Fatih Akin’s In the Fade has lofty goals. This year’s Golden Globes winner for Best Foreign Film tackles the rise of nationalist violence in Germany against immigrants, a serious and ongoing concern that is ultimately underserved by Akin’s film, which comes across as a strange tonal mash-up between a TV Movie of the Week and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish.
The film revolves around Katja (Diane Kruger), a young woman married to Nuri (Numan Acar), a Turkish former convict. Nuri now has a respectable translation business serving the Turkish community in Germany, and the pair live a seemingly charming life with their young son Rocco (Rafael Santana), which is tragically torn apart when a bomb is detonated in front of Nuri’s office, killing both Nuri and Rocco in the process.
The film then turns into a fairly standard courtroom drama for a good section of its running time. Katja has a recollection of seeing a young woman leave her unattended bicycle in front of Nuri’s office just before the explosion, and a tense courtroom battle escalates between the distraught Katja and the two suspects, a young couple accused of being Nazi sympathizers.
To complicate matters, Katja is a drug user, a fact the defence brings up to imply that she is an unreliable witness. When the pair of suspects is eventually released due to a lack of evidence, in part brought on by Katja’s refusal to undergo a drug test, she begins plotting her own brand of street justice against the accused.
What really elevates the film from being more than simply a subtitled episode of Law and Order is Kruger’s intense performance. Yes, there are some Oscar-clip worthy scenes of her screaming “Nein!” in the courtroom while lunging towards the pair of alleged Nazi murderers, but the most striking scenes in the film are often close up shots of Kruger’s face as she is processing her conflicting emotions. We can see waves of sadness, anger and rage often pass over her face in quick succession, but her blank stare is often the most devastating because of its murkiness. With so many emotions battling inside of her, Katja’s face is often our only emotional pull into the story, for better or worse.
By focusing almost entirely on Katja’s response to the tragedy, Akin removes any sense of the greater world outside Katja’s troubled state of mind. That was likely the point, but it leaves us with flimsy supporting characters that feel as fleshed out as a set of extras. We learn next to nothing about the clean-cut suspects, other than the fact that the boyfriend looked up to Hitler. It’s enough to make us hate them, but hardly provides any sort of deeper understanding of the main villains Katja is combatting – they are simply evil, and that should be enough. In fact, while the villains are completely cookie-cutter, Katja is actually the most conflicting character. Far from the squeaky-clean victim, she’s a hard drug addict that decides to take the law into her own hands, a set of characteristics that would label her a villain in almost any other scenario.
Ultimately, In the Fade wants to encompass things — a mediation on violence and loss, a look at the rising nationalism movement in Germany, Islamophobia, society’s treatment towards addicts, and the inadequacy of the justice system. Those are lofty aspirations for a film that also wants to be a crowd-pleasing revenge thriller, and In the Fade often gets jumbled oscillating between those various goals. Kruger’s searing performance is still more than worth the price of admission — it’s just unfortunate that it’s not in service of a tighter film.