It is a welcome sight indeed to find 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—in the spotlight of the Berlinale’s competition. 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 a premiere in Berlin is a relatively rare opportunity for an international audience 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 (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, 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.