'Fabian': the Weimar era stripped of its kitsch

‘Learn to swim’, reads on posters that pop up around the city from time to time. It not only foreshadows the fate of Jakob Fabian from Erich Kästner’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1931. But also a warning to the viewer. Director Dominik Graf made a film like a whirlpool about three people who are in danger of drowning in the turmoil of the Weimar era in Germany. In addition to Fabian, these are actress Cornelia and his best friend Labude. They are three passive main characters. Others, and perhaps even more anonymous machinations, determine their way of life.

On the one hand, they want to live life to the fullest: dancing on the volcano. On the other hand, they want to follow their ambitions, make a difference in the world. That’s not so different from millennials and Gen Z’ers today. In that regard, actor Tom Schilling is perfectly cast. Up to and including his costumes, he remains timeless. As if the character with which he broke through as a film actor, the equally indecisive Niko from surprise hit oh boy teleported to the past on a time machine.

The parallels between the interwar period and our time were a reason for director Dominik Graf to make the film. The rhythm of Kästner’s language has been transformed into cinematic hopping, an eclectic St. Vitus dance, right from the phenomenal opening shot that transports the viewer from the present through the underground of Heidelberger Platz U-Bahn station into the past in one continuous camera movement. After that first round dance of unusual perspectives, abrupt schnitts, punk music, archive material, various image formats, great one-liners and no less than two unreliable narrators – a man and a woman who comment on the adventures of the main characters – the film calms down somewhat. It’s still on the long side at three hours, but the perfect antidote to the Weimar kitsch of say the TV series Babylon Berlin† Graf has certainly not made a traditional book adaptation, partly because small modern interventions are constantly taking place. For example, the characters regularly stumble over the ‘Stolpersteine’: the small memorials placed in the sidewalks to the victims of National Socialism.

Also read the background article about the history of Erich Kästner’s book ‘Fabian’

Weimar culture also includes stereotypical female figures such as lonely mothers, whores, nymphomaniacs and strict lesbians. These are all women owned by the male imagination of the time. That fits, because that’s what the film is about. But a more radical modernization would have been appropriate here. If we can see Fabian as a modern figure, why keep the beautiful love story with Cornelia captive in time?

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