Monthly Archives: January 2019

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts, Germany-France 2017)

Katja and Nuri on their wedding day

This film by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin features a ‘powerhouse performance’ by Diane Kruger which won her the best female acting prize at Cannes in 2017. However, when the film went on release in the US and UK (it opened in UK cinemas in June 2018) it failed to do the business that a Cannes prizewinner might expect. Unfortunately that isn’t so unusual. Sometimes Cannes juries make poor choices. On this occasion though, the problem is elsewhere.

First, it’s an awful English language title. The original German title, which I would translate as ‘Out of Nothing’, is at least intriguing. Second, a brief plot outline suggests a conventional genre narrative and the film turns out to be something different. Diane Kruger plays Katja, the wife of Nuri (Numan Acar) a Turkish former drug dealer in Hamburg. She met him as a student buying dope and later married him when he came out of prison. He had been ‘clean’ and ‘straight’ for five years when he and the couple’s 5 year-old son are murdered. At this point Fatih Akin slows down the narrative and focuses on the shock and grief experienced by Katja. It is some time before the second part of the narrative (the film is split into three sections with title card headers) moves into the court case when the accused perpetrators appear in court. The third part goes on to address Katja’s reaction to the court’s verdict.

I can understand why some genre fans will feel disappointed by the film, but the focus is on Katja and Kruger’s performance, not revenge action. The story is inspired by real events in Germany that had a big impact on Fatih Akin and he wants to explore what those events mean for various characters rather than simply offer a form of crime action picture.

Katja with her lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto) in the courtroom

Diane Kruger is an attractive woman (she was originally a model, I think) and an accomplished actor. She represents the kind of European star familiar in the 1960s/70s but perhaps less so in contemporary cinema. She speaks French and English fluently and has appeared frequently in French and American cinema. Here she inhabits a character role. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with her hair straggly and her almost skeletal frame decorated with tattoos she is no glamour puss. It’s an intense performance which demands that we understand her grief and pain. She turns away her mother and her sister and the person she relies on most is her lawyer.

I found the court scenes very interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen a modern German court in action and I was reminded of the courtroom in the Danish drama A War (2015) in a similar setting. The two films are actually quite different but the austerity/plain décor of the courtroom is quite different from the traditional UK court with its ‘majesty’ and trappings of the ruling class. However, in the one weakness in the film’s casting, I found the defence counsel to be too much of a type, portrayed almost as a stereotypical skinhead bully. Not surprisingly, Katja finds the trial very difficult to cope with. I won’t spoil any of the narrative but it’s interesting that the ways in which the panel of judges comes to a decision reminded very much of the Japanese court in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s recent The Third Murder (Japan 2017). As in all courtroom dramas, there is always the possibility that there will be a tension between what we as the audience know, or think we know, about the crime committed and the proper procedures of a court of law where the judges may not have all the knowledge we, the audience, has.

Katja after the trial, contemplating what she will do next

Katja experiences trauma after the murder and it means that she ceases to menstruate. Towards the end of the narrative, after the courtroom drama she starts again. It appears to be a symbolic moment.

Aus dem Nichts is the kind of film that divides audiences. On IMDb there are ‘User Ratings’ of ‘1’ and also of ’10’. I would recommend the film but I beg you not to set up genre expectations of what you think might happen or what you might want to happen. If you simply approach the film with an open mind, prepared to go where it takes you, that is likely to provide you with the best experience. It’s an 18 film in the UK – because of the situation I think, rathe than what is actually depicted.

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.