Back to the Film Theater, Fabian

Today, I returned to a film theater after more than a year and a half, probably the longest break since I was seven. I have been to some nice open-air cinemas lately, but those are not film theaters in terms of the audio-visual, historical, psychological, etc., qualities. The films I’ve seen in these open-air cinemas also weren’t that impressive -maybe Druk (2020) would have more impact in a closed space with its emphasis on the joy of music. One (ok boomer) needs to go deep in the dark and confined space. My chance was that it was a decent, or beautiful and a relevant film for me, Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde, by Dominik Graf, adapted from Erich Kästner’s novel, taking place in the late Weimar era. I had been thrillingly onboarded to this period with Berlin Alexanderplatz and Babylon Berlin. This was the cherry on the cake, in a tragic sense.

I’ve been seeking the last film I’ve seen in the theater before the lockdowns, but I’m not sure yet. When I was working as a flexible freelancer, I was mostly focusing on and getting prepared for ‘what to do next’ and not consuming much cultural content as I did before. Maybe it was Om det oändliga (2019) that I watched in late February or early March. Roy Andersson and shutting people up in small rooms, how coincidental.

So I watched Fabian in Neues Off Kino, a Yorck cinema. Yorck is an arthouse film theater chain that I have wanted to discover since day one. There should probably be more alternative spaces for arthouse cinema in Berlin, but Yorck seems the most popular one. Neues Off Kino was the only one I found an English subtitled version of the film, so I’m grateful. Even though I found the audio volume a bit low initially, the middle-sized salon, the atmosphere, and the pre-film content were really nice -no irrelevant and noisy ads, I appreciate it. I was almost crying with the first blue lights hitting on the screen after the curtains are open. That “Europa Cinemas” trailer showing the cities with cinemas belonging to the network and ending by giving numbers about the thousands of cities and hundreds of cinemas there, was a blast. It’s a recurring video that spans my theater rituals since my university years. I have been encountering this trailer in the majority of the films I’ve seen in Ankara (Büyülü Fener) and İstanbul (Beyoğlu Sineması). Seeing the same publicity in a cinema with seven or eight audiences inside made me feel that even the cities or the country change, these moviegoers and the non-mainstream cinema atmosphere may stay the same. A sense of continuity, even if it is in the dawn of the death of cinema.

I haven’t read the novel yet, but I will -pity that I haven’t encountered the author before. It was published in 1931, under the title Fabian: Die Geschichte eines Moralisten (Fabian: The Story of a Moralist). The film also takes place largely in that year, even though IMDB says it’s the 1920s, Berlin. The protagonist is a man in his early thirties, trying to be an author, working -until fired- as an ad writer in an agency promoting cigarettes, tuneful with the era and the smoky films about it. As in many classical stories, he meets the girl, and it goes. I always think that I’m not too fond of stories that take the classical love stories to the center until I encounter one of them, then that judgment is transformed instinctively for some time.

Unemployment, unclear future, PTSD after the Great War, the rise of the Nazis, gay subculture, patriarchy, nightlife, prostitution, interest in cinema, literature (Lessing), and art are some undercurrents in the love story. Undine (2020) was one of the last films that I felt the lovers’ desire is touchingly depicted in the film; this was a sensual follow-up in that sense. Some early moments depict the dynamic rave atmosphere with experimental cinematography that you can find in a multi-window editing software or playing multiple videos on the same screen, which I found too simplistic. The framing was the Academy Ratio, 1.37:1, as often used in period films. I loved how the curtains were closed to that distance while the film was starting. The film opens with a long take that evidently sways in a metro station today, but as it climbs up the stairs, there we travel in time. Intertwining the archival footage with the story was another idea that worked well in the film and blended concise memory images into the scenes.

As a common trope in the stories of poverty, there are rich friends and patrons -or abusers. Fabian’s rich friend Stephan is a wealthy but tragic character who loses the woman he loves and is rejected by academia due to dirty political tricks. Cornelia, on the other hand, as far as the audience knows, is a law student working in a production company to be an actress, and she becomes one, a successful one, only after moving into the producer’s house. She keeps her life a secret from Fabian for some time until she can not. Her way of expressing her emotions is an unparalleled one. I recall a scene where she slaps Fabian in one scene since he doesn’t remember exactly how many days they were together.

Fabian, the moralist. Comparing this film to Babylon Berlin reveals the obvious shifts in the political point-of-view about the era. While BB had a balanced narrative in terms of the male and female protagonists, this one is a male story, as we might expect from a novel from the era by a good chance. This storytelling is also inherent to the conversations between Fabian and Cornelia. The author is always the subject, prospect, and a wise man; meanwhile, Cornelia is trying to survive. It was disturbing to listen to how Fabian meticulously analyzed and estimated the future of Cornelia based on her decision to throw herself on the film producer. Ah, know-it-all Fabian, the idiot.

When Fabian is fired from the ad agency, he’s offered extra 20 marks for his contributions to the advertisement, but he gets some wage cut instead since he was late to work many times. I loved how the accountant/secretary said goodbye with heavy bodily gestures. The calculations he planned didn’t work out at that moment. There was a focus on calculation in another scene. After her mother’s visit, Fabian left 20 marks in her bag. Meanwhile, she was putting 20 marks inside a goodbye letter after she visited Berlin. The narrator said something like, “although it was mathematically an equal trade, after all, it was morally more than that.” Similar math works when Cornelia says, “I love you more and more, you love me less and less, that makes an equilibrium.”

Some reviews: Screen Daily, Indiewire, and The Hollywood Reporter.