Credit: GORDON Photographie

F

atih Akin’s harrowing thriller In the Fade represented
Germany in this year’s Oscar competiton for best foreign-language
film. Yet the 44-year-old director, born in Hamburg to Turkish parents,
spends much of the film wondering whether Germany really represents him. In the Fade opens with camcorder footage of a prison wedding that
unites Nuri (Numan Acar), a handsome Turkish immigrant to Germany doing
time on a drug charge, and Katja (Diane Kruger), his blond, statuesque
German girlfriend. Several years later, Nuri has gone straight, running a
little storefront business in the Turkish sector of Hamburg as a translator
and tax preparer, and he and Katja have an adorable little boy, Rocco, whom
they cherish. Then, in a flash, it’s all gone—after leaving
Rocco with his father at work one afternoon, Katja returns to discover that
a nail bomb, planted by neo-Nazis, has exploded on the street outside
Nuri’s office, blowing him and the boy to bits.

The rest of the film centers on Katja (and on Kruger’s grueling,
heart-rending performance) as she tries to bring the perpetrators to
justice, her crusade continually hampered by prejudice against her late
husband. Akin generally limits the story to Katja’s point of view (in
the manner of French director Robert Bresson, he explained to
AwardsCircuit.com), and for the first of his three acts, viewers are
obliged to accompany her to the absolute depths of despair. Overwhelmed by
grief, Katja grows suicidal; only the news that the perpetrators have been
caught pulls her back from the brink. This isn’t the first time Akin
has dealt with suicide in his films, though in this case it becomes the
baseline for everything to follow. Katja’s heavy descent pushes In the Fade toward existential drama even as it ratchets up the
suspense, because no character is more volatile than one who doesn’t
care about living anymore.

Akin first came to international attention with Head On (2004), a
romantic black comedy that won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin
film festival. Like In the Fade, it deals with a widowed spouse:
Cahit (Birol Ünel), a shaggy rocker who works at a concert hall, is so
bereft after his wife’s death that, in the first ten minutes of the
movie, he drives his car into a wall at top speed. (Akin captures this in
an overhead shot, for a good view of the crumpling hood.) Confined to a
mental clinic, Cahit meets another inpatient, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who
immediately demands, “Are you Turkish? Would you marry me?”
Sibel has cut her wrists to escape from her strict Muslim family, and she
begs Cahit to enter into a marriage of convenience with her so that she can
maintain a pretense of piety but sleep with whomever she pleases.”I
want to live, Cahit,” she explains as they drink together in a bar,
having escaped from the clinic. “To live and to dance and to
fuck.” When Cahit refuses her proposal, Sibel smashes her beer bottle
and slices her wrist open again.

In the Fade
delves deeper into the protagonist’s grief than Head On ever
dares. Akin shows only the aftermath of the blast, sticking with Katja as
she rolls up to the police cordon in her car, makes a mad dash for the
crime scene, and gets tackled by police. Later, when she learns that a man
and a boy have been killed and the police ask her for a DNA sample, Katja
howls and collapses, writhing on the floor. Visions of the last moments
torture her for days. “Imagine Rocco lying on the ground, seeing his
own limbs around him,” she says to a friend. “Imagine how
scared he was.” Summoning up her courage, Katja ventures past the
plastic sheeting that covers the bombed-out office; inside she spies a
spray of blood dried against one wall and silently leans her forehead
against it. In the most excruciating scene of all, Katja curls up in
Rocco’s bunk bed, sobbing uncontrollably; the room is flooded with
light, and the bed has a cute little play slide leading from the bunk to
the floor.

Katja’s grief is only compounded by the tension between the German
and Turkish in-laws as they keep vigil over her in the days between the
blast and the funeral. The initial mystery surrounding the bomb attack
brings out the worst in Katja’s mother (Siir Eloglu), who—like
the police—insists that Nuri must have been involved in some criminal
activity. Nuri’s parents implore Katja to let them take their
son’s and grandson’s remains back to Turkey for burial; when
she refuses, they stalk out, leaving Katja’s mother to dispense a
haughty “Well done!” At the funeral, Nuri’s mother (Aysel
Iscan, also Sibel’s mother in Head On) gets her revenge:
“If you’d taken better care,” she notes, “my
grandson would still be alive.” The ultimate test of loyalty comes
when the police arrive at Katja’s home with a search warrant and find
a packet of opium she’s been using over the past few days.
Katja’s mother tells the police that the stash belonged to Nuri, but
Katja, glaring at her, defends her husband’s memory and claims the
dope as her own.

Akin based his film on the true story of the Zwickau terror cell, three
neo-Nazis allied with the National Socialist Underground who murdered ten
people in Germany, most of them Turkish immigrants, between 2000 and 2007;
as Der Spiegel later reported, police investigation of the
killings tended to focus on the victims’ families or associates,
leaving the killers free to continue their campaign. In the movie, Katja
provides the authorities with a detailed description of the young white
woman she saw leaving a bicycle with a top case outside Nuri’s
office, but the detective leading the investigation (Henning Peker) keeps
returning to Nuri’s criminal record and Turkish background. Could it
have been the Turkish mafia, the Kurdish mafia, the Albanian mafia?
Unfortunately, Katja’s drug possession only reinforces the faulty
police narrative surrounding the case.

By the end of the first act, no one should be surprised that Katja has
decided to check out. After her piteous breakdown in Rocco’s bunk
bed, Akin follows a trail of discarded clothes along the bathroom floor and
reveals Katja lying in a warm bath in her underwear. As in Head On
, an overhead shot records the moment of bitter truth, blood creeping out
from Katja’s wrists and flanking her white torso as she stares into
the camera. Just as she begins to sink below the water line, an answering
machine message from her attorney brings word that the bombers have been
apprehended and pulls her back into the world of the living. “If you
want to end your life, end it,” a therapist tells Cahit in the
earlier movie. “But you don’t have to die to do that. End your
life here and go somewhere else. Do something useful.” In the comic
world of Head On, Cahit makes himself useful by agreeing to a sham
marriage; in the tragic one of In the Fade, Katja finds a reason
to keep going too, even if it’s as simple as punishment.  v