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.