by Kathie Smith
Since 1996, Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has quietly built his reputation as a documentarian, but when he made his fictional debut with My Joy in 2010 the film world took note—Loznitsa tackled narrative with bursts of cipher-like parables on humanity and contemporary Russia. Two years later, he returns to the dramatic fray with a similar but far more constrained verve. In the Fog, a period piece focusing on his homeland of Belarus, chronicles three ill-fated individuals trapped in the malaise of Nazi occupation of what was then the USSR. With an economy of impeccable shots, this somber and gritty excursion—much of which happens at a slow and steady pace—wrestles with the ugly retribution of circumstance. If the storytelling parameters of My Joy twist outward from its characters in an act of societal reflux, then In the Fog retreats to an introspective examination of the cynical devices of humankind.
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Producers: Heino Deckert, Joost de Vries, Vilnis Kalnaellis, Valentina Mikhalyova, Leontine Petit, Galina Sementsova, Oleg Silvanovich
Writers: Vasili Bykov (novel The Ordeal), Sergei Loznitsa
Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Cast: Vladimir Svirskiy, Vladislav Abashin, Sergei Kolesov
Premiere: May 25, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 14, 2013
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
The film opens with German soldiers marching four men to the gallows in front of an audience of their families and neighbors. Four men hang to their death and one man, Sushenya, looks on. Sushenya has been suspiciously spared death by the Nazi soldiers, and, as a result, condemned by his countrymen as a traitor. Burov and Voitik, two soldiers in the Soviet partisan army, have been sent to kill Sushenya for his betrayal. They take Sushenya from his home, wife and son, and march him out into the woods with shovel in hand to dig his own grave. But the plan goes awry—Voitik falls asleep on watch, they are discovered by a group of Germans, and, in nearly the same moment he plans on planting a bullet in Sushenya’s head, Burov is shot. They evade capture, with Burov mortally wounded, allowing Loznitsa to turn the tables on his simple story and to indulge in mapping out his characters through languorous subterranean flashbacks. All three are dead men walking, not only in the annals of history but also within their paltry volition.
The film switches gears and reflects on a page from each man’s past that epitomizes personal points of no return: Sushenya’s salvation at the malicious hands of the Germans, Burov’s brazen act of sabotage sealing his, and likely his family’s, demise, and finally Voitik’s act of innocent cowardice. The blanket of fatalism that covers these men is not without provenance, and it has quashed their will to live, their spirit to rebel, and their desire to care about anyone but themselves. These brief episodes to the past are meant to add if not clarify the minutia of misery that weighs heavy on In the Fog, much of which is accentuated in Loznitsa’s camerawork. Beginning with a long tracking shot of the four men being led through a village to their execution and eventually settling into moments where the atmosphere of a ticking bomb is prolonged into palpable thuds. This ambiance was never more present than the single shot in Sushenya’s house as Burov arrives to take him away. The silences, the body language, and the knowing glances between the two men as well as Sushenya’s wife create a gathering storm of doom.
The film expresses an air of calm violence or near resignation in the malady of war. In a rare moment of philosophic verbal exchange, Voitik and Shshenya lament what has happened to the people they thought they knew. “People are unstable by nature, especially if they want to survive.” This statement, apathetically tossed out by Voitik, obviously moves beyond the frames of the film and the boarders of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. This is the place where In the Fog hits the same tone as My Joy, but through the more traditional means of a war drama. In the Fog, however, is hardly traditional, stripping away the conventional tropes of WWII film that usually involve drawing a definitive line in the sand between good and evil and offering some sort of vindicating redemption. In the Fog provides neither, and instead proposes understanding for a man who would carry the corpse of his would-be executor and supplies uncharacteristic sympathy for the contradictions that make us fallible and human.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)