The most important shot of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s In the Fade might be its last — a key to unlocking the film. I’m not giving too much away to say that it’s an image of an upside-down sea, mirroring in some ways the seaside setting of the final scene. It calls into question the perspective we’ve been given, and thus undercuts — albeit subtly — what at first might have seemed the more familiar elements of this movie about a woman’s quest for justice after the deaths of her husband and son. It dares to tell us that all along, we might have been watching an upside-down world.
Despite his international art-house pedigree, Akin has always had a populist streak, and In the Fade embraces convention even more than his previous work. And yet it also hit me hard in ways I didn’t quite expect. I’ve had a complex relationship with this director’s work over the years. As a fellow member of the Turkish diaspora, I sometimes find he totally nails the perspective of the insider-outsider, the out-of-body experience of belonging to different worlds, even in stories that aren’t ostensibly about Turks. But he can also veer headlong into the simplistic and cliche, and his flops can be mighty.
In the Fade, at some points, seems to be edging toward one of those latter cases, but a second viewing was key for me; I now believe it might be one of Akin’s best. Its first half is emotionally harrowing, as Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) discovers that her Turkish husband Nuri (Numan Acar) and young son Rocco have been killed by a bomb placed outside Nuri’s Hamburg accounting office. Every terrifying, unbearable beat of Katja’s emotional journey is rendered in acute detail. She has to go coffin shopping, for two sizes; the sight of a casket in the children’s section shaped like a toy truck is surreal and soul-destroying. She has to deal with accusations from both her parents and her in-laws, who are themselves drowning in anguish. She has to deal with cops asking questions about her husband’s religion and politics and shady past. She cries herself to sleep in her son’s bed, wondering aloud about how scared he must have been as he lay on the floor, dying.
In the most emotionally brutal scene, she has to hear a medical examiner calmly and diligently offer a detailed, point-by-point accounting of her dead little boy’s injuries (hair burned onto the scalp, arm severed, eyes melted in their sockets). Akin holds nothing back, and Kruger, starring in a German film for the first time in her career, brings the grief and anger and pain to life — never overdoing any of it, yet refusing to submerge it. (She won a well-deserved Best Actress award at Cannes in May.)
But the film has three sections, and each part seems to assume a different set of genre conventions, a different set of emotional cues. After “Family,” the next, “Justice,” follows the suspenseful and, at times, infuriating trial that takes place after a neo-Nazi couple are accused of the bombing. At this point, In the Fade settles into what appears to be a standard-issue courtroom drama, albeit an effectively acted and written one. The hard-nosed defense attorney questions everything, despite the fact that the sneering suspects appear guilty as sin; even the man’s father is convinced his Hitler-adoring son did it. When Katja suddenly charges at one of the attackers, and amid the commotion of the trial, it’s easy to imagine that you might have done the same.
It goes on like this, with seemingly not a beat out of place — a smooth cascade of basic, expertly applied genre satisfactions. One surprise is that, even though the film is set in present-day Germany, there’s never any mention made of ISIS or al-Qaida. The police ask questions about Nuri’s religion, and the fact that he is an ex-con who used to deal drugs — the film’s first scene shows him marrying Katja while still in prison — comes only briefly into play. The neo-Nazis who committed the bombing, and the international fascist network that supports them, are no fanciful narrative construct; as a closing title reminds us, there was actually a right-wing underground organization called the National Socialist Underground in the early 2000s that murdered Turks in Germany. (In fact, their trial has been going on for years.) Of course, Germany doesn’t like reminding the world that there are still Hitler aficionados within its borders. But then again, as we’ve all seen recently, Nazis appear to be in a lot more places than many of us realized.
But again, there’s more going on in In the Fade. And here I must discuss the final scene — so, spoiler alert. After the neo-Nazis are acquitted, Katja follows them to a beautiful beach in Greece and, using the same kind of homemade nail bomb that destroyed her family, blows herself up along with them. And as the camera drifts up from the smoking ruin of the explosion and rises from one sea to another in an upside-down world, we may start to wonder what the flip side of this reality might look like. All along, the movie has used Katja as a benign vessel of compassion, indulging her grief and replaying the trauma of her experience. We’ve shared her sorrow, outrage and anger. And now, just as it fades to black, In the Fade asks us — ever so briefly and troublingly — to imagine another world in which the terrorist is not a beautiful white woman, but someone with whom we have been taught never to empathize.