Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 10, 2022 10:13 pm 
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A young man drowns in Weimar decadence

There is much to be enjoyed in Graf's grandiose, formally inventive Fabian, starting with Tom Schilling's loose, amiable performance in the titular role as the young writer (and cigarette factory publicist) trying to steer a moral path through Weimar decadence and the rise of Hitler (never explicitly mentioned) in 1920's Berlin. As Romney writes in his Screen Daily review, Schilling "combines intensity and a lightness of touch", playing a rubbery protagonist as he did in Von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, where he makes his way through all the ravages of the late twentieth century and emerges a world-famous artist. Erich Kästner’s slim original 1932 novel about Weimar decadence and its titular protagonist's attempt to steer a moral path through it this time don't lead him to a happy end. As Fabian's lover, the artist model and aspiring actress Cordelia Battenberg, Saskia Rosendahl, a new discovery, is spirited and vibrant. But along the way, the film's eye-popping style, initially energizing - and lending great freshness to the sense of period, as the film's length grows extended, begins to be enervating and perhaps a bit puzzling.

Graf has worked very successfully in TV series and possesses all the gifts of mise-en-scène and elaborate production, reveling in recreations of milieux that are both complex and relaxed (like Tom Schilling's performance here). But he seems to lack a sense of feature film time and form. An early example is Fabian and Cordelia's meeting and love-idyll. It's quite lovely, but given the mileage of socio-historical saga that still lies ahead, one must reluctantly conclude that Graf and his editor Claudia Wolscht allow the swooning, sensuous romance to flow on a little too generously - just as a sparkling many-sized multiple-screen sequence depicting night club spectacle becomes so eye-popping one forgets Weimar, and the point. Toward the end, when Fabian is inspired with second thoughts and tries to call Cordelia long distance for a reconciliation, all the distractions that clatter around him get too much in our way, and not just his. All in all, Graf adopts a level of chatter and inventiveness that while it's fun, even if distracting, can't be sustained without being ultimately wearying - and losing the neatness and succinctness of Erich Kästner's novel.

There are two previous examples of Dominik Graf's direction that I've seen and written about. The first was part two of the 2011 TV miniseries Dreilebern. It's the second of three interlocking tales by three different direcdtors, Christian Petzold, Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler differing widely in stype and subjecdt matter but all revolving around the escape of a murderer and sex offender from a hospital in a small town in central Germany. These were part of New York Film Festival that included Lars von Trier's Melancholia. The trilogy inspired great interest but was ultimately disappointing; the best was the first, by Petzold. Of Graf's, Komm mir nicht nach ("Don't Follow Me"), I wrote that it was in "a noisy, messy, cluttered style" and was "A big letdown and a bore." (Note: Graf is older than the current Berlin School directors and has set himself apart from that school in various statements.)

The second Graf film I reviewed was Beloved Sisters, reviewed at another NYFF three years later, like this one nearly three hours, a sort of "opened up" epistolary novel of late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, the dawn of German romanticism, and packed with incident and as "breathless" a narrative tour-de-force, I thought, as Joyce Cary's A Fearful Joy.

There, the hyper-active narrative worked for me (though its Metacritc rating was a mediocre 66), perhaps because it's moored by the scribbling quill pens of the sisters. Why Fabian leaves me unsatisfied may be that it needs to be more of a mood piece and can't quite capture the craziness, debauchery, and growing unease of Weimar through the eyes of the fluid Schilling, even with a deep-voiced male and then a female voiceover to locate the context. There's a lot of invention and a lot of amusement here, but it doesn't quite add up to a good film.

Fabian: Going to the Dogs/Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde, 176 mins., debuted in Australia May 28, 2021, showing at Rotterdam, the Berlinale, and eight other international film festivals in 2021 and 2022. Distributed by Kino Lorber in the US it opens in New York at the Metrograph Feb. 11, 2022 and In Los Angeles at the Laemmle Mar. 4. Available from Apr. 12, 2022 to rent or own on all major Digital/ VOD platforms including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and Kino Now. Metacritic rating: 68%.




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