By Michael Koresky
In the Fog
Dir. Sergei Loznitsa, Russia, Strand Releasing
Sergei Loznitsaâ€™s In the Fog is stimulating viewing for those among us still on the lookout for auteurs of serious moral and aesthetic intent. Whereas his last feature, the revelatory My Joy, was a diagnosis of a tenebrous contemporary Russia, discombobulating in its radically evasive storytelling methods, In the Fog is a period piece, shuttling viewers back in time to a primal scene in the nationâ€™s history to tell a pellucid story of virtue in a corrupt world. The film is set on the western outskirts of the U.S.S.R. in 1942, during the German occupation, a past that Belarus native Loznitsa said in an interview â€śhas not been reflected upon sufficiently and is yet to be understood.â€ť Understanding is the name of the game here: for a film so enshrouded in the despair of war, In the Fog has a strangely elating effect, quite a surprise following the directorâ€™s unremittingly grim previous film. Whereas My Joy wandered off into a moral twilight as thick as pea soup, In the Fog, despite its title, is beautifully clear-eyed. Itâ€™s classically told, unobscured by the sorts of narrative surprises and tricks that made the previous film such a challenge (albeit a rewarding one).
While traversing the dense moral and physical terrain of In the Fog, one might feel a shudder of film-historical recognition. It has the striking emotional directness, handsome tranquility, and narrative patience of those great works by the famous Soviet-era graduates of the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography. The 48-year-old Loznitsa, who attended that world-renowned school decades later, is a worthy successor to that generation of filmmakers. Like their best work, his latest pairs the intense intellectual rigor of classic Russian literature with a rich modernist cinematic vocabulary. The politically complicated glories of postâ€“Soviet â€śthawâ€ť filmmaking (especially those made during Brezhnevâ€™s harder-line stint as general secretary, when Party limitations forced more abstract, meditative, existential works from directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, and Larisa Shepitko) are indirectly recalled throughout this stately, classical, yet thoroughly unnerving drama.
Part of its connection to that earlier era of filmmaking might have to do with its unyielding soberness. In the Fog has been criticized in some circles for its humorlessness, but this says more about contemporary modes of irony than the filmâ€™s limitations. The human condition itself just happens to be the unfashionable subject of this film, and as such, there isnâ€™t much room or time for levity, as in Tarkovskyâ€™s Ivanâ€™s Childhood or Shepitkoâ€™s The Ascent (who would dare tell those filmmakers to just lighten up?). And like in those films, the main characters here are still points at the center of a world that has swirled into the chaos of war. The source material is by the same writer behind that momentous Shepitko film, Vasily Bykov, a Belarus novelist who specialized in highlighting the individual moral dilemmas that define and drive larger social upheaval. Like Shepitkoâ€™s more explicitly Christian allegory The Ascent, the film plumbs the darkness and returns with a tale of human degradation that comes across like a spiritual victory.
Like My Joy, Loznitsaâ€™s new film introduces its main characters in a fascinatingly slippery manner. Initially, plot and motivations are revealed in roundabout ways: within the first hour of the film, Loznitsa often drops us in the middle of a dramatic situation with little context, and only later backtracks to explain, whether through exposition or flashback, who these men are and how they got here. Never feeling mechanical, this empathetic strategy deepens our understanding of these woebegone souls, and serves to reaffirm each of our three protagonistsâ€™ essential worthiness as human beings, despite the moral quagmires the filmâ€™s ever-thickening narrative places them in.
As the film opens, the real star appears to be cinematographer Oleg Mutu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days). Weâ€™re plunged into a bravura, disorienting, three-and-a-half-minute single take that follows, loses, and then rejoins, a line of condemned men as theyâ€™re hurried along through the muddy yard of a nightmarishly bustling German base camp to a gallows looming the background. An off-screen voice announces these are â€śenemies of the German Reich,â€ť to be punished for attacking the Wehrmacht; a wailing woman attempts to pry one of them loose from a soldierâ€™s grip and is tossed aside, but the camera keeps plowing ahead. The cameraâ€™s surveying of Loznitsaâ€™s meticulously mounted mise-en-scĂ¨ne is so impressive, and keeps us so wide-eyed and expectant that we hardly notice that the camera has likely taken on the point of view of a man about to be hangedâ€”or whom perhaps already has beenâ€”before cutting to black.
My Joy similarly opened with a startling image of deathâ€”a manâ€™s body being tossed into a cement mixer with a heartless thwack. In both cases the identity of the doomed man is unclear, less important than the simple fact of his death. As we soon realize, a man who was spared from the rope becomes our guide through the harsh landscape of In the Fog. A Belarus railway worker, Sushenya (David Thewlis look-alike Vladimir Svirski), has narrowly avoided the Germansâ€™ noose following his alleged involvement in sabotaging a German railway carâ€”but his survival comes with a price, as he finds himself an outcast from his fellow partisans, who assume that he collaborated with the enemy in order to save his neck. As the narrative proper begins, his ostensible friend and compatriot Burov (Vladislav Abashin) is arriving in the middle of the night at his house in the woods, forcing him to pack his things and say goodbye to his pleading wife and son. Accompanied by the quiet, hazily motivated Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), Burov takes Sushenya deep into the forest and forces him dig his own grave at gunpoint. In the first of many reversals of fortune, Sushenyaâ€™s life is surprisingly spared, once again, setting forth a drama of shifting power dynamics that interrogate its charactersâ€™ actions against questions of free will.
The bigger the narrative gets, the more insular and small the world of the characters becomes. Despite similar subject matter and a shared author, Loznitsaâ€™s film stands in sharp conceptual and aesthetic contrast to Shepitkoâ€™s The Ascent. Loznitsa doesnâ€™t have as grandly poetic a plan for his charactersâ€”though there is decency in them, itâ€™s not of the benevolent kind that allows for a strictly Christian reading. This is neither a tale of redemption (its largely unsullied main character, despite the trials he is put through, is not in need of such things) nor is it a portrait of improbable, Christlike goodness. The film is grounded in the material world, in recognizable human behavior and interaction; its ironies are those of the everyday, delineated in clean, compassionate storytelling strokes that donâ€™t sacrifice complexity for clarity. In the Fog eloquently evokes two pasts that are ever presentâ€”that of the war itself and the Soviet cinema renaissance that gave the world so many transcendent visions of trauma.