Anyone looking to demonstrate the range of the competition at the Berlinale this year might set Hong Sangsoo’s Introduction next to Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs. Barring a single drunken outburst, Introduction quietly, almost coyly reveals an intricate network of connections between nine characters on two continents in three chapters over the course of a mere sixty-six minutes. Fabian, by contrast, is a boisterous three-hour adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1932 novel that practically revels in the decadence of Berlin at the tailend of the Weimar era. Both films, though, center on a young male protagonist hampered by a dash of naivete but determined to follow an inner moral compass.
Castigated and woozy, Youngho and the friend he’s brought along, Jeongsoo (Ha Seongguk), sleep off the soju in a car parked on a beach, where Youngho dreams one last dream of Juwon. Structurally, Introduction is nowhere near as clear-cut as, for example, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), and it’s probably reading too much into this soft-edged black-and-white feature to suggest that it wraps with a baptism, but a wade into the icy ocean waves does seem to have the cleansing power of an answered prayer. “Hong’s is the cinema of the oblique pattern, the imperfect echo, the repetition that changes meaning slightly with each new recitation,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety.
In a club far dingier than any she frequents in the 1920s-set series Babylon Berlin, Meret Becker emerges from a shadow starving for sex with thirty-two-year-old Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling). He’ll shake her off and fall for Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress guarding the cash box at a shoddy cabaret. In tandem, two narrators trace what essentially amount to two storylines, Fabian’s friendship with Stephan Labude (Albrecht Schuch), scion of a wealthy lawyer, and his boundless love for Cornelia. Doom threatens both. Writing for Variety, Jay Weissberg finds that Graf’s film is “blowsy where the book is succinct, awkwardly paced and portentous where Kästner is consistently rhythmical and unpretentious. Set in a teetering world of dissoluteness and disillusion in which a good man without professional ambition awakens to life’s promise only to have it all torn away, the story has modern resonances that Graf keenly underlines, and while the film’s core is affectingly developed, the rest tries too hard to expose the empty rapaciousness of exhausted decadence.”