Tuesday 26 June 2018

Extreme measures: "In the Fade"

She's been an ever-present on the red carpet at major movie festivals over the past decade, but Diane Kruger has had a hard time being taken seriously, as models-turned-actresses often do. Always a tricky business, persuading onlookers to extend their sympathies to someone who already boasts the considerable life-advantage of having emerged from the desired end of the gene pool; it hardly helped that Kruger's first major film showcase came playing the fabled Helen in 2004's all but disastrous Troy, one of those billings even a seasoned performer would struggle to live up to. (I am reminded of Judi Dench in the recent doc Nothing Like A Dame, confessing to having wondered why producers sought out "a menopausal dwarf" like her to play Cleopatra.) In the Fade, a would-be heavy-hitting, politically charged drama from the German writer-director Fatih Akin, takes certain steps to address this issue. It finds Kruger a little more lived-in than usual, and sporting the kind of beauty-disrupting tattoos appropriate for playing the wife of an ex-con; it hands her a pair of spectacles, always a sign an actress is pushing for greater credibility; and its plot encourages her to pull the kind of silly, mashed-up and eventually agonised faces that would never in a million years be allowed at a Vogue cover shoot. Truly, it's a whole new world.

As in the film, which opens with a brisk, sly panorama of the multicultural neighbourhood in Hamburg where Kruger's Katja has settled with her hubby (now reformed as a financial advisor at a drop-in centre for the area's Muslim community) and a son so adorably cutesy-poo that you can only fear the worst for him. Ten minutes in, and that worst comes to pass: before the title has had chance to fade up, some ne'er-do-well plants a nailbomb outside the centre, killing our heroine's nearest and dearest. The film's potential strength is that Akin has recognised such atrocities come as a test of all our biases, latent, unconscious or otherwise. The detectives who show up at Katja's doorstep in the wake of the attack can at least claim to be doing their job by asking needling questions about hubby's religious orientation (he's an atheist, Katja retorts) and his affiliation with his clients - you yourself might wonder how two thirtysomethings working in the volunteer sector can afford such a spacious property in which to raise their child - but the media inevitably prioritise some details of the case over others: a photofit of a young woman wanted for questioning in relation to the attack bears the presumptive, arguably prejudicial words "She is probably Eastern European". There is the extra charge that all this should be unfolding in the heart of 21st century Germany: Act One draws to a close with Katja's stark realisation, in the office of the lawyer who provides her with numbing crack, that "the Nazis did it".

Already, you could be sensing In the Fade's tendency towards the overemphatic: it is, palpably, the work of a filmmaker whose reputation has waned somewhat in the decade or so since his 2004 breakthrough Head On, pushing way too hard for the impact that might bring him back into the cultural conversation. Hubby's demise coincides with what seems like several years' worth of rain falling on Hamburg; when the suspects are finally tried in Act Two, it is in a courtroom so bizarrely overlit it begins to resemble a Hype Williams promo for a song called something like "Da Law Is An Azz". The idea, presumably, is that any injustice should be put in plain sight, but these courtroom scenes are where the film's own issues of plausibility become starkly apparent. So Katja is forced to sit seething through the grim forensic details of her son's death; the witnesses are arranged in such an odd fashion that they have to turn 360° in their chair to answer lawyers' questions; and the father of one of the suspects (Ulrich Tukur, nicely understated in the circumstances) apologises for his son's actions without any of the defence lawyers raising the merest objection, the better to support the directorial thesis about the need of good men and women to stand up to intolerance, and to instil optimistic viewers with false hope such goodness will win out.

There is, instead, only one way In the Fade is heading. Act Two shades into Act Three with that not-guilty verdict (larded with close-ups of the accused's gloating, gleeful, got-away-with-it grins), and the film transforms into a woolly liberal Death Wish, as our heroine heads to a sundappled Greek coastal idyll to singlehandedly bring down the country's anti-immigrant Golden Dawn movement. Of course, Akin can't wholly endorse the idea of retributive violence, so - between lessons on cobbling together a nailbomb, set to an ill-applied, vaguely Knopfleresque Josh Homme score - there follow plentiful shots of our heroine staring out to sea and wondering how far she is prepared to go. We, meanwhile, are left to contemplate how fortunate it is for cinematographer Rainer Klausmann that Golden Dawn should have maintained a bolthole round the corner from an 18-30 holiday resort, rather than, say, in a grimy flat in downtown Thessaloniki. En route to the sea, the carefully integrated context of that first act is gradually stripped away, and a film that initially asked to be taken seriously is revealed as a limp - if admittedly leftfield - Taken wannabe. (It goes almost without saying that Diane Kruger is no Liam Neeson.) The extreme right remain on the rise across the globe, and it behoves the rest of us to counter these dunderheads wherever possible - but for God's sake, cinema, give us stronger arguments and smarter calls to arms than this ropy, posturing, unedifyingly nihilistic flim-flam.

In the Fade is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. 

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