Fatih Akin’s In the Fade plays out like the fulfillment of a prophecy. Katja (Diane Kruger), a young woman from Hamburg, is driving to see her husband one evening only to find his office building encircled by yellow tape and emergency vehicles. She stops the car, and in the first flash of red and blue lights across her windshield, the entire film’s preordained trajectory seems revealed. There has been a bombing; both Katja’s husband and her son are dead. The next two hours will track Kruger as her character seeks violent retribution for the double murder — a pursuit that bends the rest of the film’s arc with all the menacing impassivity of an industrial-strength magnet.
Films about revenge rarely need much in the way of suspense. Within In the Fade’s first 15 minutes, Katja is cast into hell, into an airless, worst-case scenario. Further defeat is not an option. To predicate an entire storyline on devastation means backing oneself into a narrative corner, after which resolution can only be found in some final, redemptive confrontation. And because the perfect act of vengeance always borders on fantasy, the revenge plot retains an impatient momentum, rarely allowing for the vagaries of frustrated desire or reversals in fortune. We know that Katja must triumph in her pursuit of the killers, because retribution is all that’s left.
Since Katja’s husband was Kurdish and had once been incarcerated, the police assume the bombing must have been somehow connected to religion, drugs, or foreign organized crime. “My husband was agnostic,” Katja insists, and the killer was German, “as German as me.” Despite initial skepticism, the investigators ultimately accept the same conclusion that everyone else, including the audience, has already known: that neo-Nazis did it. In this choice for a villain, In The Fade’s revenge premise compresses into something even denser — the tale becomes black-and-white, shadowless, and quasi-allegorical. Katja’s pursuit of justice gains a historical necessity, her personal tragedy made heavier by the weight of politics both past and present.
The two culprits (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf) are arrested, tried, and necessarily acquitted in a spick-and-span Hamburg courtroom. They leave Germany for Greece to meet members of the country’s fascist Golden Dawn party, and a brooding Katja follows, armed with Google Maps and packets of American Spirits. We, the audience, know where this is going. After she finds the camper where the neo-Nazis are vacationing, Katja places a crudely-constructed nail bomb under its carriage, only to lose nerve and decide not to detonate it. The next day, she comes back with the bomb in a backpack strapped to her chest. It is a dark, cutting joke; for all the Islamophobic suspicion cast upon her husband, and despite the civilizing impulse of Germany’s judicial system, the film ends with a blonde suicide bomber as its protagonist.
Even though In the Fade won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, it was conspicuously absent from this year’s Oscar nominations in the same category. Critics have called Akin’s storytelling heavy-handed and unrealistic, but it seems that the Academy’s snub has more to do with issues of sensibility than artistic direction. At a time when the West’s brand of liberal democracy must cling to its premium on moral rightness — when we are encouraged to go high while the base forces of extremism go low — Katja’s final act of violence is audaciously unfashionable. By portraying Western Europe’s uneasy multiculturalism and the region’s surge of xenophobic, violent extremism, In the Fade circles around the recognizable social issues of our time while withholding any reproducible solution. Katja’s decision to kill herself along with the neo-Nazis offers no moral ending, only mutual destruction.
In his book On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad seeks to understand the particular horror that modern-day publics feel toward the figure of the suicide bomber. According to Asad, such horror is unrelated to fear, but prompted instead by the profound sense that suicide bombing is an act of “shattered human identity.” This reaction often gives way to a grasping effort to understand the bomber’s motives — was it to die in order to kill, or to kill in order to die? By In the Fade’s ending, this question has become increasingly muddled for Katja, who seems like she’s wishing for death the minute she breaks past the police barricades surrounding her husband’s office. But the film provokes more horror in its refusal to portray Katja’s final encounter with the couple that killed her husband and son. In the last scene, Katja steps into the neo-Nazis’ trailer, but the camera does not follow her. The film shows that when the humanity of one party cannot be accepted by the other, dialogue — both in a screenplay and in a larger, more damming sense — is impossible. We see the trailer detonate from afar, and this lack of cathartic confrontation breaks from the revenge plot in a narrative transgression that feels more gutting, more appalling, than any of the film’s political statements.
By refusing to bestow upon Katja’s violence a higher, redemptive meaning, In the Fade underlines the intractability of the many conflicts that history has seeded into our daily lives. In this manner, it recalls French author Leila Slimani’s recent Goncourt-winning novel The Perfect Nanny, a story of two children who are murdered by their family nanny, in which this personal tragedy is teased out to illuminate larger, national problems like growing wealth inequality, gentrification, and the exploitative violence of family care. Like In the Fade, Slimani’s novel takes violence as a given, mercilessly siphoning out any suspense from its narrative (“The baby is dead,” goes the opening line). Both she and Akin have resorted to perhaps the most horrifying example of personal loss — the murder of a child — to explore political atrocities that still evade words. Their works produce an aesthetic and emotional devastation that refuses to domesticate the violence at hand, and that can be more galvanizing than the most insightful of contemporary political analyses.
In the Fade is worthy of our attention today for the same reasons that it may not be very appealing or digestible. Artwork should never be considered inherently superior by virtue of its difficulty to consume, but Akin distinguishes himself in creating a response to fascist extremism that plays out primarily on emotional, and not dogmatic or discursive, terms. He reproduces the horror we feel living among real-life versions of these acts, situated in a 21st-century nexus of violence and the structural circumstances that enable it. As Asad writes, such horror is “essentially not a matter of interpretation.” It is corporeally felt and lies outside the remit of rationality, as any initial response to such extreme violence must necessarily be.
If revenge films can largely do away with suspense, the genre does rely on one thing, and that’s an engaging, dynamic protagonist who wins the audience’s favor. For In the Fade’s duration, Katja occupies this position, playing the hardy underdog who moves through an erected puppet world of one-dimensional archetypes. She must come up against evil neo-Nazis as well as a sleazy defense lawyer, a spiteful mother-in-law, and a clueless sister. Throughout her journey, she is the only character a viewer can muster any attachment to, and once we understand what she plans to do, the film has already circled back to its initial premise of grief. Without Katja’s singular humanity, the world of the movie collapses, and the final scene becomes yet another act of bereavement that, this time, is thrust upon the viewer. Katja steps into the camper, finds retribution, and dies in the process. We, sitting in front of the screen, are left with nothing.