Erich Kestner Fabian: The story of the moralist (republished in 2012 in the New York Review of Books as Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist), although less well known in the West than then Berlin Alexanderplatz or the works of Mann and Rylke, was highly esteemed in Germany after World War II for depicting life in Berlin just before Hitler came to power. This life – as Kestner sees it – is exacerbated by sexual promiscuity and economic depression, and although Kestner uncritically reflects his protagonist’s tendency to dismiss men as humorous and forgiving and women as insidious and corrupt, his wit and style contribute to his conscience. , unable to float against the current.
Like many other writers of the time, Kestner was clearly influenced by cinematic montage, which is especially evident in the scenes and exteriors of nightclubs and brothels that frantically “cut” to present different characters and avoid conversation. This style is carried back to the movies Fabian: I’m going to the dogs, A 176-minute film adaptation of Dominique Graf’s 280-page book. Although the Count is largely faithful to the novel, he immediately points to his thematic concerns, starting with the modern subway scene (headphones, multinational brands and casual wear are easily visible) before immersing us in the chaotically designed nightly sequences club, as if connecting today’s monotonous consumption with age-old hedonism. Other freedoms include his strong emphasis on the central romance of the narrative and the use of two separate narrators, but the film’s stylistic inconsistency helps draw parallels between Kestner’s critique of the moral erosion of the Weimar Republic and the critique of the modern corporatist West.
On the eve of the film’s release, Graf e-mailed answers questions about the adaptation and current relevance of the story.
Director: Why did you decide to adapt this book right now? Is this something you’ve long wanted to do, or did it seem timely given modern politics?
Count: The first attempt was made a few years ago, and then, after a promising start, the producer ran away. Shortly afterwards, Felix von Bohm approached me on his own initiative. Constantine Lieb has already adapted the novel and, in particular, rewritten the ending. I liked it, although he sacrificed a beautiful scene of a brothel in Fabian’s house – a scene, by the way, that Wolf Graham staged beautifully in his version of the 1980s. But I thought the idea that Fabian and Cornelia wanted to meet again was a good decision. As for the current policy: I believe that the West German capitalism of the rah-ra-ra-ra-capitalism of the Wende period has left behind a morally completely destroyed nation, and we are still paying for this horrible development. Those left by Wende are rightly relentless; they suffered twenty years of humiliation from the corporations and politicians of West Germany. It is now headed to the abyss of a divided society. As for the wild years of life, the 1920s were far ahead of us in freedom and imagination. Today we find ourselves trapped by the petty bourgeoisie and the healing faith. We don’t even have the greatness for this kind of sexual excesses like people did then.
Director: There are some points in the book that really struck me that you omit, such as when Fabian breaks the struggle between communists as well as fascists, and Fabian’s discussion with journalists. Did you miss them because of how they will scan today politically or for some other reason?
Count: We had a 130-page script before we started filming, and the film ended 180 minutes. Together with the screenwriter Constantine Lieb, I tried to bring to the screen as many plots and minor characters or find other constellations and solutions for them. But our decisions have never been afraid of contact with modern politics – on the contrary.
Director: Your film changes the encounter between Fabian and Cornelia and invests much more in their relationship. What made you emphasize the romance of this story?
Count: True, the love story must emerge from the dynamics of time, from the chaos of Berlin. Would Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters meet on Tinder? Today it is important to have as many options as possible: you can miss something. Maybe the person who suits you is somewhere out there. You may never meet. In the past, people were more willing to accept this opportunity. When they first meet, Cornelia tells Fabian that she is already disappointed in men. I think love is amazing and very tender for both of them. They are not naive. Cornelia wants to be someone, and so is he, writing his novel. Importantly, this is modern about Kästner: a couple whose life plans irritate each other until they also sink into sensuality with each other.
Director: Sexuality and promiscuity are examples of moral decline in the novel. Did you feel the need to distance yourself from the moral worldview of the film?
Count: I wasn’t going to make a “warning” movie. Fabian also loves Berlin, a city he calls doomed, but with a smile on his face. He’s having fun; however he also feels restless. “And now I ask you, Mrs. Holfeld, is there still a talent for decency in the world?” He asks his mistress. He really means it, and at the same time it’s pure irony.
Director: The editing and cinematography of the early scenes in the nightclub is very intense and seems to me to be like the “editing” writing of these scenes in the novel. Can you tell us about your work on these shots and why you wanted them to stand apart from the rest of the film?
Count: The basic idea was to permeate this space from the beginning, in which we will spend the next three hours, with a sense of chaos, simultaneity and mental overload. People are torn by time, washed away. You cannot – and should not – understand everything at once. This is what we wanted to achieve, because once the love story begins, we can fully focus on the three characters.
Director: There are two voices in this film, one male and one female. How did you relate the passages to this or that voice, and how did you imagine the relationship between the voice-over and the images?
Count: For me, this novel was completely autobiographical, and so I took the courage to narrate individual descriptions from the book behind the scenes, as if the narrator was also part of Fabian and vice versa. I think the voices of the two narrators create a constellation and relationship in themselves, adding another intriguing level. In Truffaut and Godard, language was equal, sometimes almost competing with image. In Germany, however, the use of language in cinema is always controversial, because we have these narrow rules based on the idea of formal purity: “a film is a film, so I want to see everything and not hear behind the scenes …” But in the end after all, Kestner’s language creates the beauty of the book, so why not accompany the film, tell its story? A voice acting can work wonders in synergy with images. In this regard, the term “reading” is appropriate: a film based on a work of world literature should also be an oral experience.
Director: The opening of the film and Stolperstein’s frame encourage viewers to connect the past and the present. Have you always planned to shoot these scenes, or did they come up more naturally due to your budget?
Count: I wanted to connect with the present. The idea came from a shot that Felix von Bohm, the producer, made for himself, just for fun. He went through the whole station. I thought it would be great to start a documentary, here and now, in the banality of the 2020s, surrounded by early twentieth century architecture and all the little people with their little backpacks and clothes for the rest, which then all pile up and line up near stairs on the left – leading, please, where? It seemed almost awful to me how they move, like lemmings or disciples of a new cult, while we carry the camera through the tunnel, into the past. We reach the light and at the same time find ourselves in one of the darkest times in Germany – when it does not even know how dark it will be.
“After a promising start, the producer ran away”: Dominic Graf on “Fabian: I’m going to the dogs”
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