‘Fabian’ Director Dominik Graf on Today’s Weimar Era, Sexuality, Tom Schilling and the Grandiose Madame de Stael

In his latest work, “Fabian — Going to the Dogs,” Dominik Graf adapts a work that defines the tragic, hedonistic and dysfunctional era of the Weimar Republic from a writer widely known for his children’s books.

Set in 1931 Berlin, the story, based on Erich Kästner’s novel of the same name, is seen through the eyes of Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a fatalistic writer who finds solace in his love for Cornelia, played by Saskia Rosendahl (“Never Look Away”) and his best friend Stephan (European Shooting Star Albrecht Schuch), and the wild nights of the city’s outlandish establishments while longing for the return of decency in a society gone astray.

The film premiered in competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and screened this week at Rotterdam Film Festival.

Graf, one of Germany’s preeminent filmmakers, is behind such lauded works as “The Cat,” “A Map of the Heart,” “The Red Cockatoo,” “Beloved Sisters” and the series “In the Face of Crime.” With “Fabian,” he explores an era that very much mirrors our own.

“We are living here in Weimar 2021,” he tells Variety. “The war of opinion in politics and society is conducted almost exclusively with hatred — in some circles, murder is a better means than debate. Democracy is on the defensive and its arguments are weak. The turbo-capitalist economic structures in Germany have become fully and openly totalitarian since 1990. The internal structures of the state have largely decayed. We are once again going to the dogs.”

Indeed, that dissolution is evident in the film’s portrayal of decadent Berlin, which despite its permissiveness was far from liberated and enlightened. “Sexuality is always an important theme, in any narrative,” says Graf, pointing out that the Berlin of that period was a very “misogynistic society.” While there were outstanding female artists, there was also “tremendous amounts of prostitution and violence against women.” It’s a discourse that is very much highlighted in the film and in the novel, he adds. A main character even “holds a great fiery monologue … about the destroyed relationship between the sexes, but everything is ambivalent in every respect, destructive, self-destructive — even in Kästner himself.

“Today’s public discourse on sexuality is limited to abuse of power and victim culture, that is important, but other eras have dealt with it in a more multiperspectival way. The past becomes almost alien to us today because we are surrounded by societal codes. [Sigmund] Freud, with his ‘Civilization and Its Discontents,’ would have had his fun with us guinea pigs.”

The film, which Graf co-wrote with Constantin Lieb, captures the sense of tension and foreboding that was evident in Kästner’s book.

“I had the impression of continuous turmoil in the novel, a fractured world for everyone, created by the First World War, which was far from over in 1931. Fabian had been quite young during the war, [Stephan] Labude too …. both are traumatized, and the next catastrophe is already looming. What is it like to be part of a broken era and yet feel quite normal yourself when the world is ending all around you?”

Graf says he could not have imagined any other actor than Schilling in the role of Fabian.

“He has great emotion in his often small gestures and minimalist facial expressions. I’ve seen that in many roles with him; he’s always looking for the truest performance in a scene. His humor can be very dry. He comes across as cheeky and very sensitive, and sometimes lost in a touching way. That’s Fabian.”

In creating the world of 1931 Berlin, Graf says he wanted to “suggest something like slivers of the time, particularly on the surface of the images,” using documentary footage and his own short street scenes shot with Super 8mm in order to depict the distance of time. “This is a rough narrative, little gloss and no longer the Golden Twenties. But in the chaos of the time there is also an enormous vitality; you have to show it like a kaleidoscope, I thought, and yet like everyday life.”

With not much of a plot, the book’s open structure offered Graf creative freedom in adapting the story. “The novel’s ‘plotlessness’ made you feel as if you were playing along in a long, improvised piece of music, no set format, no guidelines, plenty of room for surprises.”

Graf is next looking to tell the story of an influential 19th century French writer who left her mark on European history. “I’d like to make a film about the grandiose Madame de Staël, her years in Western Switzerland, politically harassed by the despot Napoleon, living through accumulating romantic disasters, just before fleeing to Russia.”

“Fabian” was produced by Lupa Film and is sold internationally by Les Films du Losange.

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