It can often feel as if Fatih Akin’s often devastating dramas draw blood, but in the case of “In the Fade,” it happened quite literally to Diane Kruger. Filming scenes in a courtroom, the actress had the difficult task of keeping her reactions fresh as Akin would shoot the same scene over and over from different angles to create action on screen when everything was stationary otherwise.
“I thought I was playing tension and he kept saying, ‘I don’t see it. I don’t see it. I want to feel your hands clenched like this,” Kruger recalled recently, squeezing her nails into her palms to the point of nearly piercing the skin. “So I did one take and he’s like, ‘You didn’t clench your hands!’ And I said, ‘No, I did.’ I was like, ‘Fine,’ [clearly frustrated] so I do it more and I was bleeding. And [again] he’s like, “You didn’t clench your hands.” And I [said], ‘I did it! I went to the cross!’
Kruger lets out a giant laugh recalling this now, sitting next to Akin with a knowing smile, understanding that this was a minor inconvenience when compared with everything else that she had given over of herself to play Katja, a woman who loses her son and her Turkish husband Nuri in a terrorist attack undertaken by Neo-Nazis in “In the Fade.” While there isn’t much levity in final film, there is an air of satisfaction when the German-born actress speaks about finally making a film in her native language, an effort of steely determination on both her part and Akin’s that resembles the resolve of Katja as she sets about seeking justice if she doesn’t get it through the legal system.
For Akin, the idea for “In the Fade” had been percolating since the 2011 National Socialist Underground murders in which the white supremacists had targeted Turkish immigrants throughout Germany, but while he had a vengeance-minded hero at the center of it, it wasn’t until he realized it should be a woman rather than a man that a story clicked into place, nor did it take long after for him to realize Kruger, who expressed a desire to work together when the two were at Cannes in 2012, would be a strong choice for the part.
Kruger threw herself into the role of Katja with abandon, taking it upon herself to seek out support groups for the families of victims of such attacks and dutifully immersing herself into the role which would be shot in sequence, meaning the anguish of losing her immediate family would come first, followed by an emotionally grueling trial in which she would have to sit silently stewing as she looked on at those responsible for the murders, and ultimately travel to Greece in the trial’s aftermath. But Akin pushes himself with “In the Fade” as well, crafting a breathless potboiler in which every shot is carefully constructed (influenced not by other films necessarily, but by the lighting schemes to be found in the pages of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Batman graphic novel “Arkham Asylum”) and reenvisioning a traditional three-act structure to explore how Katja works through the phases of grief to take control over her life once more through subtle shifts in the camerawork and sound design, appearing effortless in how a mere closeup of Katja will captivate with the story it tells at any given point, yet the product of a tremendous amount of work by its director and star.
At least those efforts are being recognized, since Kruger was honored with a Best Actress Prize at Cannes for the film, which itself was recently shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars as the official selection of Germany and recently, Akin spoke about both how each piece of the film built on one another, enlisting Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme to compose his first film score and the happy accidents that added to the film’s liveliness.
You’ve said you actually started working on this around 2011, but it didn’t really click until later when you decided to change it to a female lead. Did the growing prominence of neo-Nazis around the world influence how the story evolved over the years?
I’ll tell you something, I had the very first idea that I’m going to write something about neo-Nazis or about racism as a film when I was like 19 or 20, back in ’92 when the two Germanys came together. We had this rise of neo-Nazis in Germany and a lot of killings of Turkish immigrants. That was where it was very relevant for me, and it never left me alone, that feeling. Now the film comes out and everybody tells me how relevant it is, but I tell you, the world always was like this.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing “Tschick,” your lighthearted road trip film that you made in between this and “The Cut,” which reminded me of when you followed up “The Edge of Heaven” with “Soul Kitchen.” Do you like to dip into lighter fare before taking on something heavier like “In the Fade”?
It maybe looks like this, but I don’t plan really my career. When “Tschick” popped up, the only opportunity to do it was exactly at that time. Everybody wanted to film that novel, which is a huge success in Germany and I knew it wouldn’t be too relevant outside of Germany, but it didn’t matter because the book means so much to me, and films like “Tschick” are films I do more as a director instead of a filmmaker. But I laugh a lot. People tell me I’m a funny person, [and] this lighter stuff is often more difficult to do as a director because you have to be aware of completely different things than dramas. It’s fun doing them and I like the exchange of these – where there’s light, there’s shadow and the opposite.
One of the clever things about “In the Fade” are these home video interludes that begin each of the three parts of the film – while they show the life that Katja and Nuri had together, there seems to be a story in itself about control given who’s holding the camera that’s capturing these moments. How did you figure that out?
I liked it because it’s something everybody who has an iPhone knows. This kind of material is something that we all experience now since we all have these smartphones. People film important moments with their family, so sometimes it’s a friend who’s shooting it or sometimes it’s a guard in prison [like in the first scene where it’s], “Could you shoot this for me?” In the second [scene], it’s the husband shooting it, like a selfie, and in the very end, it is [Katja] who is using the camera, so we always thought about who was doing it.
Perspective is something you play aesthetically with throughout the film as well – there’s some great use of split diopters throughout. Did you feel like you could push yourself in that regard?
The older I get, the more graphic novels I read and I’ve read them since I was a teenager, but I rediscovered them over the years through my son because he’s of the age where he’s reading graphic novels, so I buy stuff for him or I discover what he reads and sometimes I just take it from him and work with that. [laughs] They are really helpful for my visual thinking, like how I can explore certain things, like [with] split diopters where I can do [multiple] things in one shot instead of two shots.
What was it like figuring out how to shoot the courtroom scenes so dynamically?
The court scenes sucked. There was so much talking – all these monologues and technical information and because we shot chronologically, when we [shot] the first part of the film, almost every day Diane was performing a breakdown. She had to bring up tears, and it was not fake tears – it was her tears. And when you do such scenes, the work is physical, [so] you see the effort of your work. You’re loud and expressive and we had the feeling like oh, we achieved something here in the first part. [Then] I was so nervous and scared about the second part because it’s so different – you sit [in the courtroom] and you’re not active. All the action is going on around you and on a visual level, it was difficult to shoot [because we’re spending] six days in the same room. How can I visualize it in a way that’s still interesting for the audience? But then, everyone’s talking around [Katja] and she’s just listening, but she still has to be the center of the focus for the audience. That was challenging because I never did these kind of scenes before.
If the courtroom scenes were difficult, was going to Greece after like a breath of fresh air?
It seemed to be, but when the court scenes went on, Diane and I felt like we topped the first part of the film. [laughs] [We thought initially] we will not succeed, so when we were done, we had a feeling like, “Ah, we did something important. We fulfilled the task, so that was really challenging for the last part. Because [it was like] whatever you do now, it’s the end of the film, don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck it up. On the one hand, it was different because we were out in nature and I like to shoot in nature, but on the other, it was like you haven’t finished the film yet, so we kept the concentration level very high.
After listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age, you pursued Josh Homme to work on the score, but since he had never composed anything for film before, did you have to give him much direction?
No, no, no. Josh was so busy finishing his last album “Villains” and preparing for his world tour that everybody was so surprised that he accepted, and he doesn’t have a lot of time to talk. I sent him the film and it was a three-hour rough cut with no music on it. The soul was the same, but it was a very different film and [Josh] immediately responded to the film and said he would love to put his hands on it and he asked me just one thing, “Does it have to be rock and roll? I don’t want to go rock and roll. I would like to try other things.” And I said, “Josh, do whatever you want to do. Feel free.” And that was one of maybe three conversations on the phone. The second, I asked him to change something in the music, [which is] very embarrassing [because] it’s Josh Homme, you know? I’m like, “Josh, this last tune, can we hold it two seconds longer?” [And he said] “You know what? You have all these files, you have all these tracks. Do what you want. Cut them out or loop them – feel free.” He was so generous with his own material. The last thing was for the chase [in Greece], I said, “Josh, this film has to be a thriller. Can you write me something like a Hitchcock [cue]?” And he did — [it’s like] a modern version of Bernard Herrmann, and it’s so cool.
Was there anything that came as a surprise during filming that you were happy made the final cut?
The birds. Towards the end, there’s the bird flying in front of the rearview mirror of the caravan, that bird was not in the screenplay, but it was there because it was there, so I had two cameras and one was preparing a shot and I said, “Get the other camera and put the 250 [mm lens] on it — the long lens. Catch the bird. Catch the bird!” And they did. A lot of stuff in Greece. The moment where Diane is in the fields, where there is this sunset and her hair is the same color as the wheat, and the wind [is blowing], we had just wrapped the day and I saw the light in the field and I said, “Diane, use the light, use the field. Do something. Whatever you [want to] do.” And my DP was very unhappy with that, saying, “This is too kitschy.” He bet with me that it would not make it into the film, but it did.
“In the Fade” opens on December 29th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the IFC Center and the Landmark at 57 West. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.