In the Fade, Fatih Akin’s powerful new film, starts and closes with deadly bomb blasts. In the opening scene, a nail bomb goes off in what is presumably Hamburg’s immigrant-populated Altoona district; in the film’s shocking finale on a Greek island, an identical charge strapped to the protagonist’s chest immolates her and her family’s killers. This seems appropriate, as In the Fade’s subject matter is equally explosive: the murderous violence of the German far right—ruthless, Hitler-adulating neo-Nazis whose underground networks in Germany, as well as their proximity to the country’s political parties and security services, have long been dismissed as the stuff of conspiracy theory.
Germans tend to pride themselves on having expunged the toxic nationalism of Nazism. But In the Fade offers a bitter indictment of this reckoning with the country’s past, which has tailed off since reunification. Evidence of this came in the most recent elections, which landed a far-right party in the Bundestag for the first time ever. Akin’s film, however, delves into the militant culture that thrives in the lee of these “polite populists,” as the party’s educated leaders are called, and the tragedy of its victims and their families.
Since Akin’s debut in the late 1990s, the lives and struggles of Germany’s three generations of foreign newcomers have been at the heart of his prodigious oeuvre. Akin’s films range in genre: He has made comedies, thrillers, documentaries, and historical dramas. But at the center of many of them are the hybrid worlds of Germany’s inner cities, whose dwellers and street cultures no longer fit the simple categories of “immigrant” and “native German.” More than one critic has likened Akin to the postwar German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, known for his unflinching directness and portrayal of those on society’s margins; not unlike Fassbinder, Akin intends to show how the marginal isn’t marginal at all, but reflects Germany as a whole.
Identity is in flux in Akin’s films. His characters have one foot planted firmly in Germany—unlike many in their parents’ generation—but they also maintain a toehold in Turkey or elsewhere, sometimes in spite of themselves. Though they’re more comfortable in Germany than in their parents’ native land, they find that they’re not fully accepted as members of either place and are forced to traverse the boundaries of the new Germany, careening into conflict with its prejudices, on the one hand, and their parents’ old-world expectations, on the other.
Head-On, Akin’s most widely acclaimed film to date, zeroed in on two German-Turkish characters, the twentysomething Sibel and the much older Cahit, who meet in a psychiatric clinic after their suicide attempts. Sibel, a vivacious free spirit, chafes under the restraints imposed by her traditionalist parents and controlling brother. Cahit is a self-destructive alcoholic who collects empties in a late-night club; he can barely keep his life on track, and indeed he often doesn’t. Cahit’s Turkish is worse than rusty, and he rails against the country’s Turks as “stupid Kanaken,” a German ethnic slur aimed at Southern Europeans.
While Cahit is no catch, Sibel latches on to him and proposes: Just about any Turkish man will fit her bill, since the purpose of the marriage is to escape from her suffocating family. This marriage of convenience does carry a small price, however: a traditional Turkish wedding where the two apostates make it through only by plying themselves with cocaine. They do eventually fall in love, but it’s too late: Cahit kills one of Sibel’s lovers in a bar fight and is sent to jail. After another suicide attempt, she flees her family in Hamburg for Istanbul, where she settles down, finds another partner, and raises a child—ultimately, an admission of failure. Years later, after finishing his sentence, Cahit too returns to Turkey, leaving the impression that these troubled souls will never find a place to come to rest.
This sense of homelessness features in Akin’s other films as well, and it’s a central theme in In the Fade. But Akin’s new film stands apart from his earlier work: It’s told from a mainstream-German perspective, not from the fringe. At the center of the plot is Katja Sekerci, a German woman in her 30s, and what remains of her family after a neo-Nazi bombing claims the lives of her German-Kurdish husband and their 5-year-old son. (For Katja, the catastrophe strikes “out of nowhere,” aus dem Nichts, which is the film’s worthy title in German. In the Fade, by contrast, which is taken from the title of a Queens of the Stone Age song, says nothing to me.)
One wishes that this story were pure fiction, but the plot draws heavily, though selectively, on the spate of murders that occurred from 2000 to 2007, perpetrated by neo-Nazis calling themselves the National Socialist Underground. Akin’s film follows Katja through her bereavement, an attempted suicide, the police investigation, and the trial of those responsible for killing her husband and son, and it depicts in fine-grain detail the emotional trauma that hate crimes inflict on families. Although Akin ratchets up the emotional torque throughout the film, he ultimately pulls it off, since the close-up intimacy of In the Fade is more than melodrama. The director wants to capture the suffering of the victims’ families, which, because of its intensely private nature and the fact that the NSU’s victims were almost all immigrants, was little known to Germans. The documentaries that have been made on the NSU’s terror spree all fall short when dealing with the victims, who are either glossed over or portrayed as helpless and pathetic.
Hate crimes are a daily occurrence in Germany and across Europe. Almost every day, a refugee hostel or dwelling is attacked in Germany; anti-Semitic crimes—from insults to physical assaults—are also on the rise. Yet the numbers and the headlines and the courtroom proceedings tend to leave one cold; there’s no flesh-and-blood reality, no human anguish.
Akin’s choice of an attractive blond German woman as the film’s primary victim has raised hackles in Germany. After all, of the NSU’s murder victims, eight were of Turkish extraction and another Greek; only one, a female police officer, was German. With few exceptions, people of color, not white Germans, have been the far right’s targets. The frustration expressed by the film’s critics is fair, but Akin’s choice here was correct: He forces white Germans to reckon with a horrifying experience that has been endured almost exclusively by the country’s immigrant population. We witness the bureaucratic bias and accusatory treatment that Katja receives because of her husband’s ethnicity. Akin’s bold choice works because it yanks the extreme right’s brutality out of the immigrant ghetto and makes neo-Nazi crimes a matter of concern for all German citizens. This isn’t a Turks-versus-Germans story, but rather one that pits modern, liberal Germany against its racist, nativist haters. We’re all involved.
Adroitly, Akin also gives In the Fade an international twist that gestures beyond Germany’s borders: He underscores how the presence of Nazis among us isn’t limited to Germany or subcultural undergrounds. The key exculpatory evidence in the trial of the German neo-Nazis is furnished by a Greek ultranationalist from Golden Dawn, that country’s neofascist party. In response to the prosecution’s charge that Golden Dawn is a neo-Nazi organization in cahoots with its counterparts in Germany, the defense responds coolly that Golden Dawn is a democratically elected political party in Greece—which indeed it is. The far right’s network spans the continent and includes representatives in most legislatures in Europe. As of 2017, this is true in Germany, too.
The incendiary nature of Akin’s dispatch to his fellow Germans can only be understood against the backdrop of the NSU’s serial murders and a marathon five-year court case that is still ongoing. The group’s long-undetected terror spree and the absurdly drawn-out legal proceedings (after all, the Auschwitz trials lasted less than two years) have exposed an egregious quantity of Staatsversagen, or state failure, that even the country’s harshest critics on the left—who had long accused the German authorities of being “blind out of the right eye”—couldn’t have imagined before the facts of the case (at least those that we currently have) came to light. In the NSU trial, more is at stake than the fate of the accused trio’s one surviving member. Germany itself—its security and justice branches, and its vaunted processing of the past—is on trial as well.
The core members of the NSU terror cell—Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt, and Beate Zschäpe—were all well-known regulars of the 1990s neo-Nazi scene in the eastern city of Jena, which took root after the fall of the Berlin Wall and stood out for its particularly radical bearing. In 1998, the trio were wanted by police for the possession of illegal weapons and explosives, but they evaded arrest, going underground and carrying out their first murder in September 2000, shooting dead a roadside flower vendor outside the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. (The flower vendor was an immigrant and a person unknown to them, as were all their victims.) Over the next 11 years, the trio, aided by a nationwide coterie of abettors, plotted nine more executions in seven cities (using the same weapon, which became their signature); participated in the robbery of 15 banks; and detonated two bombs. The nail bomb that exploded in downtown Cologne on June 9, 2004, in front of a Turkish barbershop, injured 22 people, four of them seriously.
Even as the incontrovertible evidence mounted, German authorities insisted for years that the murders had been carried out by the Turkish mafia or by enemies of the victims within immigrant circles. Investigators hounded the victims’ families, exhibiting a racism in their procedures that wasn’t confined to backwater police stations in eastern Germany. Key evidence was ignored, or not forwarded to colleagues, or destroyed, implicating the police and security services. Testimony that pointed to NSU sympathizers was also kept secret.
The authorities didn’t turn their full attention to the NSU until it distributed a video boasting about its decade on the run. Around the same time, police officers investigated a suspicious camper van at the edge of Eisenach, a town in the central German state of Thuringia. In it were Mundlos and Böhnhardt, along with an arsenal of weapons and ammunition. According to the investigating officers, soon after their arrival, they heard shots within the camper, and flames erupted from the vehicle’s roof. Mundlos and Böhnhardt were found dead inside. Days later, Zschäpe turned herself in.
What happened that afternoon in Eisenach, and afterward with the vehicle and other evidence, is the stuff of legend, with a vast array of theories cropping up on the role of the Thuringian police, the involvement of undercover agents in the right-wing scene, and the depth of the neo-Nazi network that aided the trio. To this day, despite years of investigation by a parliamentary committee, independent inquiries, and 400 days of courtroom proceedings, as well as interviews with over 500 witnesses, there is still no clear and straightforward explanation for why and how such a fiasco could have happened—and what steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again.
As disturbing as it is, In the Fade captures just a snippet of this horror. Two people die in the movie, not 10, and the perpetrators are swiftly apprehended and face trial soon after the attack. They’re caught so quickly in the film because one of the bombers’ fathers informs on them to the police. Astonishingly, during all their years underground, this never happened with the NSU trio: No friend, relative, or neighbor—people who must have known what was happening—tipped off the authorities. This complicity is yet another of the deeply unnerving elements in the whole NSU tale, and the contrast between it and the way In the Fade ends adds a grim final note to the film.