There is a scene toward the end of In the Fade, the dark horse that won the foreign-language Golden Globe earlier this month, when the camera closes in on a neo-Nazi terrorist who appears about to vomit. For one intriguing moment, director Fatih Akin seems to enlarge this taut film to include an investigation of guilt and shame, but it's fleeting. Mainly In the Fade follows the terrorists' chief victim and dwells exclusively on her grief and the thirst for revenge.
Katja (Diane Kruger) is a young Hamburg woman married to Nuri (Numan Acar), a former drug dealer and ex-con who now runs a successful business as a translator and tax adviser to the city's Turkish community. Katja does the books and looks after their energetic six-year-old. But all this we mainly learn in retrospect as Katja answers police questions after her husband and son are killed when a nail bomb explodes near the top of the film.
In the Fade, which is also Germany's entry for the foreign-language Oscar, has been described as a thriller, but there's little suspense involved as the bombers are quickly identified as a pair of anti-immigrant neo-Nazis who have targeted Nuri's office, and while a court may doubt their guilt, the audience never does. Instead, the thrills are psychological as Akin follows Katja through the process of grief to the bewildering courtroom proceedings where her quest for revenge really begins.
Kruger won the best-actress prize at Cannes last year for her unwavering, monosyllabic performance as Katja, and both her strength and Akin's lie in charting Katja's emotional states through wordless scenes where she experiences the profundity of her grief, often in the dark and the rain: Her lowest moment, just before the neo-Nazis are arrested, is a particularly striking bathroom scene of blood, water and ink, the latter in the form of Katja's many tattoos. Opening the film with Nuri and Katja's jailhouse wedding, Akin also throws in a few bits of pseudo-amateur video to evoke the loving family life that preceded the blast. But mainly the film is a tightly focused and tightly filmed neo-noir, as the script, which Akin co-wrote with Hark Bohm, neatly picks off parents and friends to leave Katja isolated enough to make her desperate actions believable.
This narrow focus on the protagonist's emotional state comes at a cost, however. The film is almost devoid of social setting for any of its characters and offers no alternative to Katja's despair. Nuri's criminal background serves little purpose except as a red herring in the police investigation and the racism he may have experienced as a German of Kurdish origin is no more visible than that community itself. In contrast to the multiple strands of the recent Greek film Amerika Square, which covered similar territory by juxtaposing stories of migrants, liberals and racists, In the Fade feels seriously hampered by its claustrophobia. It offers no easy solutions or quick uplift, yet there's still a movie-of-the-week feel to the proceedings, which seem to offer topicality without context.
In the Fade opens Jan. 19 in Toronto, and Jan. 26 in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.