Following the fizzle of his coming-of-ager Goodbye Berlin (Tschick) last year, Fatih Akin bounces back and bounces high with an edge-of-seat thriller inspired by xenophobic murders in Germany by a Neo-Nazi group. From the tense opening sequence of a bombing against Turks living in Germany, In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts) stands out from the work of the German-born director of Turkish origin for the anger and grief it brings to the story, which leave the audience shaken. Its concentrated passion and ability to move viewers portends solid box office returns for the Bombero/Warner Bros. Germany production, which has all the earmarks of a film destined to travel widely in this day and age of growing racial and religious tension.
While the politically charged story will awaken outrage at the hate crimes it realistically portrays, what really brings the horror home is a superb Diane Kruger as a hard-drinking user of recreational drugs, proudly tattooed and unapologetic for her life outside the norms. Acting in her native German language, she delivers a career-high performance as the courageous, emotional and unforgiving survivor Katja that should easily put her in the running for an acting prize at Cannes.
Her quickly sketched romance with the Kurdish drug dealer Nuri (Numan Acar of Homeland) has echoes of the gritty love story in Akin’s 2004 Head-On, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin. They met when she bought grass from him in college; she marries him while he’s still in prison. In the next scene, older now, they have a young son, Rocco, they both adore and run a small but thriving tax return and travel agency out of a street-front office in the heart of a Turkish quarter. The atmosphere is brooding and edgy, however, as she drops the boy off with Nuri; we know it’s a dangerous place when Katja warns a girl to chain up her bike.
When she returns to the office that evening, the street is a crime scene lit up like a Christmas tree by flashing police lights. Nuri’s office has been blasted to pieces by a deadly nail bomb and he and Rocco are missing. Katja’s reaction is raw and anguishing, and Akin sticks with the intensity of her pain as it motivates and drives forward the rest of the film.
While Katja goes into melt-down, the body parts are collected and positively identified through DNA on their toothbrushes. The chief investigator, as nice as can be, wants to pin the double murder on Nuri’s underworld connections, but Katja is sure the Neo-Nazis are behind it. For one thing, Nuri has been clean since he left prison with a business degree; as their caring, committed lawyer Danilo Fava (a sensitive Denis Moschitto) insists, he would never do anything to endanger his family. Unwisely, he gives Katja a small package of drugs (“a gift from a client”) to ease her pain. It does, but it also comes back to haunt her later.
Getting little support from her hard-hearted mother or Nuri’s stiff old parents, who have flown in from Turkey for the double funerals, Katja now has to face up to a court trial in which she is co-plaintiff. Her suspicions have proven to be correct. The police have caught the girl (Hanna Hilsdorf) who left her bike in front of the office, along with her husband (Ulrich Friedrich Brandhoff). They belong to a Neo-Nazi group with international connections, and are being defended by an attorney with the chilling face and manners of an SS officer.
Written by Akin and lawyer Hark Bohm, the central courtroom scenes draw their tension and conviction from the 2013 Munich trial of Neo-Nazi members of the National Socialist Underground. The proceedings are simple and the pace is fast. Kruger is the center of attention with her hair-trigger emotions and burning rage to see the couple punished, though attorney Fava also has some stirring moments in which he spits outrage and cries for justice. For Katja, however, the boundary between justice and revenge is all too slippery.
But that’s not the end of the story, which has a melancholy coda in Greece. The film’s conclusion will raise questions and it certainly leaves the door open to discussion.
Technical work is smooth and highly effective throughout. Rainer Klausmann, Akin’s regular cinematographer, creates a rain-soaked atmosphere of suspense set in a world that feels real, not one simply designed to trigger emotions. Production designer Tamo Kunz swims against stereotype in his tasteful apartment design; Joshua Homme’s fine score pumps up the suspense and aching sadness in turn.
A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Bombero International, Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany production, in association with Maassar Productions, Pathe, Dorje Film, Corazon International
Cast: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Johannes Krisch, Samia Chancrin, Numan Acar, Ulrich Tukur, Rafael Santana
Director: Fatih Akin
Screenwriters: Fatih Akin, Hark Bohm
Producers: Nurhan Sekerci-Porst, Fatih Akin, Herman Weigel
Co-producers: Melita Toscan du Plantier, Marie-Jeanne Pascal, Jerome Seydoux, Sophie Seydoux, Ardavan Safaee, Alberto Fanni, Flaminio Zadra
Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann
Production designer: Tamo Kunz
Costume designer: Katrin Aschendorf
Editor: Andrew Bird
Music: Joshua Homme
Casting director: Monique Akin
World sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)