By any measure Katja (Diane Kruger), the protagonist of In the Fade, is a tough woman. When we first see her, in flashback via a home movie, she’s getting married — in prison. She’s a visitor, not an inmate, but the screw-the-world look on her face says everything about how hard it’s been to get to his moment and marry the man she loves, Nuri, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey doing time for a drug charge. After the vows, they don’t exchange rings; their rings are already tattooed on their fingers. This, they want everyone to know, is for keeps.
Later, we’ll learn some of the details that led to that moment, and none of them sound easy. Neither Katja nor Nuri’s parents approve of the match for their own reasons, for instance. But by the time we learn this their objections don’t matter anymore.
Most of the action of In the Fade takes place some years after that prison wedding. Katja and Nuri’s ardor appears to have cooled a bit, but they seem to be making it work as a couple. Nuri works as a tax advisor, translator, and travel agents for fellow immigrants in Hamburg. Katja focuses on raises their son Rocco. It all seems to be going well enough until, while Katja is away on an afternoon visit to her sister, a bomb explodes outside Nuri’s office, killing him and Rocco. However tough she may be, nothing could prepare Katja for this.
Directed by Fatih Akin (Head-On, Soul Kitchen), In the Fade is divided into three parts distinct parts: “Family,” “Justice,” and “The Sea,” and each has a feel all its own. In the first, Katja struggles to emerge from the grief of losing her family as the police dig into her private life, which includes no small amount of self-medicating to try to drown out the pain. They also start suggesting some sort of connection to drugs or terrorism might be to blame for Nuri and Rocco’s death. In the second, a courtroom drama, she endures the trial of the actual perpetrators. Then, in its third act, In the Fade becomes a melancholy thriller as the grief and desire for justice of the first two sections fuse into a kind of private quest that finds Katja into unknown territory.
From the moment Katja returns to find her life shattered, Akin seldom lets the tension subside, and Kruger’s performance matches the intensity at every step. In the Fade doesn’t leave her side as she goes through one harrowing experience after another, whether getting grilled on the details of her private life or sitting in the courtroom as a forensic expert explains how exactly the bomb killed her family, down to the grisliest detail. It’s a remarkable performance, one that sees Katja taking a trip through one corner of hell, then another, with Akin’s camera rarely leaving her side.
It’s unsettling for other reasons, too. Nuri and Rocco’s killers are revealed to be, as Katja suspected, Nazis. And not shaven-headed thugs but a perfectly pleasant-looking young couple who decided to take their hatred of immigrants to the next level by taking out as many as they can in an act of terror. So what does it mean, then, to pursue justice for such a crime in 2017 Europe? And what could be done if that justice fails to arrive?
In the Fade has no answers. Instead, it has only Kruger’s haunted face, which she steels when she meets resistance but whose fragility she can’t hide. Without her, it might seem too dissolute, its sections movies unto themselves instead of part of a whole. With her, however, In the Fade has dark, magnetic center, holding together the story of a woman trying to make sense of the impossible in a world where mere toughness sometimes isn’t enough to fight back the cruelty of others.