A starkly intimate character study that swerves into vigilante thriller-dom, the German-language drama In the Fade is a flawed filmgoing experience, but still a viscerally affecting one. It helps that its subject — the ugly resurgence of neo-Nazi hate crimes — couldn’t feel more painfully topical, and that the movie is anchored by a startlingly raw performance by Diane Kruger, who rightfully earned a best actress prize at Cannes.

She stars as Katja, a bohemian blonde in modern-day Hamburg who adores her sweet-tempered 6-year-old son Rocco (Rafael Santana) and gentle bear of a husband, the Turkish-born Nuri (Numan Acar). One morning, she kisses them both goodbye and heads off for a spa day with her sister; when she returns a few hours later, Nuri’s office has been bombed into oblivion, taking her whole world with it. Local law enforcement assumes the cause is obvious: Nuri had a criminal record for drug convictions; their son was collateral damage. Katja, nearly out of her mind with shock and convinced that a strange young woman she saw lingering outside the office the day of the explosion had something to do with it, refuses to accept their conclusions. And so she fights to take the case to court and find justice by any means necessary. (The deaths, by the way, aren’t a spoiler; they happen in the first few minutes of the film.)

Award-winning Turkish-German director Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen, Head-On) does best when he focuses on the deeply human side of his story: the way grief works like shrapnel, inflicting more damage as it burrows under the skin. He also has a sharp eye for not just the obvious evil of pure xenophobes, but the milder presumptions about race and class and culture that can poison even the best intentions. As the plot slips further toward a bloody sort of Charles Bronson-Liam Neeson revenge fantasy, subtlety starts to leave the building, and so does some of the story’s emotional impact too. Still, there’s a blunt satisfaction in Fade‘s scorched-earth ending, and real power in Kruger’s bruised, unforgettable heroine. B

In the Fade
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