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November 06, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Fabian: Going to the Dogs


Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde
Dominik Graf - 2021
Kino Lorber

The German author Erich Kastner is known, if he is known at all by contemporary audiences, as the author of the classic children's book, Emil and the Detectives. Even those unfamiliar with the name may have seen one of Disney's various The Parent Trap films, inspired by another novel for younger readers. Less know are Kastner's poem and writings for adults. Kastner''s only adult novel, Fabian, was published in 1931. Through his protagonist, unemployed advertising writer, Jacob Fabian, observes the breakdown of German Society, primarily through is relationships with various people living in the margins in Berlin. The short novel has been filmed previously by Wolf Gremm. Dominik Graf has made a much longer film, almost three hours, that has most of the novel's episodes, but misses Kastner's black humor even with some off-screen narration.

On its own terms, Graf's Fabian is still worth seeing. Graf mixes in some documentary footage shot on the streets of Berlin from the era, as well as a bit of grainy footage creating an expressionistic montage. While some of the characters and episodes from the novel are jettisoned, Graf's screenplay combines dialogue from the novel as well as dialogue that attempts to mimic Kastner's writing. Where the novel ends abruptly with what might be best described as a punchline, Graf lingers for several minutes with a cinematic epilogue. What may be the most questionable choice on the part of Graf is to make the character of Jacob Fabian closer to Erich Kastner by making him an aspiring novelist, and inserting headlines referring to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, underlining what Kastner presented as vague strokes in the background. Some of the dialogue is specific where Kastner merely suggests.

Fabian is known primarily by his last name by everyone he known in Berlin. The film more specifically takes place in 1931. The effects of World War I are still felt with unemployment, an unstable government, and an uncertain future. Every relationship, whether intended or not, is transactional. Fabian may have his own sense of morality, hence the novel's subtitle, The Story of a Moralist, but he generally chooses to be on the sidelines. While Berlin seen in the film will be of little surprise to those who are familiar with Weimar Germany, the more lurid aspects lack the glossiness of Cabaret or Babylon Berlin.

Graf begins his film with a long traveling shot with the camera descending into a subway stop in present day Berlin, emerging into Berlin of 1931 when back on the streets. Can I assume that Graf is trying to link the present day with the past, perhaps as some kind of warning? For myself, the film works best when it is most faithful Kastner's novel. It may be worth noting that Kastner's novel has been described as cinematic, and Kastner also tried his hand at screenplay writing. The soundtrack includes a mix of classical and avant-garde music as well as pointedly a jazz dance number by the mostly Jewish Weintraub's Syncopators.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 6, 2021 07:22 AM