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