Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Love In the Time of Danger: Dominik Graf's "Fabian Going to the Dogs"

Quite a few very good films have positioned themselves in Germany in the late 20's and early 30's, never overtly speaking of the nationalist madness that would soon envelope the landscape (and the world) but quietly hinting at the infant stages. The best is probably Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" or especially Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg". Prolific German filmmaker Dominik Graf (whose canon seems hard to see outside of his native Germany) and his latest film "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" rightly positions itself within this turbulent window of rising fascism. At once an intensely chaotic love story and an expansive paranoid thriller about the burgeoning New Germany on the horizon, Graf manages to crush the viewer's soul by the way he not only keeps his cosmic, star-crossed lovers apart for most of the second half, but in how society crushes someone's soul even harder.

The romance part begins when handsome Jakob Fabian (Tom Schiller) meets Cornelia (a wonderful Saskia Rosendahl) in the back of a speakeasy. Their attraction is immediate and powerful, made all the more poetic by a subliminal procession of images that shows the two naked in each other's arms and kissing.. as if Graf is so excited to bond the two together that he can't wait. Their romance builds quickly, made all the more complete when the two strangers come to find out they live right next door to each other.

But, even though the romance seems perfect, it's not meant to be. Soon after, Jakob is fired from his job and Cornelia becomes embroiled with a stage manager who makes her dreams of acting come true. While Jakob descends into the depression-era society, Cornelia sees her fortunes change as more and more acting roles come her way. Add to the fact that her new boss has an entire team of people spying and chaperoning Cornelia around and she and Jakob barely stand a chance together.

As each follows their decisive life projections, "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" then spends the second half of the film hoping the two will reconnect. Cornelia waits in a restaurant the two often spent time in and Fabian becomes involved with his friend and anti-Communist speaker Stephane (Albrecht Schuch) whose life descends even deeper than Fabian. It's not ironic that Stephane ends up living in a brothel complete with drunken fights and women who choose to drink and smoke their worries away. As a new worldview is building outside, "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" seems to suggest that the innocent and the pragmatic would rather live in their own cloistered minds.

Take the political edge away, but "Fabian" Going to the Dogs" would still be a masterful example of a sprawling love story that mimics the consequential ebbs and flows of life. There is no grand goodbye between the lovers. Life goes on around them as they bump and float around each other (in one terrific scene, Jakob watches Cornelia deliver a monologue from the rafters of her audition) and posthumous letters hold more weight than any actual conversations ever could. In a world soon swept up by political fervor and hatred, Graf seems to be saying that Jakob and Cornelia are the last vestiges of a sane world. If only true love could outlast everything else.