The Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has made a career out of chronicling the marginalized. In his 2004 masterpiece, Head-On, a man and a woman — both of Turkish ancestry, both suicidal, but from very different family backgrounds — found themselves in a dangerous, passionate relationship. 2009’s Soul Kitchen followed a pair of Greek brothers as they struggled to run a Hamburg restaurant. 2002’s Solino looked at the lives of Italian immigrants in Germany. 2014’s The Cut depicted the harrowing experiences of a young Armenian man in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. In the director’s latest, the powerful and disturbing In the Fade, Diane Kruger plays a Hamburg woman struggling with her grief and her desire for justice after her Turkish husband and young son are murdered by neo-Nazis. The film, which was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film, proved somewhat divisive at last May’s Cannes but also won Kruger, starring in a German-language film for the first time in her career, the festival’s Best Actress award. (You can read my review here.) I sat down with Akin to talk about In the Fade, neo-Nazis in Germany, and whether these days he still travels to Turkey.
Where did the idea for In the Fade come from?
In Germany, we have serious issues with the rise of neo-Nazis, and how they’ve — neo-Nazis and racists — now reached the center of society. In the Nineties, you could see the enemy. They were skinheads, and they were idiots, and violent. But what are they wearing now? What do they look like and how do they talk? Now, they are very smart. We had the so-called NSU [National Socialist Underground] killings. Between 2000 and 2007, a group of three neo-Nazis, two men and one woman, killed ten people. Nine immigrants — eight with Turkish or Kurdish background, one with Greek background — and one German police officer. And until 2011, the police, the society, and the press thought these murders were done by the Turkish mafia. Just because the victims were all killed with the same gun, and they were Turkish, people said, “These must have been drug dealers, or they must have something to do with prostitution.” That’s the racism of the society. In November 2011, it came out that these killings were done by this group. And it came out by random — not because of a successful police investigation. I was so furious when I found all this out. First of all, because I could be a possible target for these people. Second, because my brother knew one of the victims. It was in our neighborhood. So, it was close to me. I had to express my anger and my fear.
The real trial is still going on. That’s why my film is a fiction. And because the real case is much more complicated than my film. So, on the one hand I was like, this is good material for a thriller; as an egoist, as a director, I can say that. But on the other hand it was something I could throw out into German society as something they have to discuss. We are great at forgetting stuff, or not talking about stuff, or not being interested in stuff. That’s why I tried to make the film somehow as popular as possible — to reach not just the audience I always reach, but a wider audience in Germany. A lot of it is a classical thriller plot. You know, the victims say, “No, it was the neo-Nazis,” but nobody believes them.
Something similar happens here, too. Every time there’s an attack, there are people who assume at first that it’s ISIS-inspired or something. “Was it a Muslim? Was it an immigrant?” More often than not, however, in the U.S., it’s not. Most U.S. terror incidents in 2017 came from white supremacists. But the society never tells that story to itself. Was it difficult getting a film like this produced?
No. I mean, yes and no. The relevance of the film helped. This is what people talk about: “It’s so up to date,” or “It’s so about today.” And to be honest, I first had this idea in the Nineties. I don’t know if you know about Mölln and Solingen. These were two cities in Germany, small towns. Two or three years after the two Germanys became one country, there was a rise of extreme nationalism. And skinheads at that time threw Molotov cocktails into houses where Turkish people were living. And they killed eight women and children.
It’s amazing that, as a Turk, I didn’t hear either of these stories.
Well, you’re here, and the Germans, they didn’t want to draw too much attention about it. So, since I was a teenager, or in my early twenties — I was nineteen then — I wanted to express my anger and my fears on film. But it took awhile because, although the film has the perspective of the victim, I didn’t want to do a victim narrative. Like, “Ah, we’re the poor immigrants,” and “Please take care of us,” you know. That was very important. That has something to do with pride. And I wanted to make it entertaining, which is difficult enough. Especially in Germany, because [when it comes to] anything about Nazis and the Third Reich, we have people who observe what you do very carefully, like the liberal press or film critics. You have to really know what you’re doing and choose the right angle. And I was not ready for that. I didn’t want to be didactic, either. It took some time to have the self-knowledge to work on this story.
In the Fade essentially jumps among three different genres. In the first section, you really give space to Katja’s grief. It’s emotionally grueling and very powerful. So many filmmakers would be afraid to go that far with it, because it’s relentless. I’m curious about the decision to let that live for a while, and then to go to the courtroom drama, and then to go to the revenge plot.
Without spoiling too much, when you really analyze the film, it’s about the details. In every section of the film, it’s really about details, the details keep the story going. The decision in the first part to take time was not to have “grief porn” — somebody wrote that at Cannes. The intention was not to make the audience cry over stuff like this. You know how the first part ends, right? Without spoiling it…
When she’s in the bathtub…
Yeah. In the bathtub. And I had to make it believable for her to go there. The audience has to believe that step. That’s the one thing. The second is: I got kids. Even if you don’t have kids, you understand this. But especially if you have kids, you have to be honest with these things. This is the biggest nightmare that can happen. And you have to show it as a nightmare. You have to show it as a fucking horror film.
Then, when I structured this with a sketch on paper, I said, the second part, the trial part, will end the way it ends…how can you make that believable? How can you convince the liberal German press that this can happen? So, the trial became longer and longer and longer.
Did you have to do a lot of research to get the legal details correct?
Yes. Like I mentioned before, the real trial still goes on in Munich. And I was several times in Munich, at the real trial. It was so boring. And I understood the system behind it. A lot of those victims are Turkish people, or immigrants, and they were so emotionally involved. But the trial is doing the complete opposite; it completely lacks any emotion. Maybe this is the right thing. Maybe it has to be like that, you know? But the real victims, they have emotions — and it was my job to make it real but at the same time very emotional.
At what point did Diane Kruger get involved? She’s fantastic, but by foregrounding all this emotion, you’ve created a film that absolutely requires an outstanding actor to pull it all off. That seems risky.
I’m very, very lucky with Diane because somehow it was an instinctive decision. Diane came on board before I had a screenplay. Like I said, I was trying to write a story for twenty years, but once I had the general framing, it was so fast, the whole process. So, I had a storyline of ten or twelve pages, maybe two pages description of the character. I sent that to Diane.
When I was writing I thought, “OK, I need a good actress for that, who can I cast?” The usual suspects came into my mind — you know, the usual German actresses for this. And they all felt not quite glamorous enough. Or spectacular enough. Or bigger than life. And then I had the idea of Diane. I sent her the material and thought, “OK, she’s just going to say no.” She immediately responded, and said she loved it, but she was really scared about it, too. That was a humble but ambitious way of responding. I went to Paris. She invited me for dinner. She cooked. And I came with a lot of prejudices to Paris. Like, she’s an It girl.… After the meeting I did my homework and discovered brilliant work from her. Other directors worked that out before me; I’m not the first. She was very great in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And she made a bunch of movies where she’s enormous, but I hadn’t seen them. So, when I came to Paris and I met Diane, maybe because she’s smart enough to prepare herself like the character, she had a bad hair day, no makeup, very loose clothes…and she was the character. And my instinct was: She’s right. Then I started to watch all her films. “OK, how did my colleagues photograph her? What is the right angle, what is the wrong angle?” And I saw what a great actress she is.
She’s very good with emotion, but she’s also very good at just conveying thought. So much of the performance is wordless, where we’re watching her as she decides on what to do and what not to do. The ability to think onscreen and make it interesting is something quite rare.
I learned a lot from her. I learned how to really use space with an actor. She would ask me a lot for space — verbally and non-verbally. That was my whole job on this. Space in terms of trust, freedom, consoling. Taking care of her, so that she doesn’t hurt herself with her emotions. Space of no fear — no fear that anything might be embarrassing, you know. It was a laboratory. We could work things out, we could try things, and she always had ideas and suggestions. There are two sorts of films for a director, in my experience. The first are the ones where you really have to direct the film — every fucking little tiny decision you have to be aware of. Some of my earlier films are like that. And then there are ones where the film does its own thing. The film has its own spirit, nothing to do with you anymore. It just goes its own way, and if you’re smart, you let it go. You don’t try to force it to the path you had in mind. And this film was a film like that.
With the final shot, going up and revealing the upside-down sea — I had an immediate reaction to that, and a particular kind of meaning came to my head.
When I did the flipping [of the image], I did that in post-production. I found the shot very boring, and too long. I went to my editor, “Can we flip the shot? What would happen if we flip it in the sky?” And we did it and immediately we knew that it was right. But it was not planned like that.
That sends the film in a whole other direction for me. Because I look at that and I think to myself, what I’m watching in some sense is the flip side of another world, and in that other world there are people who don’t look like Diane Kruger who also are hurting and don’t feel like they’ve gotten justice, and are doing things that we see as criminal and horrible. Suddenly, the fact that you never mention Islamic extremism and all these other contemporary things, it all made sense — because in that upside-down world, there might be a whole other narrative.
Yes, exactly. You know, the moment we flipped it, it was a visual solution for all the questions we had in the editing room, I tell you. Everything was somehow solved in that moment.
What about the title?
“In the Fade,” you mean? It’s a different title than the German one. In German it’s called “Aus dem Nichts.”
And how does that translate?
You cannot really translate it. Not with the same impact. If you translated directly, it would be something like “From Nothing,” or “Out of Nothing,” or “Out of the Blue.” But “Aus dem Nichts” in German is something that has an impact. There is a power in these three words, “Aus dem Nichts.” You know, it’s like “Gegen die Wand.” It is three words, and you cannot translate it. “Head-On” is not the same. If you fuck up the movie, you say, “Hey, he drove with the film gegen die wand.” Sometimes I don’t like translations from German films into English, the one-to-one translations. “The Lives of Others,” you know? It’s not the same as in German. “Das Leben der Anderen” is…that’s poetry. And “The Lives of Others,” excuse me, but it sounds like shit. So, I was looking for [a title with its] own identity. I was listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age, and at the end, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age wrote the soundtrack for our film. I used one song, but I cut the song out. And the song was called “In the Fade.”
What has been the response to In the Fade in Germany?
Mostly positive. Which surprised me a bit. I expected, and I hoped also, that it would be more divisive, to be honest. Don’t trust a film which has just good reviews. And because I want to provoke, and after Cannes, globally — not in Germany — a lot of people had problems with the film. “Why are the killers not Muslims?” This kind of bullshit appeared. I was very surprised that this came from the liberal press. But in Germany it’s mostly positive. Diane is very important for the response in Germany, because she’s kind of like the lost daughter who came back to the mother country. Plus she won [the Best Actress award at Cannes], and suddenly, the girl nobody seemed to like in Germany, suddenly they’re all proud of her, and they’re really curious about the film.
Do you go back to Turkey often?
I haven’t been back since the premiere of The Cut [Akin’s film about the Armenian genocide] there, in December of 2014. So, I haven’t been there in three years. Before that, I was there so often. I have social networks there, like Instagram and Twitter and stuff, and most of my followers are from Turkey. Most of my followers are females from Turkey. And not because I’m a very handsome or attractive guy [laughs]. I think that my work, which is about honesty and freedom, somehow touches these people. I’m very, very happy that I have this audience there.
Is it because of the response to The Cut that you haven’t returned?
Not just. I think today a film like that would be more difficult to show. But at that time, it was not as harsh as it has become. Now I’ve become what you call a “betrayer,” you know? A public enemy. Because of The Cut, because I was supporting the Gezi Park protests, because I announced another film, about Kurdish freedom fighters in North Syria. So, people went crazy. Like it was OK to support ISIS but not the Kurdish freedom fighters. This is embarrassing in a way and very harsh. But I say the truth, you know? What can I do if people in Turkey ask me questions? I can lie, or I can be a coward by not mentioning stuff. Or I can say the truth. I say the truth. I will get attacked for it, but fuck that. It’s always worth it to work with the truth.