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“After a Promising Beginning, The Producer Absconded”: Dominik Graf on Fabian: Going to the Dogs

Tom Schilling and Saskia Rosendahl in Fabian: Going to the DogsSaskia Rosendahl and Tom Schilling in Fabian: Going to the Dogs

Erich Kästner’s Fabian: The Story of a Moralist (republished in 2012 by New York Review of Books as Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist), though less known in the West than the contemporaneous Berlin Alexanderplatz or the works of Mann and Rilke, was highly regarded in Germany in the aftermath of World War II for its depiction of life in Berlin just prior to Hitler’s rise to power. That life—as Kästner sees it—is degraded by sexual promiscuity and economic depression, and although Kästner uncritically reflects his protagonist’s tendency to dismiss the escapades of men as humorous and forgivable and those of women as devious and corrupting, his wit and style propel an honest look at a conflicted man unable to swim against the current. 

Like many other writers of the time, Kästner was clearly influenced by cinematic montage, as is particularly evident in the nightclub and brothel scenes and exteriors, which “cut” frenetically to introduce different characters and elide small talk. That style is transposed back to cinema in Fabian: Going to the Dogs, Dominik Graf’s 176-minute adaptation of the 280-page book. Although Graf is largely true to the novel, he immediately signals his thematic concerns by opening with a present-day subway scene (headphones, multinational brands and casual apparel readily apparent) before plunging us into the chaotically rendered nightclub sequences, as if to connect today’s monotonous consumerism with century-old hedonism. Other liberties include his heavy emphasis on the narrative’s central romance and use of two separate narrators, but the film’s stylistic heterodoxy helps draw parallels between Kästner‘s critique of the moral erosion of the Weimar Republic and that of today’s corporatist West. 

Ahead of the film’s release, Graf answered questions about adaptation and the contemporary relevance of the story via email.

Filmmaker: Why did you decide to adapt this book now? Is this something you have wanted to make for a long time, or did it seem timely given contemporary politics?

Graf: A first attempt was made a few years ago and then, after a promising beginning, the producer absconded. Shortly afterwards, Felix von Boehm approached me on his own initiative. Constantin Lieb had already adapted the novel, and notably he had rewritten the ending. I liked it, although he had sacrificed a beautiful brothel scene in Fabian’s home—a scene, by the way, that Wolf Gremm had staged wonderfully in his 1980s version. But I thought the idea that Fabian and Cornelia want to meet again was a nice solution. Concerning current politics: I believe that the West German rah-rah capitalism of the “Wende” period left behind a nation that was morally completely destroyed, and we are still paying for this terrible development today. Those who were left behind by the “Wende” are rightfully unforgiving; they have suffered twenty years of humiliation at the hands of West German corporations and politicians. This is now heading toward an abyss, a divided society. As for the wild years of living it up, the 1920s were way ahead of us regarding freedom and imagination. Today we are trapped with the petit bourgeoisie and faith healing.  We don’t even have the greatness for the kind of sexual excesses as the people back then.

Filmmaker: There are some moments in the book that really struck me that you omit, such as when Fabian breaks up the fight between the communists as well as the fascists, and the discussion Fabian has with the journalists. Did you omit these because of how they would scan today politically or for some other reason?

Graf: We had a 130-page script before we started shooting, and the film ended up being 180 minutes long. Together with the screenwriter, Constantin Lieb, I tried to transfer as many subplots and secondary characters as possible to the screen or to find other constellations and solutions for them. But there was never any fear of contact with contemporary politics in our decisions—on the contrary.

Filmmaker: Your film alters the meeting between Fabian and Cornelia and invests much more in their relationship. What made you want to emphasize the romance in this story?

Graf: That’s true, the love story has to come out of the dynamics of the time, from the chaos of Berlin. Would Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters have met on Tinder? Today, it’s all about having as many options as possible: you might miss out on something. Perhaps the person who suits you is out there somewhere. You might never meet. People used to be more willing to embrace this possibility. When they first meet, Cornelia tells Fabian that she is already disappointed in men. I think love is surprising and very fragile for both of them. They are not naive. Cornelia wants to become someone, and so does he, by writing his novel. That’s important, that’s modern about Kästner: A couple whose life plans chafe at each other while they are also descending into sensuality with each other.

Filmmaker: Sexuality and promiscuity exemplify moral decay in the novel. Did you feel the need to distance yourself from the film’s moral outlook?

Graf: I didn’t intend to make a “cautionary” film. Fabian also likes Berlin, a city he calls doomed—but with a grin on his face. He has fun with it; however, he also feels uneasy. “And now I’m asking you, Mrs. Hohlfeld, does the world still have any talent for decency?” he asks his landlady. He really means it, and at the same time it’s pure irony.

Filmmaker: The editing and camerawork of the early nightclub scenes is very hectic and seems to me to be in keeping with the sort of “montage”-influenced writing of those scenes in the novel. Can you talk about your work on these sequences and why you wanted them to stand apart from the rest of the film?

Graf: The basic idea was to imbue this cosmos, where we are going to spend the next three hours, from the very beginning, with a sense of chaos, simultaneity and mental overload. People are being torn away by time, washed away. You cannot—and should not—grasp it all at once. That’s what we wanted to achieve, so once the love story begins, we can concentrate entirely on the three characters.

Filmmaker: This film has two voiceovers, one male and one female. How did you assign the passages to one voice or the other, and how did you envision the relationship between voiceover and images?

Graf: To me, this novel was completely autobiographical, and that’s why I took the liberty of narrating certain descriptions from the book as voiceover, as if the narrator were also a part of Fabian and vice versa. I think that the voices of the two narrators make for a constellation and relationship all its own, adding another intriguing level. With Truffaut and Godard, language was on an equal footing, almost in competition with the image sometimes. In Germany, however, the use of language in film is always a point of contention because we have these narrow-minded rules based on an idea of formal purity—”film is film, so I want to see everything and not hear any voiceover…” But it is Kästner’s language, after all, that creates the beauty of the book, so why shouldn’t it accompany the film, tell its story? And voiceover can work wonders in synergy with images. In this respect, the term “reading” is appropriate: a film based on a work of world literature should also be an oral experience.

Filmmaker: The opening of the film and the shot of the Stolpersteine urge viewers to connect past and present. Did you always plan to shoot these scenes, or did they arise more naturally in response to your budget?

Graf: I wanted to create a connection to the present. The idea came from a shot that Felix von Boehm, the producer, made for himself, just for fun. He walked through the entire train station. I thought it was great to start in a documentary way, in the here and now, in the banality of the 2020s, surrounded by turn-of-the-century architecture and all the little people with their little backpacks and their hip leisurewear, who then all pile up and stand in line at a staircase on the left—which leads to where, please? It seemed almost eerie to me, how they move like lemmings or disciples of a new cult, and at the same time we take our camera through a tunnel, into the past. We reach the light and at the same time we land in one of Germany’s darkest times—when it does not even know yet how dark it will become.

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