Movie Review: “Fabian” witnesses Germany “Going to the Dogs”

The potent warnings about about how societies descend into fascism are scattered throughout “Fabian: Going to the Dogs,” a German drama about the people, attitudes and conditions of 1931 Weimar Germany, based on a novel published as it was happening.

Nazis aren’t seen that often in the movie, about a young ad-man’s romantic despair, distress at the decline of a friend and unemployment. He side-eyes the occasional goons, always traveling in groups, practicing random acts of intimidation. He and we glimpse the political posters papered over a somewhat anarchic, decadent Berlin. Radio reports of anti-Semitic diatribes by the fringed, uniformed political party’s leadership are sampled.

And late, very late in the third act, a seemingly responsible, educated older academic uses the word “order,” as in something the country desperately needs to restore, thanks mostly to over-dressed SA dandies kidnapping diners in crowded restaurants while everybody else either pretends not to see, or wishes someone would “do something” about this.

But in “Fabian,” such overt, chilling messaging is scattered throughout a three hour long movie. The metaphors — diners listening to (playerless) player pianos, carrying on via auto-pilot as all this is going on, a real suicide that foreshadows national, cultural suicide, the expedience of pursuing fame by prostituting oneself while love is left to languish — are equally scattered.

In a film this long, with so many conversations, so many unhurried searches, flirtations, interventions and languors and enough cigarettes sucked down to sink the Bismarck, all the distractions from the Big Theme do is make one mutter, “Gott im Himmel, get ON with it! Get to the POINT!”

Tom Schilling is the title character, a 30something WWI vet given to bar hopping at the cabarets, smoking a lot of ciggies and being late to work and with his rent. His rich, entitled pal Labude (Albrecht Schuch) may be in grad school, waiting for his thesis on am 18th writer to be accepted. But at least he’s out there, trying to organize workers into unions, agitating for change.

Whatever the Nazis, Socialists and Communists want individually, what they all scream for is an end to the Social Democrats, the status quo. Not that any of these minority parties could ever come to power, oh no. Ahem.

“I don’t believe reason and power will ever unite” to stop them, Fabian muses (in German, with English subtitles). He’s a writer, collecting anecdotes, phrases, observations in his notebooks as he prowls the night and stands in the unemployment line in the day. We see him dismissed from his ad writing job in the worst “You think you’re too smart for this work, let’s find out” ever.

But one night he meets the young “film industry lawyer” Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Ronsendahl). And on a long, leisurely wander through the (carefully chosen, to reflect age and post-WWI decay) streets of Berlin, they chat and flirt and find out — eventually — that she’s the new tenant in his homey apartment house.

He doesn’t tell her until after the sex, of course.

Cornelia is pretty enough to be in films, not litigating contracts for them. And she knows it. A producer has his eye on her, which could be “their” lifeline, should he choose to “keep” her, with Fabian running out of cash and all.

That’s the big moral compromise at the heart of this tale of exhausted, avoidance-driven decadence. Fabian may invite homeless vets to join them at lunch in cafes, chat up his fellow veterans of “The war, the damned war” in lines. But he’s doing nothing more than taking notes.

Everybody is waiting on someone unseen to “DO something” about all this. And no one does. Maybe those guys in the brown shirts and jack boots have some ideas.

Filmmaker Dominic Graf, who directed and co-wrote the adaptation of Erich Kästner’s twice-filmed “cinematic” novel (he was best known as a children’s lit author, “The Parent Trap” was based on one of his books), saved a lot of money on sets and period recreations by limiting the light in the Weimar era nightclubs and rooms (throw pillows in a pool of light) and using unretouched and uncolorized documentary footage of the streets and people on them to capture the Berlin, 1931 effect.

A tram here, a car there, a little attention to wardrobe, and contrasting haircuts (a Hitler/Himmler buzz was the dead give-away somebody was a Nazi) and we get an idea of what this world looked like.

But “Fabian” fails to immerse us in that world, and being as leisurely as a limited series in its pacing, loses the urgency of what to later audiences can only be a “cautionary” tale. The video cinematography is grainy and 1990s TV quality.

Brothels and “kept women” and transvestites aside, it never feels all that decadent. And their world never feels as if its alarmingly spinning towards its doom, both of which may be precisely the point Graf was going for.

It’s just that dawdling this much, spreading your incidents over this much time, makes for somewhat dull cinema, with our “searching for himself” hero (Schilling looks a bit like a German Andrew McCarthy) losing track of what’s important in a smoke-screen of his own creation.

Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, constant smoking

Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Ronsendahl, Albrecht Schuch

Credits: Dominic Graf, scripted by Constantin Lieb and Dominic Graf, based on the novel by
Erich Kästner. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 2:56

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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