Grief is not one thing but many things, a cavalcade of desperate emotions anchored by a fundamental loss of agency. The pain of losing everything is crippling, but it’s the helplessness—the overwhelming certainty that you are powerless to get it back—that can be fatal.
In the Fade, a Golden Globe-winning film from Germany, chronicles this loss of agency with devastating acuity. Diane Kruger is Katja, a loving wife to ex-con Nuri (Numan Acar) and mother to their 6-year-old son, Rocco (Rafael Santana). Their life together is a shining example of love conquering all. They met when she bought hash from Nuri, a drug dealer, in college. He went to prison, but they persevered and got married while he was behind bars. When he gets out, Nuri tries to go straight. They have a son and build a life together.
So when Nuri and Rocco are killed in a terrorist attacks Katja’s world crumbles. It’s not just the loss of love. Even her history is questioned. The police are convinced the attack was related to Nuri’s drug dealing, but Katja swears he had left it behind. They find drugs in her home, which Katja procured from a friend to help ease her grief, and don’t believe they belonged to her. She is convinced that Nazis were responsible, so when the true culprits are caught—a pair of young Aryans, one of whom Katja saw at the crime scene—we think she will find the peace she needs.
Yet catharsis never comes. Fatih Akin, director and co-writer, shifts the scene to the courtroom, where Katja must endure yet another series of indignities. A snide defense attorney shames her for her drug use and questions her mental state. She must sit silently in same room with the people responsible for her child’s murder. The most harrowing sequence is when a medical examiner explains exactly what the bomb did to her son’s body. Katja must endure all this, her grief and terror on display for the courtroom to see.
In the Fade manages to stay attuned to this emotional frequency, leaning on Kruger’s deeply vulnerable performance, even as it ticks off the boxes of a satisfying courtroom drama. Katja’s lawyer, a family friend, passionately defends her against the attacks of the defense, and while these scenes are cathartic for the viewer, Katja still has no agency. She sits by while her life—both her past and her future, which very much hangs in the balance—is debated by two men in suits. A greater indignity is still to come when the judges render their verdict.
It’s a marvelously complex story supported by Akin’s thoughtful filmmaking. Consider the musical score by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, who lets us inside Katja’s head at times when the truth is too painful to show. When she visits the site of the attack—her husband’s office—the tense, plinking piano gives way to strings of sadness. In the courtroom, when the co-conspirators are led in, Kruger’s eyes burn and industrial music pounds through her head and ours. It’s a masterful synergy of courageous acting and thoughtful filmmaking that returns agency to a grieving woman and humanity to a senseless world.
In the Fade opens Friday at Landmark West End Cinema.