The film opens with Nuri Sekerci (Numan Acar), wearing a white suit and black shirt reminiscent of Tony Manero, is heading out of his prison cell and into marriage with Katja (Diane Kruger). The jostling and joshing inmates cheering him on his way is a joy. From here we jump ahead a few years and see the two happily ensconced in a beautiful home with a lovely six-year-old son Rocco. Nuri has a legitimate business and Katja is a stay-at-home mum. But when a bomb explodes and kills her family, we wonder how legitimate Nuri was and where all the money came from. Was he still dealing? Involved in a turf war? When the grieving Katja seeks help from her lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto), he hands her a little package of pick ‘n mix drugs to ease her pain, stating they were gifts from other clients. It’s a canny touch for Akin makes it clear that our tattooed heroine may not be a goody-goody but she is still the victim. And this is backed up by the sympathetic detective on the case. Nevertheless, she gets written up for possession and this misdemeanour comes back to haunt her later.
There are plenty of visual reminders of Katja’s past family life. The house is full of Rocco’s toys, often blurred in the background. When Katja sleeps it is in her son’s bunkbed. The unused trampoline in the garden represents time passing as the rain soaks it and the snow covers it. In fact, the Hamburg rain plays a big part in the film and the relentless downpours help create the sombre, flat and claustrophobic mood. The rain is also matched by Katja’s tears, which are a constant and often silent testimony to her grief. In fact, the sun rarely makes an appearance, and even when Katja heads to southern climes the sun is weak and the roads as rain-splattered as home.
The film is broken into chapters, the second of which is Justice. When the perpetrators are caught and brought to trial, Katja is present. The sterile white tiles and bright lights of the court are redolent of a hospital or morgue, and this is heightened by the clinical description of Rocco’s injuries that Katja is subjected to. So will justice prevail? With a third chapter to come, the answer is no. The couple responsible for the deaths are freed and head to Greece where the final act of this personal and political tragedy takes place.
A Hamburg native of Turkish descent, Akin has often dealt with race head on in his films. Nuri is a Kurdish Turk and his wife is a white German. The problems of interracial marriage are highlighted by the grandparents’ intransigence and disapproval on both sides. And in the western world terrorised by extremist attacks, it is a timely reminder of the ugly and brutal resurgence of the far right and also of the racism and abuse suffered by immigrants.
Yet while the film is a solid one, it is a little too familiar and would have made a worthy BBC mini series rather than a Cannes competition film. That said, Akin – who co-wrote the screenplay – is careful to avoid certain clichés and leaves us wondering how this accomplished revenge drama will end. In her first German-language film, Kruger is the glue holding this drama together. Her portrayal of grief is heartrending and the balance she maintains as the grieving but determined Katja keeps the film anchored. Akin has gifted Kruger with her best and most compelling leading role suffused with strength and terrible pain. While this film may not be a winner in Cannes, it is a highly-watchable and worthy story that bears viewing.