Waiting for God, death and peacetime, Sergei Loznitsa’s In The Fog explores innocence, doubt and guilt transformed by war.
Life During Wartime by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
For a film with such an obviously metaphoric title, the fog is a long time coming. And yet, with its tale of three men lost in an existential penumbra of innocence, doubt and guilt, In The Fog’s moral haze is palpable from the start. It’s 1942, Belarus is occupied by Nazi Germany and with fighting at the frontline within earshot, peacetime ethics no longer apply. And yet, within this polarity of resistance and collaboration, it’s the characters’ humanity in Sergei Loznitsa’s In The Fog that struggles to the fore, as they negotiate old friendships, rumour and common decency. Based on the novel by Nobel Prize nominated Belarusian author Vasili Bykov, In The Fog, like Loznitsa’s previous film My Joy, follows one man’s descent into a maddening spiral of power struggles and violence. But as we head through the mists of threat, suspicion and war, In The Fog leads us deeper into a very Russian gloom.
It’s the height of the Nazi occupation, and railwayman Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski) is arrested following the sabotage of a train by Soviet resistance. While the other dissidents are hanged, Sushenya is freed – to the surprise and suspicion of his community. He returns to his family, but it’s not long before partisans come knocking, fearful of the doubtless treachery that brought him back to the living. And so, he is led by Burov and Voitik through the forest at gunpoint, on the look-out for a suitable spot to meet his maker. But as the frontline closes in and Voitik is killed by German fire, Sushenya’s fate seems less assured. And as fog envelops this no-mans-land hinterland, all bets are off.
Opening with the camera over Sushenya’s shoulder heading mercilessly towards the gallows, Loznitsa offers us a prologue to his Beckettian tale of three lost souls. But there’s an ellipsis between the unshown hanging and the next sequence in which Voitik and Burov are combing the forest on horseback, their quest unknown. And our sense of good and evil is thrown – as we vacillate between the armed avengers and the humble victim who escaped the hangman’s noose. German mercy is unthinkable on the Eastern front, so Sushenya (played with blue-eyed honesty by Svirski) must be guilty. And indeed, the railwayman accepts his fate, preferring the commitment of death over the suspicious eyes of his wife and the community he’s lived in for over thirty years. And as childhood friend Burov leads Sushenya out into the Luschansky forest, mercifully away from his family, it’s a civilised death – soaking in the hospitality with fresh cloths for his feet and one last drink.
The search for soil sandy enough for Sushenya to dig his own grave quickly becomes a metaphoric journey, his death continuously delayed by the guiding hand of fate. And when Voitik, standing guard, fails to warn of the approaching enemy, Burov is shot, leading Sushenya to carry the wounded soldier to safety and to a fine recalibration of power. Each of the three men carries the story with a trio of flashbacks that reveal the real men behind the wartime glaze. Burov transports us back to the intimate home he shares with his late mother and the truck he lovingly restores, only to blow it up when it’s requisitioned by the Germans. Sushenya’s choice between resistance and collaboration is not so stark, the family man set apart from his gang of railwaymen sabotaging the track, but refusing to denounce them to the German Army. In his, Voitik is exposed as an outlaw and thief, living in a bivouac hideaway, stealing rations and sacrificing strangers to the Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht.
Like Zvyagintsev’s Elena, the crows are waiting – death’s attendants hanging in trees and over houses, awaiting their cadaverous rewards. But they’re left hungry in Sergei Loznitsa’s In The Fog, Sushenya’s existential crisis, caught between his home life and refusing to hang himself afraid the villagers will accuse him of a guilty conscience, envelops the film like a fog, fading to white. But above all, beyond the high drama of battlefields and artillery, and with most of its violent action occurring in asides, Loznitsa’s film is an existential exploration through the fog of war. People are transformed by fighting, death and collaboration, Loznitsa recreating in fiction the psychological impact of war where historical documentation falls short. Man is not suited to war, ill prepared for a world without trust. But with its moral morass of lies, violence and betrayal, In The Fog offers a fraught, blinding haze to draw us all in.
In The Fog is released on 26th April 2013 in the UK