Germany's Oscar Entry 'In the Fade' Aims to Show How "Racism Hits All of Us"

In the Fade Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Fatih Akin's dark revenge drama starring Diane Kruger considers the many victims of hate through its story about a woman whose son and Kurdish husband are murdered by neo-Nazis.

You have to look closely to see it: Tucked on the inside of Diane Kruger's ankle is a tiny anchor tattoo. When In the Fade got accepted to the Cannes competition in 2017, director Fatih Akin made Kruger a bet: If her performance — as Katja, a German woman who vows revenge after a neo-Nazi kills her Kurdish husband and their child — won Cannes' best actress award, she'd get ink. It did, and she did.

"She's German. She pays her debts," says Akin, laughing. The film has marked both actress and director. Since his 1998 debut, Short Sharp Shock, Akin, the Hamburg-born son of Turkish immigrants, has been trying to tell a story about German racism. "But I never had the right story," he says. "It took nearly 20 years to find it."

The breakthrough came in November 2011. News broke that a series of killings in Germany's Turkish and Kurdish communities were not, as had been suspected, the work of gangs or local crime syndicates; rather, they were systematic murders by a neo-Nazi terror cell calling itself the National Socialist Underground, or NSU. Akin, like many Germans, became obsessed by the NSU revelations and the resulting court case — the trial of alleged NSU mastermind Beate Zschape, which is still ongoing.

The themes of violence and racism, of the conflict between ethnic Germans and the children of immigrants, were ones Akin had explored before, most prominently in Head-On, which won the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear for best film in 2004, and in his follow-up, 2007's The Edge of Heaven, winner of the screenplay award in Cannes.

But with In the Fade, the director wanted to go further. By casting the blond, blue-eyed Kruger — whom he had met by chance at a party in Cannes in 2012 — Akin aimed to show a link between perpetrator and victim, between the terrorist and the victims of terror.

"I wanted to show that racism hurts the ethnic Germans as much as it does the Kurds and Turks — that racism hits all of us," he says. "I didn't want the film to be pigeonholed as just about the margins of German society. This goes to the core."

In the Fade doesn't offer any easy answers. The film's controversial ending, if anything, only raises more questions about the true meaning of justice. But it has succeeded in what Akin says was his primary goal: "stirring things up." The film's success in Cannes and at the German box office ($2.5 million) has put a renewed focus on rising right-wing extremism in the country.

"If people see it because of Cannes, because it made the Oscar shortlist — hell, because they like the dress Diane wore on the red carpet — I don't care," says Akin. "As long as it means they pay more attention to what's happening, then it's been worth it."

But when it comes to the Academy Awards, there's another reason Akin will be paying close attention. He's made a bet with Kruger that means he literally has skin in the game. If In the Fade gets nominated for best foreign-language film, the director has to get a tattoo of his own — "something incredibly cheesy and very L.A." — to show off at the Oscars.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.