It’s not exactly a new concept: A protagonist mourning the murder of a loved one is failed by the legal system and decides to take the law into their own hands. Such is the premise of Faith Akin’s (“Goodbye Berlin”) 2017 film “In The Fade.” At surface level, the story seems updated for modern times; the film follows Katja (Diane Kruger, “Fathers & Daughters”) as she copes with the loss of her immigrant husband and son in a bombing committed by nativist neo-Nazis. It seems like a fitting retelling for a world plagued with rising xenophobia and hatred. Despite its modern re-packaging, however, the story ultimately remains just as trite as ever, and the film stumbles through its runtime as it struggles to decide if it has anything of substance to say. 

The film is told in three acts, each of which feels awkwardly disjointed from the previous one. In the first act, the audience is given all of five minutes with Katja’s husband Nuri (Numan Acar, “Homeland”) and son Rocco (Rafael Santana, “Extortion”) before they’re killed, at which point the first act becomes 35 minutes of repetitive, emotionally-monotone moping from Kruger. Her performance is solid (enough to have won her Best Actress at Cannes for the role), but the writing and design choices refuse to let her truly shine as she moves dead-eyed through her house, drenched in the film’s muted color palette. Moments of beauty occasionally poke through — one scene involving a bathtub is particularly inventive — but by and large, the first act of the film is bleak for the sake of bleakness, and so monotone in its presentation that I found my eyes rolling, not watering. 

From here, the film moves into its second act, a half-baked courtroom drama that could have been easily reduced to 10 minutes. The most egregious problem with this section of the film is that it’s overwhelmingly clear from the beginning of the trial that the accused — a young neo-Nazi couple — are guilty. The film doesn’t even attempt to discuss the ambiguities of trying obviously hateful people under scant evidence; rather, it builds up all expectations that the culprits will be put away, only to yell “gotcha!” at the very end of the act on the grounds of a remarkably stupid technicality. To its credit, this segment of the film is its most engaging, largely thanks to Kruger’s performance, but it’s hard to escape the notion that this could have been so much more.

Two-thirds of the way through its runtime, the film seems to finally start telling its story as Katja follows the neo-Nazis to Greece, at which point whatever substantive message the film was trying to make comes completely off the rails. It’s a shame, too, because this is the time when the film could have addressed its most poignant questions: Will revenge truly ever satisfy someone who’s been wronged? How do we fight violent racists without ourselves succumbing to the same hatred that fuels their actions? Sadly, the film seems to have little interest in addressing these questions, instead choosing to meander through the resulting quasi-thriller.

“In the Fade” seems hellbent on reminding us that it could have been much better than it is. Occasionally inventive scenes leap out of the texture of what is otherwise a bland, uninspired film. As the credits roll, we’re shown statistics concerning hate-fueled violence in the 21st century. Everything seems to imply that the film carries some kind of substance, some message for the troubled world it depicts; however, by the film’s disappointing conclusion it becomes clear the audience will have to figure it out for themselves.

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