Berlinale 2021 review: Fabian – Going to the Dogs (Dominik Graf)

The revolutionary spirit of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is alive and well in the mind of Dominik Graf, a director who has left a similarly indelible impression on genre filmmaking with decades of provoking structure and intention in his films. His most recent film Fabian – Going to the Dogs (Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde) shows similar traits to his iconoclastic compatriot who consistently pushed the boundaries of the medium, with a dedication to demonstrating some harrowing moments in German history over the past century embedded in this story. Towards the beginning of the film, a minor character refers to the social situation as “usual and unusual“, which is a perfect encapsulation of this incredibly complex ode to Germany during the period between the two World Wars that occurred on either end of what is normally referred to as the Weimar Republic era. A bold and intrepid drama with slight hints of darkly comical satire, Fabian is an astonishing achievement, a profoundly effective tapestry of a particular era in Germany’s past, diving deep into the changing mentalities of the people who populated big cities such as Berlin, which were later irrevocably changed by a kind of social hysteria that impacted the course of the nation’s history. This is all woven together with precision and frank honesty by a filmmaker whose work reflects a keen interest and understanding of this period, especially in how Graf deconstructs many social concepts in his effort to be as original and insightful as we could expect from such a wildly ambitious premise.

The changing face of Germany in the early 1930s is channeled through the perspective of the titular character, a young academic who feels the burden of a nation in flux, particularly when he is forced out of a decent job for being too ambitious, his goals being impossibly high for someone of his social status. His life becomes one defined by polarity – by day, he is pursuing a simple life as a strait-laced bureaucrat, while by night he finds himself thrust into the debauchery that defined the city and its populace after dark in the 1930s. In this version of Berlin, cabarets and brothels are shown to be the most virtuous of institutions, giving work to those who need it, and satiating the peculiar desires of those who seek them out on any given evening. This contrasts sharply with the growing political tensions that were even more corrupt than the libertine lifestyles of those who populated Berlin’s controversial nightlife at the time. While life is momentarily defined by engaging in bourgeois hedonism, Fabian yearns for something more, especially as he develops an appreciation for the brief moments of hope that exist in a cultural landscape being driven to madness by shifting mentalities and changes in social, political, and economic structures. In his mind, there is something more to life, and to this city – and as he says to his beloved towards the end of the film, he is in search of “[her] Berlin, if it still exists“, an elusive concept that he believes has more to offer than what he sees transpiring around him.

Any social drama set in 1930s Germany is going to likely deal with the presence of Nazism to some degree, and Fabian is no exception. However, instead of addressing the rise of this ideology directly, Graf is increasingly creative in how he represents its growth. Never addressed directly by name, but rather inserted into the film through the gradual encroaching of Nazi imagery on the cultural landscape, such as through posters, insignia and changes in the architecture, the film finds subtle ways to comment on how Berlin was on the verge of socio-political devastation, without centering the entire film on the subject. Instead, it uses this dogmatic milieu as the backdrop for a fascinating character study of a young man making his way through Germany in an era of significant change. For Fabian, his occupation was simply living life and experiencing its many challenges – and Tom Schilling’s magnificent performance anchors the film. His smaller frame and soft-spoken demeanour concealing a ferocity that allows him to command the screen, the camera constantly inching uncomfortably close to him, penetrating his psychological state. He is a complex protagonist, functioning as a dashing hero and despicable scoundrel in tandem, and representing the existential angst that many experienced during this time of cultural transformation, which is slowly and inevitably taking over the lives of every unsuspecting citizen.

This is a film that challenges the viewer to look beyond the obvious, and propels us to instead focus on what is lurking just out of sight. Graf crafts a vaguely terrifying image of the city, which he portrays as slowly descending into a grotesque version of itself. The story coalesces into a carnivalesque portrayal of the final days of the Weimar Republic, with eccentric characters engaging in free-spirited debauchery, while sinister desires underpin every activity, as they try to escape the steadily declining social system that surrounds them. The loss of morals and uncertainty of the future directly contrasts with the growing political unease that Graf carefully curates, his intentions being to present an image of what is termed ‘the eternal post-war chaos’ that abounded in every faction of society at the time. The constant questioning of every event as being possibly political reveals the paranoia that defined the period, and the insistence that everything had ulterior motives, whether it be a drive-by shooting outside an unemployment office, or a drunkard pursuing his beloved. This is a nation on the verge of irrevocable change, from which there is not much possibility of turning back.

Fabian is certainly a film driven more by a particular mood and atmosphere, rather than an entirely linear storyline. As is quite typical for Graf, the style of the film varies throughout (frequent use of hand-held digital cameras lends it the appearance of a renegade punk rock documentary in some moments, which is entirely appropriate considering the volatile nature of the story), and we notice the attention being given to the smallest details. Subtle alterations in architecture, shifting character motivations and changing behavioural patterns all attest to Graf’s portrait of a radically fluctuating Germany. As was the case with Fassbinder, who seems to linger as a spectre over this film, the director’s vision is informed by layering hardened cynicism with a peculiar tenderness, showing a particular method to the madness that thrives throughout the film and provides it necessary depth and insight. Fabian functions as a profoundly complex glimpse into a particular period in German history, which here takes the form of a nihilistic search for meaning in a world that does not make much sense, and the combination of bleak social satire and bittersweet romance forms a compelling film about the spiritual and mental journey of a young man through an era he cannot quite understand. An absolutely masterful provocation of both form and content, this is a powerful historical manifesto that takes us on a deeply unsettling journey through Germany in a time of immense, and perhaps even outright terrifying, transformation.