV, yet it also incorporates Super 8 footage. How did you and cinematographer Hanno Lentz decide to film the historical setting?

GRAF: There is a quote by Jean Eustache: “you have to film the light, because the light is the air of the time.”  It's as if Eustache maybe wanted to do a period piece, but in the end, he didn`t.  So I always tried to follow this device, in Der Felsen and Hotte mostly, you are right, but most intensely maybe here in Fabian. So we chose Super 8 to “film the air.” I also wanted to mix the materials, so we sometimes feel that there are different points-of-view on a scene, one in digi-camera, one in Super 8.  And the Super 8 always feels a bit like a documentary, or a holiday film shot by chance.

NOTEBOOK: It felt like you avoided the studio as much as possible. How did you choose the beautiful, period-specific locations?

GRAF: No studio. No way. When Fabian walks through the decorations and sets of Berlin Babylon in Studio Babelsberg it is meant by us more as a wormhole…

NOTEBOOK: The setting for the novel and your film is one which has a lasting allure to filmmakers and audiences. How did you want to intervene in portraying the Weimar era in comparison to canonical works like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 1980 version of the book,and the television show that you mentioned, Berlin Babylon?

GRAF: Fabian is a subject which takes place in the petit bourgeois society in—still it is called—“West Berlin,” “Friedenau,” and “Wilmersdorf.” There are no gangsters and no crime stories. It's far away from the Berlin underground myths told by Fritz Lang, Alfred Döblin, A. Kutscher... But it has its places, like the “Ruth Reiter Studio,” where no one can tell if it is an art school or a brothel.

NOTEBOOK: You work so frequently—do you try things in one film that you then carry over into another? Was there anything you did in your last films that you applied here? Similarly, since I know you’re already in production, what from this film are you carrying into your next?

GRAF: Good question. Yes I think, there are a few direct lines in my filmography, where one film influenced the next one. Very clearly in the Mini-DV-time from the film essay Munich: Secrets of a City to Map of the Heart to Friends of the Friends to Hotte. But there are also times where I am convinced I have to do something very different to the last film before, I have to free myself from a style that could become a cliché.

NOTEBOOK: The ordinariness of Fabian makes him a somewhat unusual character to set a story around. He is sexually active but not a hedonist. He is liberal but not radical. He is not a man of extremes—except perhaps in love. Do you see him as a man emblematic of his time?

GRAF: He’s normal in a way. Around him—except Cornelia—are only madmen, no?

NOTEBOOK: Fabian’s best friend, Labude, is an interesting figure: Rich, but an agitator; apparently a brilliant doctoral candidate. What importance does he hold to Fabian? Is their friendship in contrast to Fabian’s love for Cornelia?

GRAF: Labude is a bourgeois revolutionary with a big heart and a sad soul. In the ‘60s he could have become a Red Army Faction-man, or he could have financed terrorists like some Italian rich kids did then.  He is a sponsor of Fabian, he admires him, thinks he is an artist—but that he should do something useful to the devastated Weimar society, first of all bring his talent together to write something “J’accuse-like.” But Fabian is a petit bourgeois who wants to become famous for his brilliant writing. Sometimes  I compared them to Butch Cassidy (Fabian) and the Sundance Kid (Labude). They are completely different and they lean against each other so neither of them falls.

NOTEBOOK: The novel itself is quite slender, but you grant Fabian and his story a wide expanse of cinematic time. What was it about his journey that suggested to you an epic?

GRAF: Because it is a “novel without a story,” as Kästner himself said.  So you can tell scenes which consist of nothing but atmosphere. You can lengthen this feeling of being lost, close to an abyss, you see them all go to the dogs and you stand nearby and watch because it is interesting. On the other hand, I wanted to have Kästner’s language in the film, hear him speak (the male narrator sounds a bit like him), and listen to his funny, witty way of bringing things to a mostly surprising point. All this takes time in film. I am awfully glad they gave me that time, as with the Beloved Sisters. Maybe we all will one day have enough of TV films and series and endless dramas in the same way—in German we call it “Formate”—in which all are pressed into the same storytelling system.  Film is more than tightly told drama. Film tells the whole world—not only stories.

NOTEBOOK: The story of a man navigating a world on the precipice of fascism has obvious relevance today, but also has a tragically perennial quality to it. How did you come to make this movie now? 

GRAF: Fabian, the novel, is a wonderful example of freewheeling descriptions, just situations, feelings, opinions—of describing a few persons at a certain moment of time. The scenes are nearly all Kästner.  It’s like jazz music, an endless improvisation. I don’t really care what my films mean to an audience, whether they like it or not. I  hate the word “content” which explains today all the terrible prison-like formats in the world of series. I love film. I feel more like an explorer, going into times, situations, or conflicts, but also just into moments flowing on and on—and see what I can get from it.

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