The last shot of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s In the Fade might be its most important — a key to unlocking the film. I’m not giving too much away to say that it’s an image of an upside-down sea, mirroring in some ways the seaside setting of the final scene. It calls into question the perspective we’ve been given, and thus undercuts — albeit subtly — what at first seemed to have been the more conventional elements of this movie about a woman’s quest for justice after the deaths of her husband and son. It dares to tell us that all along, we might have been watching an upside-down world.
Akin’s film is the penultimate title to premiere in competition at Cannes, and while it doesn’t seem headed for big awards, it still hit me hard in ways I didn’t quite expect. I’ve had a complex relationship with this director’s work over the years. As a fellow member of the Turkish diaspora, I sometimes find he totally nails the perspective of the insider-outsider, of the out-of-body experience of belonging to different worlds, even in stories that aren’t ostensibly about Turks. But he can also veer headlong into the simplistic and cliché, and his flops can be mighty.
In the Fade, at some points, seemed to be edging toward one of those latter cases, but a second viewing could be key — the more I think about it, the more I believe it might actually be one of Akin’s best. Its first half is emotionally harrowing, as Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) discovers that her Turkish husband, Nuri (Numan Acar), and young son, Rocco, have been killed by a bomb placed outside Nuri’s Hamburg accounting office. Every terrifying, unbearable beat of Katja’s emotional journey is rendered in acute detail. She has to go coffin shopping, for two sizes; the sight of a casket in the children’s section shaped like a toy truck is surreal and soul-destroying. She has to deal with accusations from both her parents and her in-laws, who are themselves drowning in anguish. She has to deal with cops asking questions about her husband’s religion and politics and shady past. She cries herself to sleep in her son’s bed, wondering aloud about how scared he must have been as he lay on the floor, dying.
In the most emotionally brutal scene, she has to hear a medical examiner calmly and diligently offer a detailed, point-by-point accounting of her dead little boy’s injuries (hair burned onto the scalp, arm severed, eyes melted in their sockets). Akin holds nothing back, and Kruger brings the grief and anger and pain to life — never overdoing any of it, yet refusing to submerge it.
But the film has three sections. After “Family,” the next, “Justice,” follows the suspenseful and at times infuriating trial that takes place after a neo-Nazi couple are accused of the bombing. At this point, In the Fade settles into what appears to be a standard-issue courtroom drama, albeit an effectively acted and written one. The hard-nosed defense attorney questions everything, despite the fact that the sneering suspects appear to be guilty as sin; even the man’s father is convinced his Hitler-adoring son did it. At one point during the trial, Katja suddenly charges at one of the attackers, and amid the commotion, we imagine we might have done the same.
It goes on like this, with seemingly not a beat out of place — a smooth cascade of basic, expertly applied genre satisfactions. As we watch, we may notice that there’s never any mention made of ISIS, or Al Qaeda. The police ask questions about Nuri’s religion, and the fact that he is an ex-con who used to deal drugs — the film’s first scene shows him marrying Katja while still in prison — comes into play briefly. The neo-Nazis who committed the bombing, and the international fascist network we’re told supports them, might seem like a fanciful narrative construct, but there was actually a right-wing underground organization called the National Socialist Underground in the early 2000s that murdered Turks in Germany, as a closing title reminds us.
But again, there’s more going on in In the Fade. And here I must discuss the final scene — so, spoiler alert. After the neo-Nazis are acquitted, Katja follows them to a beautiful beach in Greece and, using the same kind of homemade nail bomb that destroyed her family, blows herself up along with them. And as the camera drifts up from the smoking ruin of the explosion, and rises from one sea to another in an upside-down world, we may start to wonder what the flip side of this reality might look like. All along, the movie has used Katja as a benign vessel of compassion, indulging her grief and replaying the trauma of her experience. We’ve shared her sorrow, outrage, and anger. And now, just as it fades to black, In the Fade asks us — ever so briefly and troublingly — to imagine another world in which the terrorist is not a beautiful white woman, but someone with whom we have been taught never to empathize.