Germany is on its postwar sickbed, and perched on the edge of self-destruction, in Dominik Graf’s epically sized yet intimately scaled, cracked picture of Weimar Berlin after WWI, and with omens of the next one creeping in. A 178-minute bildungsroman in the true sense, “Fabian – Going to the Dogs,” shot with primarily handheld digital camera and in the boxed-in Academy ratio, lives in the louche, twilit underworld of Berlin’s brothels, bars, and artist studios. While perhaps padding its running time too robustly with strange and often even grotesque side characters, the movie ultimately falls squarely on Tom Schilling’s shoulders, the idealist of the title who chooses falling in love over ambition.
At 32 years old, Jakob Fabian (Schilling, star of “A Coffee in Berlin”) is a 32-year-old war veteran back in the city and rattled by PTSD, which is somewhat keeping his literary aspirations at bay as he works by day as an ad man for a cigarette company. Based on Erich Kästner’s novel of the same name, “Going to the Dogs” is set in a curious moment for Germany, in 1931, in the four-year period between the market plummet of 1929 and the looming Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933. Everything is unstable, and life for a warman is hell, so Fabian frequents the debauched cabarets lining Berlin’s underbelly at night, which is how he meets Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Rosendahl, star of “Lore” and “Never Look Away”). She’s an aspiring actress who falls into his life just as Fabian loses his job amid a moment of peak unemployment for the nation (but also because he’s perennially underachieving and late).
Fabian and Cornelia lustily tumble into a romance otherwise antithetical to Fabian’s self-styled detachment and ironic, fatalistic regard for relationships, as a dissolute man of letters is wont to be. Cornelia, meanwhile, isn’t interested in love relationships, and her own professional ambitions far outweigh Fabian’s. She enters into a kind of Faustian setup with a lecherous film producer that drives Fabian into jealousy, and threatens their otherwise idyllic courtship of love letters and trips to the country.
Meanwhile, a political revolution is slowly building, as flashes of Nazi insignia come in and out of the frames, newspaper reports of Zeppelins in the midst suggest that a dark descending cloud is looming over the country’s already downtrodden spirit. But “Fabian – Going to the Dogs” is resistant to being fully political, and is instead a study of the clash between the more urbane citizens of Berlin (including Fabian’s posh academic friend Labude, played by Albrecht Schuch) and their more morally corrupt inverse (including the madame of a brothel who mysteriously tries to lure Fabian to work for her throughout the movie). “You have no ambition,” Labude tells Cabian. “I observe. Is that nothing?” he replies.
Dominik Graf’s previous films have include austere period dramas like “Beloved Sisters” and crime thrillers like “The Invincibles” and the popular mafia TV series “In the Face of Crime.” Written by Graf and Constantin Lieb, “Fabian – Going to the Dogs” is content to float in no particular genre, and thrives on, despite being set specifically in early 1930s Berlin, a disinterest in fidelity to period details. Barbara Grupp’s costume design isn’t always Weimar specific (a dress, for example, that Fabian gifts to Cornelia instead of paying rent looks strikingly contemporary) and the understated set design from Claus-Jürgen Pfeiffer can often look like we’re living in two periods at once, which is apropos of the movie’s concerns.
“Fabian – Going to the Dogs” is fascinating aesthetically because it unfolds like avant-garde jazz, with contrapuntal images functioning like split screens, especially in the movie’s rather harrowingly experimental first hour, and discordant editing from Claudia Wolscht can feel terrifying and expressionistic, especially as Fabian’s war-related trauma nightmares start introducing frightening, deformed, monstrous faces and other visual jolts. Everything has the glow of a fading orange sunrise, and the movie’s jittery hedonistic rhythms start to settle into something calmer, and arguably more conventional, as the movie goes on (which it does for quite a while).
Schilling, recently seen in another epic German portrait of the artist in “Never Look Away,” is compelling as a man trying to reconcile his big-picture aspirations with being a sellout, which Fabian can’t even seem to do well. The petite actor, who’s smaller than many of the co-stars he shares the screen with, may not seem like a go-to for the heroic and romantic, but his character embodies some of those attributes even as he starts to shrink, and become smaller, more pathetic and beaten down, as Germany begins running out of time.
In an underwritten role, Saskia Rosendahl is quite remarkable as Cornelia, a woman whom like everything else in his life, Fabian has idealized and treated as a vessel onto which to project his hopes and failures. (Women, like the clown car of prostitutes smothered in ghastly makeup and flung out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting from Lynchian hell, tend not to fare well here, and that may have something to do with misogyny in the source material.)
As the rudderless Fabian approximates the end of his hero’s journey, everything is all obviously hurtling in a predictably tragic direction. But Graf makes “Going to the Dogs” an unpredictable visual experience, bracingly experimental for a 68-year-old filmmaker who hasn’t run out of gas.
“Fabian – Going to the Dogs” premiered in competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.