A couple of injustices have nagged at me since re-watching this emotionally wrenching drama from German filmmaker Fatih Akin (Short Sharp Shock). First, it's such a well-made, fantastically acted work that its last-minute prestige-season spin-out is dumbfounding.
The movie began gaining momentum in May, when its star, Diane Kruger, walked away with the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It picked up in December, when the Academy selected it as one of nine titles on its Best Foreign Language Film short list. By mid-January, it had pulled away from the pack, nabbing top foreign honors at both the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards in less than a week.
If that's not the definition of an Oscar frontrunner, I don't know what is. Then, like a jetliner dropping into the Hudson, nothing. In the Fade just went off the awards radar. Poof.
Then there's the courtroom miscarriage that drives the film. The tradition of the movie trial is long. At this juncture, conceiving and choreographing one that comes off as innovative is no small achievement. Akin and cowriter Hark Bohm have created the most intricate and compelling film trial since A Few Good Men.
It happens as the result of a horrific hate crime. Kruger plays Katja Sekerci, a domesticated wild child who's found happiness in Hamburg with her Kurdish husband, Nuri (Numan Acar), a drug dealer turned tax accountant; and their 5-year-old son, Rocco. As Kenneth Turan observed in the Los Angeles Times, "They are happy in that movie way that foretells doom."
One evening, Katja drives to Nuri's office to pick up the child and is blocked by police. Cordoned off, the area's a smoldering crime scene. Someone, we learn, set off a nail bomb near the entrance to the business, and a man and child are missing. Police initially question Katja about her husband's religious beliefs, suspecting the act was connected to terrorist or criminal activity. Eventually, they arrest a young neo-Nazi couple.
Katja, already shattered beyond imagining, is forced to relive the nightmare day after day at their trial. Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf lend the pair a chilling blankness. It's Johannes Krisch as their defense lawyer, however, who will lower your core temperature to the brink of hypothermia. He's like something that slithered out of an SS grave.
As if that weren't unsettling enough, Akin and Bohm based the sequence on a real case, a 2013 Münich trial of neo-Nazis charged with murdering Turks in Germany. So this isn't a film that's gratuitously dark but rather a topical film about dark times.
It does not get grimmer than the moment when a medical examiner details the physical damage to the little boy's body. You can almost see the mother's brain chemistry mutate at the molecular level. Kruger signals her grief and disbelief with consummate subtlety as she listens to the list of horrors — hair burned onto the front of the skull, arm severed, metal embedded in the torso, organs shredded, lungs filled with blood...
Just when you're sure she couldn't possibly be horrified further, a technicality compels the court to acquit the killers. Movie critic law prohibits saying more than that the story is far from over, and Katja is far from finished with these monsters. In the Fade is a rare film, a revenge fest rendered artfully, empathetically and with keen social insight. I found it unforgettable to watch her handle the truth.
In the Fade screens Saturday, March 24, as part of the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier (gmffestival.org).