We open with a tracking shot through a present-day Berlin U-Bahn station. As we exit the station, we are still in Berlin, but we’ve moved back to 1931. This won’t be the last time that the clothing in the film seems a little too modern – at one point, we see an anachronistic shot of the Stolperstein street monuments to the Jewish victims of the Nazis.
This is obviously meant to be important, and telling us something Very Significant – but what exactly? That Germany is repeating the end days of Weimar, which ultimately led to the rise of Hitler? If this is the message, then director Dominik Graf is very sanguine about it. While there’s barely a scene without a couple of brown shirted men in the background, and we end with book burning on KuDamm, the main story focusses much more on the navel gazing of a tortured artist.
The subtitle of the novel on which Fabian is based is “The Story of a Moralist”. Our Moralist is actually called Jakob, but everyone refers to him by his surname. We first see him following an ageing woman to bed, but before they can get down to it, her husband is there with legal documents that he is asked to sign before proceeding.
Fabian spends most of his time in cabaret clubs and brothels with his rich friend Labude, until he meets Cornelia, who’s working in the cloakroom of a club, but has aspirations to be an actress. Pretty much the first thing we see of Cornelia is her luxuriant armpit hair. Fabian walks her home, which turns about to be the room next door to his own
Fabian and Cornelia have a sickeningly loving relationship until Markart turns up. He is a film producer who is much older than Cornelia, but can give her a foot up in her career. Cornelia flits between Markart and Fabian. In a telling scene, she goes out to eat with Fabian and his mother, but ends up spending the evening at Markart’s table.
If you think about it, the film is flawed from the start. The sexual politics have little place in a 2021 film – women are either doting mothers or whores, or girlfriends who will stay with you just until the first banknote is waved in their direction. It is explained that one woman is a lesbian because “she’s off men for the moment”. This really is not acceptable.
And yet, you’re blinded to this, at least for the first half of the film, because it just looks brilliant. A range of camera techniques are used – from split screens to Super 8 to black and white contemporary footage of 1930s Berlin, and none of it feels like it’s trying too hard. On the contrary, you have the feeling that you’re watching ground breaking cinema.
After the first hour, this all starts to pall a bit. We are definitely deep into German Romanticism here, where we are expected to be unduly interested in the minor problems of a Misunderstood Artist. There are lots of films, and novels, and other media about writers. By definition, these have been written by other writers. Does none of them stop for a moment and think, this self-obsessed egomaniac that we’re depicting doesn’t reflect well on my profession?
Burhan Qurbani’s film of Berlin Alexanderplatz has a lot to answer for. It was a great film, but it seems to have given other directors the impression that they too can take an old novel, spread it out to 3 hours and maintain our interest. Even Qurbani’s film could have done with some judicious cutting. Fabian us just way too long, especially as, following the initial spectacle, it doesn’t have really too much to say.
This may because (unlike Erich Kästner who wrote the original novel), it shows little interest in the historical developments that it is depicting. Fabian is a moralist-hedonist, who rejects the possibility of change. Labude is a socialist, but he’s a very posh socialist – they spend a holiday clay pigeon shooting at his father’s mansion. Both their lives end in despair.
I can’t dislike the film because of the great cinematographic inventiveness. But I am very disappointed. This could have been a great evocation about an important period of history. Instead, as it goes on it becomes increasingly about Fabian moaning about how no-one understands him and his love life sucks.
It could have been worse, but it also could have been much, much better.