It's startling how few filmmakers have tried to tackle terrorism with anything beyond a standard procedural account. It's less surprising that one of the few to really grapple with a response is Fatih Akin, the German-born filmmaker of Turkish descent, whose thorny, probing dramas traverse borders as a matter of course.
His latest, "In the Fade," is Germany's Oscar submission and one of the nine films shortlisted for best foreign language film. It deservedly earned its star, Diane Kruger, the best actress award at last year's Cannes Film Festival. And like the best of Akin's films ("Head-On," ''The Edge of Heaven"), it's a muscularly lean and emotionally raw film. At turns a tragedy, a courtroom drama and a revenge thriller, "In the Fade" is a shape-shifting quest through a terrorist tragedy, as outraged as it is compassionate.
Kruger, a native German acting in her first German film, plays Katja Sekerci. She lives in Hamburg with her husband Nuri (Numan Acar), who's Turkish, and their five-year-old son Rocco (Rafael Santana). In the movie's opening preamble, Nuri, clad in a white suit, is walked from his prison cell directly into his wedding with Katja. It's the kind of incongruity Akin delights in. (His "Head-On" fashioned a love story between a man and woman brought together by mutual suicide attempts.) The first notes of "My Girl" radiate while Nuri strides down a corridor of cheering male inmates.
It's also just the first inversion of "In the Fade." The film flashes forward to their happy family life five years later. When Katja returns to Nuri's office one evening, she encounters a road blocked by police. Her initial horror is soon confirmed: both Nuri and Rocco have been killed by a nail bomb exploded just outside his tax office, their bodies obliterated. Katja descends into a nightmare of grief and disorientation. She leads investigators through the rain to her home to give them her husband and son's toothbrushes to identify their DNA.
The police, while sympathetic, are immediately suspicious of Nuri's background. Was he religious? Was he "politically active?" Was he dealing drugs again?
But Katja remembers a fleeting encounter when she left her husband's office where a woman left an unchained bicycle outside the office. She was, as Katja says, white and blonde, "as German as me." Only once investigators have looked into dormant criminal connections and nonexistent Turkish mafia ties do they realize Katja was correct. The bombing was the work of neo-Nazis, a pair of whom were simply targeting a Turkish area of town.
Akin was inspired to make "In the Fade" (the title of which comes from a Queens of the Stone Age song; the band's Josh Homme composed the score) after a rash of Neo-Nazi terrorist attacks in Germany, where a flood of refugees from Syria has also raised anti-immigration tensions. But "In the Fade" resonates on many other shores, too, including here in the United States, where neo-Nazism is also present, and where the ethnicity of a perpetrator sometimes seems to determine which mass killings get labeled terrorism. In "In the Fade," the face of terrorism is blonde and blue-eyed.
Told in three distinct chapters, the film is alternatively wrenching, gripping and a little perplexing. The middle chapter, the courtroom drama, is expertly done, and aided by fine attorney performances by Denis Moschitto and Johannes Krisch. But the second act's clear lines of good and evil are blurred in the final chapter, which moves to sunny Greece where Akin's film fights a growing sense of despair with the glimmer of a greater empathy.
To say that the many parts of "In the Fade" are held together by Kruger would be an understatement. As a cocktail of grief, fury and regret, she's a remarkably original protagonist — a chain-smoking, tattooed mother who, in her trauma, is always a breath away from drowning.
"In the Fade," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some disturbing images, drug use, and language including sexual references." Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP