Born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, the director Fatih Akin has never been shy of politics made personal. His films have long preoccupied themselves with individuals who struggle within their transnational social milieux, and who, as a result, have trouble trusting others. From the unstable, alcoholic Cahit in Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004) to the radical student activist Ayten in Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, 2007), the characters in Akin’s work consistently reveal his interest in what Noah Isenberg has called “explosive social drama” reminiscent of Fassbinder, played out along the cultural axis between Hamburg and Istanbul.1 Diverging from his earlier work, Akin’s latest film, Aus dem Nichts (In the Fade, 2017), focuses less on the double consciousness of German immigrants as it does on Germany’s own reckoning with the spectre of far-right nationalism. In uplifting an ethnically German protagonist who first seeks justice for her murdered Muslim husband through the legal system and then, in failing to obtain it, hesitantly takes matters into her own hands, In the Fade interrogates liberal anxieties about “eye for an eye” score settling: Does racism demand a more muscular response, especially when the system is too weak to protect the victim? Do you fight fire with fire?
In the Fade is Akin’s first major drama since completing his “love, death and the devil” trilogy (Gegen die Wand [Head-On, 2004], Auf der anderen Seite [The Edge of Heaven, 2007] and The Cut ), and feels inevitably political at a time when anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland is now Germany’s third largest political party. The film opens with a grainy “home movie”-style sequence, shot in a narrower aspect ratio, showing Nuri Şekerci (Numan Acar), a rehabilitated Turkish-Kurdish drug-dealer, being released from prison and marrying his blonde German girlfriend, Katja (Diane Kruger, appearing in her first German language feature). This nostalgic memory jumps to the present in which Nuri has become a travel agent, translator and tax preparer in a middle-class Turkish corner of Hamburg. As Katja walks to his office with their six-year-old son, Rocco, a car speeds by, nearly hitting Rocco and foreshadowing the ominous losses to come. Katja drops her son off with Nuri to enjoy a day at the Turkish baths with a friend. When she returns, however, she is told that a bomb has exploded outside Nuri’s office, blowing her family to pieces. Like in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the actual moment of terrorism is narrated after the fact, pieced together by the police, investigators and coroners. Akin’s resistance to representing the explosion aligns the viewer more closely with Katja’s perspective.
The plot of In the Fade is loosely based on the activities of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a small neo-Nazi group that was responsible for murdering one Greek and eight Turkish immigrants in Germany in the early 2000s. In 2004, the group detonated a bomb in a Cologne neighbourhood heavily occupied by Turkish immigrants, wounding twenty-two.2 It did not initially occur to the investigators that these incidents, which sprawled over a decade, were hate-crimes propagated by the same terrorist organisation. When it was eventually revealed that at least one of the local police officers involved in the investigations also had ties to the NSU, the discovery sent Germany, generally proud of having confronted its own dark past, into a state of shock.3 Akin translates that unsettling period of the early 2000s to the current European zeitgeist, which has witnessed the unexpected gains of far-right political parties like the AfD in Germany, the Golden Dawn in Greece and the National Front in France, as well as an apparent mainstreaming of xenophobia. Asked whether the NSU was still active in Germany, Akin noted the recent “false flag” shooting planned by German soldiers as one of his inspirations for making the film. “Pretending to be Syrian refugees,” Akin remarked, “they were planning bomb attacks, in order to blame the refugees as terrorists, so the state wouldn’t let refugees in anymore.”4 The NSU’s attacks, in other words, were not an isolated incident of the early 2000’s but an ongoing affront to Germany’s post-war perception of itself.
The narrative center of the film, however, is not the attack itself, which happens within the first ten minutes, but the aftermath of that violence, as Katja cycles through grief, drugs to alleviate that grief, an attempted suicide and a growing appetite for revenge. Akin divides this struggle into an architectural triptych (with three distinct episodes entitled “The Family”, “Justice” and “The Sea”), an aesthetic technique also used in The Edge of Heaven albeit in a more linear way in In the Fade.5 The pairing of two abstract nouns with a third more literal one prevents the section dividers from being too neat. In the first chapter, police investigators confront Katja with their theories of the case, incessantly honing in on Nuri’s Turkish-Kurdish and Muslim background. Perhaps he had ties with the Turkish mafia. Perhaps he was part of a radical Islamist group. Perhaps he was still dealing drugs. (“War Ihr Mann religiös? War Ihr Mann kurdisch?” the investigator presses.) We watch Katja persistently refute these stereotyped allegations, some of which are familiar tropes from prior Akin films given his long-standing interest in underworld violence. Katja confidently tells the incredulous detective that Nuri’s killers could have been Nazis, a conclusion too quickly arrived at by Katja and designed to feel farfetched, both to the police and the audience (but foreshadowed by the Nazi-era typography of the title screen). As the trail goes cold, she sinks further into depression. Bookending this first chapter is a nod to the beginning, with a new “home movie” sequence, a memory of the young family clowning around in the living room.
Diane Kruger’s portrayal of Katja oscillates between moments of being tough and determined around family or in court and extreme loneliness as she crumbles under the weight of what has happened to her. The camera mimics her emotional instability through over-the-shoulder shots of bystanders, as if placing the audience in the shoes of the first responders, or through claustrophobic close-ups of her crying face. In one scene, as she is in the act of committing suicide by slitting her wrists, the camera snakes along the floor of the bathroom, up over the lid of the bathtub and into the water before showing a dramatic top-down aerial shot of the half-submerged Kruger waiting to die. Before she fully bleeds out, however, the phone rings, interrupting a shot meant to feel like a conclusion. It is Commissar Fischer (Laurens Walter) confirming that Katja’s far-fetched Nazi theory had been right all along. Lazarus-like, Katja dramatically pulls herself from the bathtub, ready to fight yet another day.
Similar to the way the title of Auf der anderen Seite was changed to The Edge of Heaven, Akin altered his new film’s title for its English and Turkish release. The original title, Aus dem Nichts, literally translates as “out of nothing,” suggesting perhaps the unexpectedness of Katja’s tragedy, while the Turkish title, Paramparça, means “shattered into pieces.” Semantically, the English title, In the Fade, is an even bigger departure, coming from a song by American hard rock band, Queens of the Stone Age, who collaborated with Akin on the music for the film. There is a pleasurable multiplicity of meaning to the way the film’s English, German and Turkish titles are not direct translations of one another, with each seeming to get at a different message. The English title in particular seems to gesture toward loss and disappearance, toward the erasure of the self. In the original song, Josh Homme’s baritone growls:
Live till you die
Losing feeling, but I couldn’t get the way
Counting and breathing, disappearing in the fade
This sense of holding on before the self dissolves echoes Katja’s long, dark journey to revenge and ultimately death. Female suicide has been a recurrent motif in Akin’s work. His female characters seem constantly to brush up against death, resorting to self-harm as a way to deal with a male-dominated world, whether in the form of familial repression in Head-On, or in Katja’s case through her disillusion with the police. Akin noted in an interview, “When I was writing [In the Fade], I was listening to a lot of music by Queens of the Stone Age. I had the feeling that this could be the music that the character was listening to. It has a self-destructive attitude and somehow the film is about self-destruction.”6 As many critics have noted, music has never been window dressing for Akin. Isenberg has remarked how Akin “employs music as a means of enhancing his visual storytelling, not merely as an adornment or an ambient flourish but as a narrative voice in conversation with the actors, the director, and ultimately, the audience.”7 Like the ecstatic Roma music listened to by an out-of-control Sibel in Head On, the music in In the Fade matches Katja’s dark subjectivity.8
In the second chapter, Akin dissects an aloof criminal justice system, and in a larger sense, Germany’s liberal democratic order, whose emphasis on reason and rules can only disappoint her. Parts of this sequence, such as when the charges are read as a voiceover as Katja leaves court, seem to echo the scene of Ayten’s rejected asylum application in The Edge of Heaven. Katja’s prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful encounter with the German courts is the second act of violence against her, as she must relive the murders in excruciating factual detail through testimony by witnesses. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has panned this aspect of In The Fade’s plot as a “borderline-preposterous liberal drama,” suggesting that Akin’s choice to focus on a fringe Neo-Nazi group is “evasive when Islamist attacks are the obvious issue.”9 Bradshaw’s claim that Akin should have made a film on contemporary Islamist terrorism or, more broadly, that some stories deserve to be narrated more than others simply because they align with the nightly news, seems to misread Akin’s oeuvre. However ideologically distinct lone wolf ISIS attacks and Nazi-inspired violence may seem, they ultimately spring from the same politics of hatred, whether conceived of in national, racial or religious terms. One of the most striking moments during the trial is when the defence produces a Greek witness (secretly a member of the racist Golden Dawn Party) to provide an alibi for the German defendants. Akin gestures here at the “intersectional” nature of contemporary far-right movements, their shared interests in advancing xenophobia even where their individual nationalist agendas conflict.
Akin’s relationship to the stereotypes he is attempting to subvert, however, remains somewhat ambiguous. Much of the director’s previous work has focused on negative aspects of the Turkish and Turkish-German experience: drugs, alcoholism, rape and religious conservatism. The Turkish men he portrays can be controlling, even when they try not to be. The ostensibly assimilated Cahit in Head-On kills a man out of rage in a bar for insulting his love interest, Sibel. In another scene, Cahit complains about the “fucking Turks” before Sibel reminds him, “and you are one of them.” Initially, In the Fade feels like a stark contrast. Katja’s Turkish-Kurdish husband may have a chequered past but he is ultimately innocent. As Katja must repeatedly insist, Nuri, a dedicated husband, is the true victim here. However, Katja’s final act of vigilante justice could also be described as a kind of inverted honour killing, a common theme at least in Turkish cinema. At one point during the trial, Katja darkly notes that if she had been the victim of the bombing and “Nuri had survived, he wouldn’t have stood for all the chit-chat.”
True to this sentiment, when the trial fails to achieve justice, Katja takes matters into her own hands. The film then turns more squarely to the theme of female revenge, albeit in a way that is less stylised than either Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) or Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Daniel Herbert has noted how for Park Chan-wook, female revenge is a collective affair: female avenger, Geum-ja, offers up the opportunity to other victims to share in her revenge as a “new, spontaneous, representative democracy is formed out of a past trauma.”10 The Bride in Kill Bill must be trained by others to complete her mission. By contrast, Akin’s female vigilante proceeds on her own, spurning the help of her closest friend, a German lawyer who urges her to appeal the acquittal of her husband’s killers and, symbolically, not to lose hope in the rule of law. Moreover, unlike Tarantino and Park’s unstoppable heroines, Akin’s Katja is marked by her ambivalence about her cause; she aborts her initial attempt to seek revenge before mustering up the will to follow through.
Despite this minor plot swerve at the end, In the Fade remains the most conclusive of Akin’s dramas. Remarking on Akin’s own cinematic tendency toward uncertainty, Thomas Elsaesser has argued that The Edge of Heaven “leaves almost everything open, in a manner that suspends fatally entwined but ultimately quite separate lives, teasing us at once with too little and too much in the way of eventual closure or possible resolution.”11 The same ambiguity colours Head-On, which ends with the dissolving relationship of two passionate, troubled individuals that drift into their own storylines, unsure if they are ever going to meet or cross paths again. By contrast, In The Fade forms a neatly-organised, tripartite story. Even the weather in each chapter reinforces each chapter’s theme. For example, in the first chapter, the grieving Katja is constantly drenched in rain; the last chapter, devoted to the theme of revenge, takes place in the heat of summer. Similarly, Katja’s revenge follows a symmetrical, tit-for-tat logic: she uses the same exhibits from the trial to recreate the nail bomb that took her husband’s life. She also strikes the murderers unaware just like her husband was. Despite the fact that Akin has Katja second-guess most of her decisions, creating temporary narrative misdirection, the ending of the film feels tidier than his previous work.
Ultimately, what lies at the core of In the Fade is the contradiction of feeling particular yet being plural. The initial act of terrorism is an attack on an unremarkable tax office in Hamburg. The film is about Katja’s revenge, not ours. In a parallel way, it is also Akin’s coming to terms with his own experience of being targeted. He set out to shoot the project after finding his name listed on a neo-Nazi website. The question the film asks is not about assimilation, but about the difficulty of being a democratic subject when justice through the law fails. Germany’s democratic order lets Nuri’s killers go free on evidentiary technicalities, and Akin builds narrative tension through the guilt Katja feels at harming others outside of the state’s monopoly on violence. As a result of that failure, the only way Katja can bring herself to kill her tormentors is by killing herself along with them. The final shot is a slow twirl of the camera upside down on the open sea, a gesture that functionsnot only as a nod to the end of The Edge of Heaven, but also as a subtle enactment of Katja’s ambivalent final act, as if the camera itself has been damaged in the explosion. Katja’s constant hesitation before that dramatic moment captures a broader liberal anxiety about how to respond to today’s uptick in far-right violence, how best to counter hatred without succumbing to it.
- Noah Isenberg, “Fatih Akin’s Cinema of Intersections”, Film Quarterly 64.4 (Summer 2011), p. 58. ↩
- Jacob Kushner, “10 Murders, 3 Nazis, and Germany’s Moment of Reckoning”, Foreign Policy, March 16, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/16/10-murders-3-nazis-and-germanys-moment-of-reckoning/. ↩
- See Thomas Meaney and Saskia Schäfer, “The neo-Nazi murder trial revealing Germany’s darkest secrets”, The Guardian, December 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/15/neo-nazi-murders-revealing-germanys-darkest-secrets. ↩
- See Alissa Simon, “Director Fatih Akin on Returning to Cannes With Competition Film ‘In the Fade’”, Variety, May 22, 2017, http://variety.com/2017/film/festivals/cannes-film-festival-2017-director-fatih-akin-1202439387/. ↩
- Claudia Breger has argued that the narrative complexity of The Edge of Heaven “includes the intertitles opening its three ‘chapters,’ the following, rapidly cut establishing shots that introduce complex scenarios in different cities, and the ways in which these chapters are interwoven into a nonlinear, ‘fugue-like form,’ which proceeds (at moments defying the demands of probability) through parallels, doublings, and repetitions with a difference in characterization, plot motifs, and so on.” See “Configuring Affect: Complex World Making in Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven)”, Cinema Journal, 54:1 (Fall 2014), p. 71. ↩
- Alissa Simon, “Director Fatih Akin”, op. cit. ↩
- Noah Isenberg, “Fatih Akin’s Cinema of Intersections”, op. cit., p. 58. ↩
- See Dudley Andrew, “Fatih Akin’s moral geometry”, in Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski (eds.), The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 185. ↩
- Peter Bradshaw, “Ninja heroine Diane Kruger marooned in feeble revenge drama”, The Guardian, May 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/26/in-the-fade-review-diane-kruger-fatih-Akin-cannes-2017. ↩
- Daniel Herbert, “Trilogy as Third Term: Historical Narration in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy”, in Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 90. ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Ethical Calculus”, Film Comment (May/June 2008), pp. 34-37. ↩