Film of the week: In the Fog

The woods have it in Sergei Loznitsa’s morally murky and blackly meditative World War II captivity drama, explains Hannah McGill.


Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

“It was kind of my fault, except not at all,” one man says of another’s death in Sergei Loznitsa’s solemn moral epic, adapted by the director from a 1989 novel by Vasil Bykov. Shifting planes of responsibility, on which the slightest decision by one individual can tip others into catastrophe, characterise the philosophical setting of a work that takes as its central premise a terrible irony: that a man spared an unjust death should find survival an infinitely crueller sentence for a crime that he didn’t commit in the first place.

Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski) is a railway worker in Nazi-occupied Belarus who fails in his attempts to dissuade hot-headed co-workers from sabotaging a train and is consequently implicated in their plot. The others are hanged, but the investigating Nazi commander (Vlad Ivanov, playing another memorable monster after the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) offers Sushenya an out if he’ll collaborate – and insightfully recognises, on being refused, that he’ll punish this particular man much more by keeping him alive than by killing him. Martyrdom becomes a reward denied. (“You want a noble death? Want everyone to write pamphlets about you? That’s not going to happen.”) Subsequently, though their actions were in truth spurred by nothing more high-minded than a hankering to get their disliked boss into trouble with his Nazi superiors, the deceased plotters are celebrated as heroes, while Sushenya, who tried to intervene in their foolishness and refused to betray anyone else, is tainted by his very survival with the suspicion of collaboration.

Loznitsa, whose previous feature was 2010’s My Joy, allows all this to emerge in flashback, after Sushenya receives a night-time visit from his erstwhile friend Burov (Vlad Abashin). Slowly we establish why Sushenya offers so little resistance when Burov and his sidekick Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) march him into the woods, obviously to shoot him; he even offers to bring his own shovel. Burov, by promising the death sentence that Sushenya is so widely perceived to have earned, offers relief from his misery.

Except that Sushenya is a habitual unwilling escapee from death’s clutches, condemned seemingly to stay alive with his guilt while those around him claim the simple ending for which he himself yearns. Sushenya’s status as a sort of mythic figure, doomed to live on with his multiplying demons, is emphasised by a forest setting shot by Oleg Mutu (My Joy; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) in layered sepia tangles suggestive of primeval depth and complexity. Sushenya is in this forest forever. If he takes the plunge and shoots himself – the last possibility with which the film leaves us – one can only imagine that the revolver will jam.

Death as the happiest ending available. A moral fog of impenetrable density. Such is the bleakness here that it occasionally risks a tension-releasing blurt of laughter on the part of the less-engaged viewer: when Sushenya’s wife Anelya runs after her doomed husband pleading with him to brighten his final walk by taking some lard and an onion to snack on; when Sushenya completes the tale that ends in his workmates’ hangings only to find that his listener has died during the telling; when, at the end, he sits between the corpses of his two comrades, contemplating suicide as the fog descends around him.

Perhaps there’s no reason for Loznitsa to concern himself with less-engaged viewers. His tone is consistent here and true to itself, his story thick with ideas and his characters deeply felt by the actors. But there is certainly no comedy of the intentional sort to leaven the film’s denser material, and that doesn’t just test the audience’s endurance – it arguably robs the characters of a certain complexity. What they’re missing by losing their freedom and then their lives is perhaps less striking, given the staunchly maintained absence of light in their existence. One grabs greedily – for some warmth, some levity – on to a brief scene of Sushenya carving wooden animals with his son, but both participants take even that project rather seriously.

There’s barely a relationship here without an edge of sourness to it: no lard without onion. Love, in so far as we see it at all, is most clearly signalled between Burov and Sushenya as they hide out in the forest: a slowly dying man and the former friend he’d been resolved to kill. But this sad scenario lets us grasp the poisoned reality of life under occupation, and specifically of Sushenya’s recent existence. His domestic set-up, which appears so undeservedly idyllic to Burov at the film’s opening – cosy home, family, warm bathwater – has in fact been underscored by suffering all along. By being spared, Sushenya has earned the suspicion of all around him, including his wife.

Respectful of its novelistic origins, In the Fog allows its philosophical content – the difference between being alive and being dead, the stability of essential character traits, the meaning of martyrdom and of moral gestures, the challenge to all such notions in time of war – to provide the bulk of its complexity. In other respects, it’s told quite straight, without the eerie waywardness of My Joy. Loznitsa doesn’t always spell out what’s happening here but he does give us to assume that we’re on one solid plane of reality, and that what we’re seeing in flashback is what we should assume went down.

The film’s structure, whereby each character receives a contextualising flashback, linked to the others by a sequence showing all of them in the present day, offers just the sort of neatness, rhythm and fair distribution of resources not apparent in the characters’ haphazard moral universe – a further deep irony in a film replete with them. Sushenya, for one, is aware that storytelling might be the final arbiter of their situation, their sole remaining way out of the swamp they’re in – albeit a posthumous one.

“Tell everything to your commander about me,” he exhorts Voitik, encouraging him to write it down. “You rely on documents?” the man asks him. Sushenya clearly does, on the basis that, “Maybe they’ll sort it all out one day.” If he can’t clear his name in his lifetime, the art of historiography might do it for him. The simple narratives required in wartime – hero or traitor, loyalty or betrayal – don’t have the scope to capture what he’s undergone; he must look to posterity for adequate representation. Not that it’s going to happen, just as the Nazi officer predicted: the people who know his story promptly convey it with them to the grave.

More clouds of grey, indeed, than any Russian play could guarantee. The heavy tragic faces here, the sorrowful contemplation of our collective lot and the absence of levity of any kind all adhere to national stereotype to a degree that some will find wearing. But the intellectual range is vast, and the images and performances stirring beyond the customary standard. In its thorough meditation on man’s moral place, and its beautiful depiction of one version of life’s trial, lies this film’s joy.

And in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

from our May 2013 issue

Men of shadows and fog

With its classical hero and traditional structure, Sergei Loznita’s second feature is the furthest venture into fiction yet for a filmmaker who began as one of Russia’s most consistently fearless documentarists. By Anna Formicheva.

How we won the war

Throughout the Soviet era, stories of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ were a staple of Russian cinema, but they evoked a range of responses from some of the era’s greatest filmmakers. By Michael Brooke.

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