Director Fatih Akin’s take on a series of murders committed by German white supremacists deals with a nation at a crossroads

On September 9, 2000, Enver Şimşek, a 38-year-old flower importer in Nuremberg, was fatally wounded with a silenced Česká CZ 83 pistol while sitting inside his van. The following summer, Süleyman Taşköprü, a 31-year-old grocer in Hamburg, suffered the same fate inside his business, followed by Habil Kılıç, a 38-year-old gunned down just outside of Munich. It was not until 2006, by which time a total of 10 killings across seven German cities had occurred, that the police managed to connect the crimes. The media took to referring to the incidents as the Döner-Morde, or kebab murders, since with the exception of one Greek man, all of the victims were of Turkish descent. Officers investigating the incidents searched for Turkish mafia involvement, in some cases attempting to persuade the deceased’s loved ones of criminal ties, drug trafficking, or even extramarital affairs.

In reality, the culprits were not full-bearded men from the other side of the Bosphorus, but rather a ring of white German Neo-Nazis known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU). The police might have continued looking in the wrong places indefinitely, were it not for the fact that the culprits practically confessed via a doctored DVD starring the Pink Panther delivered straight to the station. When Beate Zschäpe, who was thought to have committed the crimes along with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, finally came to trial in 2013, the situation degenerated into a media circus. Newspapers decried the trio as sociopathic monsters while tabloids gleefully dished up lurid sexual insinuations and branded Zschäpe der Teufel (the Devil). Virtually all outlets across the media spectrum chose to regard the culprits as fringe nut-jobs — too mentally unbalanced to be indicative of a far more disturbing undercurrent of racism throughout the nation.

Given that the events seem snatched from a Hollywood crime thriller, it was inevitable that they would eventually make it to the silver screen. What is interesting is that they have done so now, in a time when race relations in Germany are more fraught then they have been in decades. Director Fatih Akin followed the real-life criminal proceedings with mounting fury, which he channeled into the film In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts). Akin opted for a fictionalized account in lieu of a documentary, a decision which may make cinematic sense, but raises a number of larger questions.

Certain details, such as the physical appearance of the defense attorney in the ensuing court case, adhere closely to reality, while at other times Akin compresses the timeline or fabricates scenes for dramatic effect. The most crucial differences are especially glaring: unlike the real-life case, which remains unresolved and decidedly messy, In the Fade offers a decisive, albeit morally cluttered resolution. And though Akin himself is of Turkish ancestry, he deliberately chose to frame this tale of senseless violence against his own diaspora around a white, ethnically German protagonist played by Diane Kruger.

Maybe he felt that the film needed an internationally bankable star or maybe that no one would pay attention to a story about brown-skinned people dying. And maybe he was right. In the Fade has gone on to win Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, while the Kruger has snagged a Best Actress statue at Cannes for her first role in her native language.

The story kicks off when Katja Sekerci (Kruger) drops her six-year-old son Rocco (Rafael Santana) off with her Kurdish-Turkish husband Nuri (Numan Acar) at his work place in Hamburg. A few hours later, blue police lights bathe her face, as she switches off the car radio and her expression morphs into one of horror. A nail bomb, we learn, has exploded at her husband’s office, causing temperatures to soar over 1,000 degrees Celsius and sending lethal shrapnel in all directions. When Katje begs the police to let her see her family, the detective says that they are no longer people, that only pieces are left. The fragments are so badly mutilated that it takes a DNA test and several agonizing hours to identify the remains. Once again, this part of the tale has its roots grounded in fact; on June 9, 2004, a nail bomb detonated at a barbershop run by Özcan Yildirim, injuring 22 people.

For the remainder of the film, which is divided thematically into three sections, Akin immerses the audience in Katja’s grief. We watch as she curls up into a fetal position, shoots whiskey, smokes opium, and submerges herself in a bathtub stained burgundy from the gashes in her wrists. Many of the film’s best scenes are close-ups of her face, all angular shadows from those supermodel cheekbones, framed by a cloud of cigarette smoke like a celluloid apparition from a forgotten film noir. We watch an exchange in the courtroom that leaves her vibrating with rage. We witness how she barely flinches while a tattoo artists drags the needle over her ribcage to complete a samurai warrior while heavy metal blares in the background. In the middle of a conversation with her mother and the parents of her deceased husband, she leaves the room to inhale a hastily cut line of cocaine, then returns with a teardrop of blood dripping from one nostril. Her mother stares at her in disbelief and says, “Das hast du gut gemacht.” (“You did well.”)

Akin told Die Zeit that he hopes In the Fade will “hit like a punch from Bruce Lee.” At its strongest moments, including the breathless, wordless final minutes, it does. With a few exceptions, however, this is a straightforward thriller, one in which the Good Guys stay good and the Bad Guys stay unforgivable. It’s a film that condenses and streamlines the complex, unresolved events of more than a decade into a two-hour parable tailored for international audience consumption. Ostensibly, this is a film about terrorism, and the images of blood-stained walls and police barricades will doubtless trigger memories of harrowing news broadcasts from within the country from 2016 and 2017, but the themes lurking at the narrative’s periphery are often just as interesting as those at the core.

What the film inadvertently raises are questions about Germany’s growing discomfort with an ethnically diverse national identity that has been evolving since the 1960s. One of the most revealing lines comes when Katja insists that the woman who placed the bomb was not an Eastern European or another foreigner. “Das war eine Deutsche. Sie war so deutsche wie ich,” (“That was a German. She was as German as me.”) she says. Once again, this is close to the truth; the investigators on the Döner-Morde cases kept inaccurately assuming that the Caucasians spotted near the crime scenes were Eastern-European rather than native Germans. Katja’s turn of phrase, however, also references the fact that the commonly accepted image of a “German” still looks like Kruger rather than Acar or any of the real casualties.

Regardless of what propagandists may have led people to believe, Germany has never historically been an ethnically homogenous society. Largely as a result of the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program started in the 1960s, the country boasts a thriving Turkish diaspora with an estimated population of around 3 million. Despite maintaining a large presence for decades, the Turkish-German community has never fully integrated into society and lags behind in terms of employment and education. According to Der Spiegel, the percentage of Turkish-Germans with no professional qualifications rose to 57 percent by 2006, while a report several years later by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees stated that four out of five Turkish-Germans between the ages of 38 and 64 possessed nothing more than the equivalent of a junior high school education. As such, the prospects for advancement are often lower amongst the second and third generations than they were with initial arrivals.

Much speculation has been made as to why this is and more than few have laid blame on a deeply entrenched German culture of suspicion and mistrust. “For us, Germany is the country always pointing a critical finger, leaving many frustrated,” wrote Bilkay Oney, a Turkish-German former state immigration minister, in an op-ed for Deutsche Welle. “We can do what we want, but Germany doesn’t like us either way.”

This sense of alienation has only increased in the wake of the events of the European refugee crisis. In spite of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ethically dubious deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop the human flow, the country is still in the throes of a xenophobic backlash from when 890,000 asylum-seekers rushed into the country in 2015. In 2017, a far-right, nationalist party established a substantial presence in the Bundestag for the first time since the Third Reich. Once dismissed as too extreme to ever gain political power, the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) ran on an aggressively anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform and picked up 12.6 percent of the vote. The party’s co-founder and current joint leader Alexander Gauland has issued statements swearing to ward off the “invasion of foreigners,” according to the BBC, and has said that Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars,” according to Reuters.

Even a number of the party’s supporters have expressed reservations about extremists like Gauland and its early figurehead Frauke Petry, who once suggested that refugees should be shot at the border. Nevertheless, concerns about immigration managed to trump those for a blatantly racist government. According to a poll conducted by the Tagesschau, 95 percent of those who voted for the AfD cited fears of a loss of German culture. That fear has manifested in other ways, most noticeably a spate of hate-crimes directed at Muslim asylum-seekers and the rise of PEGIDA, or “Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes” (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”), a far-right group launched in 2014 in Dresden. At the height of its power, the group drew as many as 25,000 protestors to the streets brandishing signs with slogans like “Multikulti stoppen. Meine Heimat bleibt deutsch!” (“Stop multiculturalism. My home says German!”).

In all fairness, these protests were often met with counter-protests of equal or greater size, especially in more left-leaning urban centers such as Berlin. Nevertheless, their presence is too large and far too widespread to dismiss as an aberration. Germans over the past two decades have often boasted of the country’s tolerance, of its multikulti (multicultural) street-cred and acceptance of diversity. According to such a paradigm, both PEGIDA and the AfD should have been unthinkable, yet there they are. Movements of this scope do not spontaneously generate overnight or consist of a few freaks huddled over a bomb in a garage. The arrival of asylum-seekers forced sentiments that had been festering in the darker corners of the national psyche to rear their head. Recent events cannot be unseen or undone, and whatever happens in the future, Germans will have to contend with the uglier truths they have exposed.

Akin grazes the surface of this conversation, but refuses to fully dive into it. For all Kruger’s character’s complexities, the conflict at the heart of the film seems tailormade to distance the audience from its disturbing subject matter. The sallow youths behind the crime have only a handful of curt lines in the whole film, while their sinister defense attorney and menacing Greek accomplice seem cut from the same cloth as movie villains everywhere. Meanwhile, Katja’s lawyer, Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto) is unfailingly noble and even the father (Ulrich Tukur) of one of the culprits unhesitatingly declares his son to be evil. The film takes a similar stance to the German media on the Döner-Morde: these cartoon criminals are not like the rest of us.

Oversimplification makes for a compelling popcorn-flick, but deliberately skirts the tough questions that many need to be asking. The brutal ending may not exactly qualify as an upper, but it serves to provide a sort of catharsis for the audience. We are meant to feel that we care about these events even while ignoring the real victims. We’re meant to think we’ve grappled with the issues just enough. We are meant to receive closure. In reality, this is a story about the murder of Turkish-Germans told through the eyes of one very un-Turkish blonde-haired, blue-eyed German who seeks the kind of redemption that reality fails to provide.