In some ways, the small-scale terrorist attacks that have become so prominent in recent years pose even more challenges to representation – both cinematic and otherwise – than the looming spectre of 9/11, and the large-scale terrorist events that seemed to be destined in its wake. Not only did the massive scale of 9/11 lend itself to all kinds of cinematic reimaginations, but it dwarfed the individuals around it so categorically that it was easy to subsume individual responses into a more collective sense of mourning, or alternatively to envisage individual heroism in terms that were as dramatically singular as the spectacle of the Twin Towers themselves. However, in an era in which terrorist attacks have taken on more of a “pop-up” quality – local, improvisational and often dissociated from any single overarching agency or ideology – it becomes much more difficult to articulate a response in terms of individual action or perception. Indeed, part of the point of these attacks often seems to be foreclose precisely that individual response, both emotionally and physically, while simultaneously operating on a sufficiently specific scale that the collective grief of 9/11 isn’t quite able to absorb or defuse the traumatic singularity of the spectacle either.
Given that cinema is, for the most part, structured around individuals at the mercy of wider global forces, that has produced some unusual aesthetic responses to small-scale terrorism in recent years. Most unusually, perhaps, Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris depicts the three Americans who forestalled the 2015 Thalys train attack, but entirely discards Eastwood’s late classicism in favour of something closer to docudrama, in which these three Americans actually play themselves in the months, years and days leading up to the attack, as well as during a recreation of the attack itself. While it might not be quite as unusual, Fatih Akin’s In the Fade is possibly even more original than Eastwood’s vision, offering three very different visions of how we might formulate an individual response to small-scale terrorism – all of which are drawn from the language of classical cinema – while never quite committing to any one of them. The result is a film that is never atonal in any one scene – with the exception of its extraordinary final sequence – but that moves so drastically from one tone to the next that it sometimes plays more like three discrete films, or as an anthology of short films about the same event. That event is the bombing of a building in the Turkish quarter of Berlin – a bombing that is targeted at Turkish businessman Nuri Sekerci (Numan Acar), but that also kills his young son as well, leaving his wife Katja (Diane Kruger) bereft of her family in the space of a single afternoon, and then bereft of her extended family, as he in-laws announce their decision to return to Turkey instead of remaining to help her, and her parents, cope with this enormous, traumatic loss.
From the beginning it’s clear In the Fade is, in part, about the way in which terrorism tends to be “profiled” on the big screen, with the police initially assuming that the attack must have been carried out by the Turkish, Kurdish or even Albanian Mafia, so inconceivable is it to think of a Middle Eastern man as the victim of a terrorist agenda. As if acknowledging the extent to which all cinema about terrorism is to some extent complicit in that stereotype, Akin opens with an ambiguous piece of home footage in which we see Nuri walking along a prison corridor and then into open space, where he meets Katja clad in white, on what is presumably their wedding day. While the meaning of this scene becomes clearer later on, there’s something provocative about the way in which Akin sets up this conjunction – a Middle Eastern man and a prison – without clarifying it for the viewer, as if to dare us to try and imagine or stereotype the screenplay that is to follow. No surprise, then, that the perpetrators of the crime are not hangovers from Nuri’s early career as a drug dealer – as the police initially suppose – but in fact a pair of Neo-Nazis and adherents to the latter-day National Socialist Party, who have simply happened to target him as a prominent businessman in the Turkish community. As with Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, then, In the Fade partly operates as an allegory for a system whose very discourses of legal and civil procedure are set up to tactitly enable white male terrorism, if only becase this – clearly politically motivated – act is never even really or properly enunciated as such, and is only barely glimpsed as an act of terror by the screenplay itself.
Yet while the film is intimately bound up with Nuri’s identity, the core of its vision lies with Kruger’s extraordinary performance of Katja who, in the aftermath of the attack, finds herself rehearsing several different ways of trying to make sense of herself as an individual, and to respond as an individual, after an event that has both robbed her of her individuality but that also seems so dissociated from her individuality as well. The first of these responses is, perhaps not surprisingly, vigilantism, with Katja gradually adopting a punky aesthetic as the film proceeds, and taking our her rage and frustration with tattoos, heavy drugs and rock music. At the same time, however, this punkiness never quite congeals into a fully-fleged vigilante impulse, just as the fractured rock score – the title of the film is taken from a song by Queens of the Stone Age – never quite syncs with the rest of the action, and becomes downright atonal by the closing scenes. As much as it might initially seem to be the accompaniment to her vigilantism, then, this soundtrack ends up suggesting some reflexive impotence at the heart of her revenge, which is presumably to do with the fact that vigilantism is itself an inherently white male subject position. While Katja may well be white, the fact that her enemies are Neo-Nazis – the logical conclusion of vigilantistic frustration – absorbs much of the bite of her own revenge, which eventually takes on a much more primal and ritualistic quality, devoid of the frustration and sense of disenfranchisement that drives the classical vigilante.
Before we get to that point, however, Akin introduces a second language that has conventionally and cinematically been used to evoke unbearable impasses to individual agency – the language of melodrama. For the most part, In the Fade’s extraordinary melodramatic intensity revolves around its unique and unremitting focus on the impact of terrorism on individual bodies – something we always wonder about when we see reports about the latest attack, but that is usually tacitly (perhaps necessarily) elided. By contrast, Katja is made peculiarly and traumatically aware, from the very outset, of the impact of the blast upon the bodies of her husband and (especially) her son. When the police initially arrive at her house, the first thing they tell her is that they need a DNA sample to identify her husband and son’s bodies, since they’re destroyed beyond all recognition. As a result she never receives the closure of “seeing my loved ones” since, as the head investigator bluntly reminds her,”They’re no longer people – only body parts.” From that point on, this horror – the horror of the interface between bomb and body – returns again and again, and somehow intensifies, whether through the horror of having to choose coffins for a funeral in which there are no bodies, or through the unbearable final courtroom scene, in which a bomb expert describes, in minute detail, the three successive stages of the blast, and their different desecrations of the body of Katja’s son.
Throughout this first part of the film, this mounting horror takes its toll on Katja’s body as well, which seems to be continually on the verge of falling apart – she hasn’t had her period since she heard the news – as she tries, desperately, to keep herself together through drug use, suicide attempts and, finally, a new and more auster mode of revenge. Watching Kruger during some of these scenes is quite painful, since you can easily see the physical toil and exhaustion of the performance on her body, in one of the most harrowing and embodied depictions of grief that I have ever seen on the big screen. It’s no surprise, then, that she received the Best Actress award at Cannes, if only as some kind of compensation for the enormous affective labour on display here, but also no surprise that neither she nor Katja can sustain this for the remainder of the film without her character committing suicide, or the film itself coming to an abrupt halt. While the transition away from this melodramatic impulse can be read in different ways, a key tipping-point comes when Katja’s in-laws announce that they are returning to Turkey, and demand to take the bodily remains of their son and grandson with them for “safe keeping.” Devoid of a pair of bodies, devoid of a proper burial, and devoid of any closure, Katja now finds the one, small solace she has – the bodily fragments of her family, the last vestiges of their shared DNA – on the verge of being taken from her grasp.
So traumatic is this moment, however, that it forces Katja – and the film – into a different tack, as Akin now subsumes the vigilantistic and melodramatic registers of the first half into a mythological register, with the presence of these body parts, and the necessity for providing them with a proper burial, imbuing Katja’s revenge with something more classical and austere. Accordingly, the film retrospectively organises itself into a classical three-act structure, with the autumnal first act (depicting Katja’s grief) and the wintry second act (depicting the trial and acquittal of the Neo-Nazis) giving way to a third act set in Greece, where Katja tracks the perpetrators down. This third section is ostensibly set in summer, but in reality it’s the coldest and harshest part of the film, as we transition from German and Turkish to a stilted, broken English that works beautifully to capture Katja’s total subsumption of herself into her role at this point in the screenplay. While the first two acts might have found her struggling to articulate some selfhood outside her grief, here, it becomes clear – in quite classical fashion – that she is never going to return from grief, or find any outlet from grief. Instead, she has been irrevocably changed by the murder, and assigned a new role in life, adopting shock as a state of mind and a broader outlook on life in the manner so typical of classical tragedies.
In the process, the sunny, balmy overtones just make the Mediterranean coast feel all the more primal and liminal – bleak in its brilliance and elemental in the way it distills Katja to a few core impulses. That culminates with the extraordinary two-part conclusion, in which she sets up a nail bomb outside the Neo-Nazi couple’s caravan, then removes it, only to replace it a couple of days later, but this time waiting to be consumed in the blast. Annihilating her own body along with those of the murderers, it feels as if this is the only way that Katja can properly commune with the trauamatic terrorist interface occupied by her husband and son, but also that even this individual imperative has somehow been swallowed up in a wider and more impersonal sense of ritual cleansing and sacrifice. Audaciously, it’s at just this moment that the rock music associated with Katja’s earlier vigilantism comes back into the frame, ending the film on a profoundly awkward, atonal and even absurd note that perhaps explains why it has been so unfavourably received by some critics. Yet it’s that atonality, and that inability to settle on a single register for visualizing small-scale terrorism that makes In the Fade so of its moment, as Akin executes the finely-tuned dissonance that only a master director can really pull off.