By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 13, 2018
In 2012, when the German-Turkish writer/director Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven) began working on the screenplay for his new drama In the Fade, terrorists were wreaking havoc around the world: South America, Africa, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017, a shrapnel bomb had just killed 23 people in Manchester, England. Then the movie arrived at last September's Toronto International Film Festival - not quite a month after a neo-Nazi killed a counterprotestor at a rally in Charlottesville, Va. So to say In the Fade is relevant is a disheartening understatement.
It tells the story of Katja (Diane Kruger), a Hamburg native whose Turkish-German husband and son are killed in a terrorist bombing. A pair of neo-Nazis are arrested and tried - the trial is an amazing piece of filmmaking - but acquitted. Katja, engulfed in horror, grief and anger, makes a controversial decision. The film invites viewers to ponder what they would do, and explores the fade between justice and revenge. Kruger won the best actress award in Cannes and the film is on the shortlist for the foreign language Oscar. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film last Sunday.
(It opens in select cities Jan. 19.)
Kruger's award came as a surprise - a former model who was born in Germany and lives in New York and Paris, she hadn't had to stretch much in American movies (Troy, the National Treasure series, Inglourious Basterds).
She's primarily known for her flawless skin and stunning fashion sense. (For her TIFF interviews, she wore a lacy, floral, boxy dress that would make anyone else look like a doll or a grandmother, but on her looked spectacular.) But in In the Fade, Kruger's delicate beauty works against Katja's profound sadness and flintiness to devastating effect.
"I didn't expect that Diane would be this fearless," Akin said in a hotel-room interview during TIFF. "She went into the character and she never came out. I'd never worked with somebody who was that focused."
Kruger, 41, had never let a film haunt her before. This one did. "I was always pretty good at turning it off," she says in a separate interview, in an accent lightly tinted with German and French vowels. "But I didn't work for six months after I made this."
Partly, it's because she'd never shot a film in her native Germany, so she relaxed into her Germanness in a way she hadn't before. "I was reconnecting with little details, things I knew inside me, that I didn't have to even think about," she says. "The way we talk to each other, the way when we visit each other we bring cake or brotchen, a roll that people eat in the mornings.
When it screened in France, people asked, 'How did Katja know the bombers were neo-Nazis?' When you're German, you know.
That's reality. It's still very much a stigma, the blue-eyed blonde German girl marrying a Turkish man."
Partly, it's because Kruger has wanted to work with Akin for years; she approached him at a party in Cannes five years ago to tell him so. And partly, it's because her stepfather died while they were shooting: "I'd play grief every day, and then come home and feel grief with my mom," she says. "There was no escaping it."
But mainly, it's because Kruger spent six months meeting with families who'd lost someone to murder. "There's a wall of emptiness in them, of blackness, that surprises you," she says. "You feel it. Especially the people who couldn't see the bodies, because there were no bodies - that seemed worse, because they never get the closure to say goodbye.
Those mothers, especially, were so broken. More than just lost.
When Manchester happened, I had the consciousness that a thousand Katjas were just created."
Akin shot the film in six weeks in his native Hamburg ("He's a superstar there," Kruger says.
"People in the street ask him for autographs") - mostly in chronological order, which helped Kruger finesse Katja's transformation.
But the heart of the story takes place in the courtroom, scenes that took five days to film.
The film is based on a real trial of three neo-Nazis in Munich who killed 10 people over a 10year period, sometimes with guns, sometimes with nail bombs. "People thought the victims killed each other, because they were immigrants, foreigners," Akin says. Two of the three accused, both men, killed themselves; their accomplice, a woman, was still on trial in September when we talked. Akin took three separate trips to Munich to observe the proceedings.
"It's terribly boring," he says, smiling. "It's not like an American movie, with speeches. So I had to find a way to make it absolutely precise and real, because otherwise my German audience would be very angry with me." The quiet, calm delivery of the horror that's being described is shattering, and gives Katja's actions necessary context.
"It's been lovely to surprise people like this," Kruger admits.
She plays smaller roles in her next two films - JT Leroy, about a woman (Kristen Stewart) who pretends to be her sister's literary alias (shot in Winnipeg); and The Women of Marwen, starring Steve Carell and directed by Robert Zemeckis (shooting in Vancouver). But Kruger is also capitalizing on her new-found credibility: She's developing a mini-series - she'll produce and star - about the Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr, who ruled Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. And she and Akin are reteaming for a limited series about Marlene Dietrich, set between 1937 and 1945.
"It would be stupid to do Marlene with anyone but Diane," Akin says. "She's German, she's French, she's American, as Marlene was. There's one person on the planet who'd be convincing, and it's her."
When Kruger's not working, she's cooking (Akin raves about her homemade pasta sauce), or learning to ride the vintage motorcycle she just bought. "It's basically a moped," she says, laughing. "You have to kick-start it."
But she's happy to have put In the Fade into the world. "I've been surprised by how much people connect with Katja," she says. "I don't think any film I've made has touched people this much. In the past, people would come up to me and say, 'Oh, Inglourious Basterds, fun movie.' With this one, people want to talk about it. People cry. Sadly, this is our reality. But we're all in it together."
In the Fade opens Jan. 19 in Toronto and Vancouver; Jan. 26 in Montreal and Ottawa; and in other Canadian cities throughout the spring.
Diane Kruger stars as a Hamburg native whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist attack in In the Fade, a film that has been relevant from its early conception in 2012 to its Cannes premiere five years later.