Diane Kruger wasn't seriously considered for any major year-end awards, which is a shame. Her performance in In the Fade hits as hard as any I saw in 2017.
Frances McDormand deserves her acclaim for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it's Kruger whose vengeance-seeking role makes you feel every ounce of grief and rage. She conveys a ferocity that recalls the rawness of Sean Penn in Mystic River, a bottomless well of grief that leads to dangerous places.
We first see Kruger's Katja in a state of luminous joy, in a home video of her jailhouse marriage to Nuri (Numan Acar). Soon Nuri's sentence for drug-dealing is over, and the couple has settled into a middle-class existence with their young son. This is the calm. The storm arrives with a nail bomb that kills father and child at Nuri's office in Hamburg. Nuri is a Turkish German (as is writer/director Fatih Akin, who based the story on a string of hate attacks on minorities in Germany between 2000 and 2007), and Katja figures the terrorists to be neo-Nazis. As it turns out, she's right.
Kruger sets the screen ablaze from this opening act onward. She finds all manner of subsections in grief: disbelief and shock, animalistic howling, drug-induced numbness, indignant lashing out at whoever says the wrong thing at the wrong time. She acts with her face, and her body, and her voice. As they say in sports, she leaves it all on the field. It's a performance of tremendous stamina that stops on a dime and pivots from force to vulnerability. Kruger won the best actress award at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Kudos to that jury for recognizing what they were seeing. (Though it wasn't nominated for any Oscars, In the Fade was named the best foreign-language film at the 2018 Golden Globes).
The middle section of the film revolves around the courtroom trial of said Nazis, the Möllers, a sullen couple played by Hanna Hilsdorf and Ulrich Brandhoff. Akin fills these scenes with harsh light, making the courtroom an uncomfortable stage on which Katja squirms. Even as we grow surer and surer of the defendants' guilt, we also grow uneasy as small technicalities mount. This section also gives us the wicked pleasure of watching Johannes Krisch, who provides the only performance that matches Kruger's intensity. He plays a curt, fearsome defense attorney who hurls every word and idea like a dagger aimed at Katja's head.
As the trial proceeds, and Katja nears her breaking point, we grow certain that she will take matters into her own hands, either because the process will take too long or the Möllers will be acquitted. If the madness of grief is In the Fade's primary subject, the corrosive allure of vengeance is a close second. And so the film's final third finds Katja prowling a sun-dappled seaside town in Greece, scouting and considering how far her madness will take her.
In the Fade wobbles a little in this deconstruction of Death Wish-style vigilante justice. But only a little. As Katja wrestles with her state of mind and plan of action, the film hews to her core truth: She will never be the same. The soothing sounds of the sea take her back to happier times with her family. They also provide a stark contrast to Katja's inner turmoil.
There's a crushing finality to the film's climax that feels surprising and just right given what Katja has endured. There's no escape, no going back to life as she knew it. And because of Kruger, In the Fade maintains a daunting level of emotional truth to the last.
In the Fade (B+)
R (some disturbing images images, drug use and language, including sexual references). 106 minutes. In German and Greek with English subtitles. At the Angelika Dallas and the Angelika Plano.