Sergei Loznitsa’s atmospheric and austere In the Fog remains one of my cinematic highlights of 2013. It transports us to 1942, and Nazi-occupied Belarus. The fog of war has descended over the lives of ordinary men trapped in extraordinary circumstances; clear-cut morals have been blurred, and no black-or-white certainties remain to cling to.
The opening sequence immerses us into the scene of a public hanging; three men convicted of sabotage by German officials march to their death. We are shown this in a brilliant tracking shot with minimalistic sound, adding to the eeriness of this precession, and which makes perfect use of off-screen space. The execution is out of sight and the moving camera symbolically settles on meat carcasses as we hear the ropes stretch. This already showcases the film’s stunning visuals, shot by Romanian DP Oleg Mutu who also did the cinematography in the superb Beyond the Hills.
Alongside the three now-dead men, a fourth had also been arrested, but was released the morning of their hanging. He is Sushenya, a railroad worker, and in a cruel irony his liberation becomes a fate worse than death. His very freedom arouses the suspicions of all around him who now think he must have betrayed the other three – even his own wife doubts him. Two partisans named Burov and Voitik pay a visit to Sushenya one evening, intending to mete punishment to the one they see as a collaborator. Sushenya is stoical and resigned to death as he follows the two soldiers into the forest, to dig his own grave. However Sushenya’s release is not as simple as it seems and the truth will reveal some deep ethical complexities.
Three telling flashbacks punctuate the film, giving background on each of Sushenya, Voitik and Burov, with each character representing a different possible reaction to the bitter war surrounding them. Burov for example, commits his first act of resistance more out of resentment at having his truck stolen than any patriotic sentiment, thus undermining the idea of heroic partisans. The myth behind martyrdom is also debunked: the three hanged men are now regarded as having heroically died for the cause of the resistance, but in truth they were merely plotting to get back at their hated boss.
The survivor’s guilt here recalls another Belarus-set WW2 film: Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). But this is far more understated than Klimov’s relentless depiction of the horrors of war, and a more suitable comparison is with The Ascent, made by Klimov’s wife Larisa Shepitko in 1977. Like In the Fog it was based on a Vasel Bykov novel and is profoundly evocative of human souls trapped within circumstances beyond their control.
As this suggests, the film feels like an existentialist parable. The photography, meandering long-takes and lack of any music give an ominous, almost mythical air to the forest; its fog-enshrouded atmosphere is the stage for an extremely serious, intellectually challenging exploration of the moral issues of living in war-time.
I found In the Fog a thoroughly captivating and rewarding experience, from the opening hanging scene up to its final shot, which retrospectively feels like the only note it could have possibly ended on. Already looking forward to seeing it again… Roll on August and the blu-ray release.
In the Fog: ★★★★★
Dir: Sergei Loznitsa