By Vanessa H. Larson

The Washington Post

“In the Fade”

105 minutes

R for strong language and scenes of violence, self-harm and drug use

In German with subtitles

Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s gripping “In the Fade” feels urgently relevant to the present moment. Set in contemporary Hamburg, Germany, it’s the story of a woman whose husband and 6-year-old son are killed in a bombing. But here, the tired screen stereotypes about terrorism are reversed, with immigrants of Muslim background as the senseless crime’s innocent victims, and the far-right movement its perpetrators.

Katja (Diane Kruger of “Inglourious Basterds”), a German, is a chain-smoking, tattooed free spirit married to Nuri (Numan Acar of Showtime’s “Homeland”), a former drug dealer of Kurdish heritage who went straight, becoming a tax adviser and translator for the local Turkish community to provide a stable life for his family.

Just minutes into the film, Katja returns from visiting her sister to find police barricades around the scene of a horrific explosion at her husband’s office: She learns that the bodies of Nuri and their son, Rocco, are so mangled that they can’t be identified without a DNA test. Detectives immediately suspect that Nuri’s past criminal dealings must have led to his murder, but Katja senses it’s the work of neo-Nazis. Overwhelmed by grief, and dipping into drug use to ease her pain, she struggles to get investigators to take her seriously.

The German-born Kruger — who acted exclusively in English- and French-language movies — won the best actress prize at Cannes last year for an outstanding performance in this demanding role (one in which she appears in virtually every scene). She convincingly conveys Katja’s anguish, fragility and fierce determination as a woman who has lost everything and becomes single-minded in a pursuit of justice that eventually turns to vengeance.

Katja’s increasing desperation and impulsivity are reminiscent of the female protagonist of “Head-On,” Akin’s 2004 breakout about culture clash in Germany. Here, the filmmaker again draws on his experience growing up in Hamburg as the son of Turkish immigrants. In the early 2000s, the National Socialist Underground, a right-wing terrorist group, murdered nine people of Turkish, Kurdish and Greek origin, along with a German policewoman; Akin’s brother knew one of those killed.

Originally titled “Aus dem Nichts,” a German idiom that’s roughly equivalent to “out of thin air,” the film takes its English title from a 2000 song by hard rock band Queens of the Stone Age; frontman Josh Homme composed the film’s score, whose discordant sounds add an edginess.

Although much about “In the Fade” is compelling, there’s a tonal imbalance to the three-act structure. The gritty early events are followed by a courtroom procedural that drags somewhat, with the film shifting into a devastating climax in the thriller-like third act.

The film’s largely nonspeaking villains are a greater weakness. The young neo-Nazi suspects are so underdeveloped as characters that they’re not even caricatures.

Akin’s mission, it would appear, is not to help us understand the distressing recent rise in xenophobia but its often overlooked victims and survivors. It’s a deeply unsettling film — delivering a message that can’t be ignored.