First off: Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” was an aberration, as we all suspected. The director celebrated for his edgy takes on intriguing characters more or less returns with “In the Fade,” a well-constructed, at times moving story of a Hamburg woman seeking justice after the murder of her Kurdish husband and son by a couple of Neo-Nazis. “More or less” because the excellent first quarter gives way to a relatively standard-issue though handsomely produced legal drama with several stock characters and a script that feels too guided by the presumed requirements of mainstream cinema. Diane Kruger’s powerhouse performance in her first German-language production goes a long way toward compensating for the narrative’s dip into overly crystalline waters, and international sales have been unsurprisingly brisk given the film’s incontrovertible general appeal.
For good or bad, Akin has to grapple with the fact that everyone continues to compare his recent films with “Head-On,” one of those rare, hip crossover movies with appeal to critics and general audiences alike. Given the theme and Kruger’s incandescence, “In the Fade” may do better business, and Rainer Klausmann’s confidently fluid camerawork just gets better and better, yet Akin’s script, co-written like last year’s “Goodbye Berlin” with Hark Bohm, keeps numerous side characters as half-drawn caricatures and then, toward the very end, makes several poor choices. Still, the deeply troubling rise of the far right, and news of racist violence, add to the topicality.
Shaky cell phone footage starts things off right, recording the boisterous Big House wedding of jailed drug dealer Nuri Şekerci (Numan Acar) to trashy bottle-blonde Katja (Kruger). That cuts to the present, with Nuri set up in business, Katja his bookkeeper, and six-year-old adorable son Rocco (Rafael Santana) completing the happy picture. Akin impressively shorthands the tight-knit, playful family dynamic so we feel invested in their lives within a remarkably quick time, making the tragedy that comes next truly wrenching.
Katja leaves Rocco with Nuri at the office while she goes to a spa with friend Brigit (Samia Chancrin). On return, she finds police barricades and learns that a bomb killed her loved ones. Kruger’s ability to convey fierce inner strength while also falling apart makes Katja the kind of character you want to follow, and the subsequent scenes of her in mourning, negotiating the prejudices of parents and in-laws while the cops leap to conclusions given Nuri’s jail time, bring a well-earned lump to the throat.
The investigation latches onto Katja’s recollection of a young German woman she noticed leaving a bike outside Nuri’s office shortly before the explosion. Soon the woman, Edda Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf) and her husband André (Ulrich Friedrich Brandhoff) are arrested and the trial of these two neo-Nazi sympathizers begins. Katja’s friend Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto) is prosecuting attorney, pitted against nasty defense lawyer Haberbeck (Johannes Krisch).
The courtroom scenes, visually conceived in b&w tonalities, have an equally black-and-white feel in how they play out: The prominent unpleasant scab on Haberbeck’s forehead practically screams “sleazebag mouthpiece,” and Danilo’s rousing speech of indignant righteousness comes exactly when expected. The case is well-argued but the Möllers, obviously guilty, get off when the judges declare reasonable doubt. A gutted Katja decides to take justice into her own hands.
One scene in particular stands out above the rest: After the bombing when the cops have no leads, Katja is at her lowest point. In an overhead shot, we see her in the bathtub, blood from her slit wrists gently wafting through the water. The phone rings, she slowly sinks into the reddened water, but before going completely under hears Danilo’s voice on the machine saying the police have arrested Edda. Katja’s head emerges from the side of the tub, covered in blood but determined to go to trial. The well-balanced sequence is equally affecting and stylish; from this moment on, the film moves into faultlessly constructed but too familiar territory.
Although Katja is well-conceived (multiple tattoos and a bad dye job ground the character in her working class past), her milieu doesn’t make sense. Her large house with garden and matte black BMW don’t fit the profile, and there’s something off about the explanation of how she and Nuri could afford such a home. It’s OK not knowing much about the Möllers, since this isn’t their film (although Edda’s father Jürgen, well-played by Ulrich Tukur, has a nice turn during the trial), but too many roles feel like workshopped accumulations of specific characteristics fitted to a particular need in the story, rather than three-dimensional figures.
DP Klausmann knows to keep his camera as much as possible on Kruger’s grounded performance, assured yet inhabiting the borders of fragility. Lensing of the early scenes has a suitably playful energy, giving way to more sober movements and stillness as the torrential Hamburg skies weep for Katja’s loss. The film’s German title translates to “out of nothingness,” which feels more apt than the English “In the Fade.”