If you didn’t feel sufficiently suicidal after seeing last week’s South Florida opening of Michael Haneke’s Happy End, writer-director Faith Akin’s medicinal tragedy In the Fade has more than enough blunt despair to finish the job.
The difference is that unlike Haneke’s formally precise, even darkly comic burrow into the splintered human condition, Akin’s humorless litany of rage and melancholy is laden with clumsy symbolism and gauche craftsmanship. It’s redeemable largely on the back of its wrenching lead performance by Diane Kruger, whose immersion into the emotional maelstrom of grief is one of this awards season’s most acute and discomfiting cinematic gut-spillings.
Kruger’s character, Katja, is widowed within minutes of In the Fade, when a nail bomb explodes (offscreen) at the entrance of her husband Nuri’s (Numan Acar) Hamburg tax office, killing Nuri and their 5-year-old son, Rocco (Rafael Santana). Investigators begin to rummage through the dirty laundry of Katja’s past and present. We learn that Nuri was a convicted drug dealer, apparently clean in recent years, and that she met him as a client, in high school. Could the murder connect to his illicit past?
As the police does its job, Katja, numbing her experience with cocaine and other drugs, endures judgments from Nuri’s parents and her own mother alike, battles family members for ownership of her deceased loved ones’ remains, engages in the fluorescent morbidity of coffin selection. All the while, she’s convinced of the attackers’ motivation: “Nazis did this,” she asserts to her lawyer (Denis Moschitto) and the lead investigator, citing Nuri’s Kurdish heritage.
At the risk of treading lead-footed onto a spoiler minefield, suffice it to say that neo-Nazis do factor into the narrative, particularly a pair of vacant-eyed Aryans (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsford) who are chilling in their bland anonymity. There is a trial, a trip to Greece, a big finish and a textual postscript tying to the movie’s events to a string of real-life bombings by Germany’s National Socialist Underground between 2000 and 2007.
With the unequivocal evil of his film’s villains, Akin certainly has his pulse on today’s worrisome global uptick of white nationalism, which extends to their useful co-conspirators in positions of authority. Johannes Krisch delivers an appropriately detestable performance as the neo-Nazis’ attorney, muddying the waters of truth rather than attempting to exonerate his clients.
We know from recent experience that the bad guys sometimes win, but In the Fade is a story that dwells in corners so dark, and is so bereft of good news and even the slightest overture of humor that you’re forgiven for feeling existentially morose by the time it reaches its pitiless conclusion. Akin helps matters little by weighing his narrative with implausible coincidences and trite symbols: a suicide attempt undone by a miraculous voicemail, a flitting bird prompting our heroine to rethink a momentous decision, the appearance of menstrual blood after its extended absence serving a similar function.
These dubious narrative devices are compounded by a clunky visual grammar combining ostentatious cinematography with awkward editing fades. That In the Fade won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this month is a transparent measure of Globe voters’ preference for timely content over formal artistry.
But to paraphrase Bogart, we’ll always have Kruger, her eyes twin vortexes of protracted mourning, her makeup running a marathon, her grief as deep as the ocean floor. She successfully conveys the crippling mindset of someone whose continued life is, perhaps, an agony worse than death. She and Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have made magic together.
IN THE FADE. Director: Faith Akin; Cast: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsford, Numan Acar; Distributor: Magnolia; in German with English subtitles; Rated R; Opens Friday at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, the Tower Theater in Miami and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables