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German Actor Tom Schilling on 'Fabian' and the Lessons of the Weimar Republic for Today

Berlin Film Festival

Tom Schilling in 'Fabian —Going to the Dogs'

He plays a young man coming of age in pre-Hitler Berlin in Dominik Graf's movie, which premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival and was picked up for release in North America.

When he was offered the lead role in Fabian —Going to the Dogs, a coming-of-age tell set in Berlin in the early 1930s, Tom Schilling wasn't really interested in doing another period drama.

The German star, who played a post-war, avant-garde artist in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-nominated Never Look Away (2018), the seminal East Berlin playwright Bertold Brecht in Brecht (2019) from Heinrich Breloer, and a pacifist sent to the Eastern Front in WW2 series Generation War (2013), also wasn't a fan of the Erich Kästner book the film was based on: a largely autobiographical novel about a would-be writer living in the Weimar Republic who watches as the world he knows goes to hell.

"I think that time period, the Weimar Republic, has been done to death, the whole pre-war decadence, the dance on the volcano stuff, it feels like yet another season of Babylon Berlin," says Schilling, referencing the hit German series, also set in the early 30s, which airs on Netflix. "The history itself didn't interest me, except in how it reflects what's happening right now."

The parallels, he says, are obvious.

"A hysterical, over-heated political culture that, in a peculiar way, draws us all in," Schilling notes, "just look at America right now. Where political opponents are so deeply divided and there is such mutual contempt that no discourse is possible."

Fabian —Going to the Dogs premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Kino Lorber has picked up North American rights to the film and plans to release it theatrically later this year.

The world of 2021, it seems, like Kästner's of 1931 (the year Fabian was published) is quite literally going to the dogs. In the film, Schilling plays Jakob Fabian, an aspiring writer who writes ad copy for a cigarette company and despairs of the decline — the economic, social but, in Fabian's view, primarily moral decay — of German society. The stock market crash of 1929 has upended society. Everything is for sale. Fabian reads the daily news to his landlady, highlighting the story of an underage girl who commits a shocking sex murder. The world out there, he tells her, is hardly worth saving.

"I have my problems with the original novel, but I'm a fan of Kästner's poems," says Schilling. "He has a certain laconic humor, a melancholic sadness that, perhaps, is very German. He seems reserved and distant but underneath he is passionate and deeply concerned about the people around him."

Jakob Fabian shares that superficial reserve as well as that underlying passion. Schilling plays him as a mostly passive observer, uncertain, or unable, to intervene to prevent the disaster he sees coming. It's a role tailor-made for Schilling.

"Fabian is a lot like Niko Fischer in A Coffee in Berlin (2012), or even Kurt Barnert in Never Look Away," says Schilling. "These are people who have somehow lost contact with the world. They are observers, superficially disinterested, who can't see to intervene...That's not how I am in real life but it seems to be how a lot of directors like to see me. They say: "you don't need to speak, we can see you thinking."

For Fabian director Dominik Graf, Schilling was the only choice for the lead. The two had been trying for 20 years to find a project to work together on. "I'm a huge fan" notes Schilling "he has the reputation of being exhausting for the crew but his actors adore him."

Graf also has a reputation for speed. He has more than 50 films and TV series to his credit, ranging from the period romance of Beloved Sisters (2014) to the coming-of-age comedy of 2006's The Red Cockatoo, to noir thrillers including his ground-breaking TV series In the Face of Crime (2010).

"He's unbelievable fast," says Schilling. "Fabian was the polar opposite of working on Never Look Away, where we had a massive crew, lighting trucks, the whole thing, and it felt like we were shooting 2 minutes a day. We shot Fabian—the whole 3 hours — in 33 days flat."

Using mostly natural light and shooting with a short focal length and a roaming, reactive camera, Graf gives Fabian's period setting the air of a 1990s indie. In an inspired touch, the director borrows "modernist" editing techniques from 1930s —including splicing in black-and-white archive footage, using multiple-window splits screens —to make the film feel both old-fashioned and cutting-edge.

It also heightens the movie's sense of disruption and disarray. In a world this out of order, it's no surprise that things are starting to come apart. There are moments of happiness for Fabian —with his old friend Labude (Albrecht Schuch of System Crasher) and lover Cornelia (Never Look Away's Saskia Rosendahl). But it's clear none of this will end well.

If Fabian —Going to the Dogs has any lessons for the current moment, it has little comfort.

"No, there's not much hope there," says Schilling. "It is totally fatalistic and unbelievably tragic."


 

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