• Reviewed from the 2021 Berlinale

Following a number of films made for German television, director Dominik Graf’s first theatrical feature in seven years opens with a cinematic flourish: in a single shot, Graf takes the viewer down a set of stairs into a Berlin subway station, across the platform where passengers dressed in modern clothing disembark the train, and out into the light of day where it’s now 1931 and posters touting the Third Reich can be seen plastered across the city’s concrete walls. Based on the novel by Erich Kästner, Fabian or Going to the Dogs freely adapts the German author’s Weimar Republic-set romance in a way distinct to Graf’s unbound, kinetic style, in which eras of cultural and cinematic history are made to mix uninhibitedly and without recourse to any one tradition.

Known primarily as a genre director, Graf applies his flair for dynamic storytelling and dazzling set pieces to Kästner’s uniquely autobiographical, character-driven novel, which follows a young copywriter named Jakob Fabian (played in the film by Tom Schilling) who’s abandoned the literary prospects promised by higher education for a life of social and sexual freedom. Unlike his best friend Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a zealous but troubled socialist, Fabian is mostly content to indulge the pleasures of Berlin’s nightlife rather than engage with the era’s burgeoning political turmoil. When one night Fabian meets Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress who works the till at a tawdry cabaret, he’s drawn to the young woman’s candour and cosmopolitan worldview. Across the film’s three hours, Fabian, Cornelia and Stephan’s relationships will meet opposing fates as the trio’s individual ambitions and ideologies come up against various cultural and institutional pressures that together signal the rise of a wider authoritarian mentality that would soon reach across the whole of Europe.

Tom Schilling as Fabian with Meret Becker as Irene Moll in Fabian or Going to the Dogs

Save for a brief coda, Graf uses these sociopolitical particulars as a backdrop to tell a more intimate tale of friendship and tragic romance. Following an energetic opening act in which the story and its three characters are introduced in a furious montage of sexual imagery, Super 8 archival footage, flashbacks, voiceover narration and split-screen visuals, the film settles into a largely romantic register that Fabian and Cornelia’s differing aspirations will slowly work to disrupt as the latter’s desire to become an actress forces the former to question his lover’s motivations, as well as his own feelings about the nature of romance. (“I think I’m waiting for a chance to be faithful,” he tells Cornelia at one point.) Meanwhile, Stephan, sensing an inability to bring about any real social change, falls into a pit of sex, drugs and mental anguish.

With its sweeping narrative scope and themes of doomed love and nascent socialism, Fabian or Going to the Dogs resembles at times a more hedonistic and freewheeling Martin Eden (2019). But whereas Pietro Marcello drew a line from the individualist ethos of Jack London’s eponymous protagonist to modern day neoliberalism, Graf seems more interested in depicting how his characters’ shared sense of fatalism and powerlessness embodies a generation lost to encroaching fascism, and how those ideas in turn have brought about new forms of oppression. The film ends on an image of a glowing red fire accompanied by newsreel audio announcing the Nazi campaign against the Jews – the sparks, as one character calls it, of “an eternal postwar chaos” that in many ways rages on to this day.

Further reading

The Invincibles (director’s cut) review: the rebirth of a paranoid policier

By Trevor Johnston

The Invincibles (director’s cut) review: the rebirth of a paranoid policier

Transit first look: Europe’s past is now in Christian Petzold’s purgatorial palimpsest

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

Transit first look: Europe’s past is now in Christian Petzold’s purgatorial palimpsest

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.