In The Fog (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: New Wave Films) Running time: 128 minutes
Belarus 1942 and the German occupied region is separated into two distinct parties – the local residents and the Partisans. When a local track walker Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy) is freed instead of hanged after he and his co-workers tried to blow up a German train, the Partisans suspect him of being a Nazi collaborator.
Shunned by his brethren and his own wife, Sushenya is taken by two Partisan soldiers Burov (Vladislav Abashin), an old friend of Sushenya’s, and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) to the woods to be executed as a traitor. However they fall into a German trap and Burov is shot while Voitik manages to escape. Keen also to flee unharmed Sushenya carries Burov on his back to seek shelter and safety.
The Belarusian director Sergei Loznitsa may not be a familiar name to the mainstream, largely due to the bulk of his work being documentaries, but this slow, brooding but oddly hypnotic tale of decisions and circumstances may change that. Keen cineastes may be aware of Loznitsa’s success at Cannes in 2010 with his debut feature My Joy while this follow up also garnered much praise and attention in 2012.
Based on a short story by a fellow Belarus native Vasil’ Bykaw the first thing to marvel at is how such a brief tale could begat a two hour plus film, when a number of full blown novels can fit into the near-regulation ninety minutes! The answer is in the deliberate pacing. At the risk of putting people off, this is a slow film.
Quite often shots are held for a while or the focus is on the quotidian detail and it is nearly forty minutes into the film before we get the first major plot development. However Loznitsa somehow manages to escape the trap of this becoming dull and the sheer looming of the silent atmospherics or the pin sharp photography courtesy of Oleg Mutu ensures your full attention at all times.
The protagonist Sushenya is an unassuming man, made only noticeable by his unkempt beard and hair, which many have divined as a subtle Christ reference. Admittedly he is a cautious and very moral man and it was his own sense of justice and right from wrong that lead to the compromising position he found himself in.
Through a mid film flashback, we see the incident in question beginning with a surly German officer slapping Sushenya in the face for no reason other than he can. This enrages Sushenya’s fellow track workers and one suggests tampering with the track to derail the next arriving German train. Sushenya wants no part of this but is punished regardless although his abstinence earns him the chance of a reprieve from the Nazis. He refuses but is released anyway, incurring the suspicions of his fellow villagers and the Partisans in the process.
It is not so much that Sushenya is a goody two shoes, rather he is a man of high moral judgement. Just because the Nazis were barbaric bullies doesn’t encourage Sushenya to seek revenge. His passive nature is anathema to those who want to fight back, especially the Partisans. True to his good nature, when his would be executioner Burov is shot, Sushenya can’t leave him wounded and at the mercy of the Nazis.
The question is now asked “how can one be so charitable towards the man who was about to execute him for a supposed moral crime of which he was not guilty?” Sushenya doesn’t seem to understand himself, asking the same question of his erstwhile friend but he is equally unconcerned with such matters when its crunch time. He is simply being a good human being.
War, as we know, makes monsters out of men and Loznitsa, via Bykaw’s story, is exploring this theme while suggesting it is possible to keep one’s moral compass fixed in the right direction while those around you find theirs are going haywire. The Partisans have adopted a fight fire with fire stance, many would argue out of necessity to protect themselves from the invading Nazis essentially adapting to the model of war and thus changing as a result.
With Sushenya as a conscientious objector he has remained true to his own beliefs and moral standards, unfortunately at the expense of his local standing and past friendships. Indeed there is a an unnerving since of pathos in the scene where Burov and Voitik arrive to take Sushneya to his fate, as Sushenya and Burov converses in an amiable manner of pleasantries and small talk, yet all the while both knowing why they are there.
The cast is made up of a mix of established and fresh faces from the Russian/Belarusian acting scene, all of whom play their roles to chilling perfection. Granted the lengthy pauses between dialogue threatens to undermine the subtleties and nuances of their performances, with newcomer Vladimir Svirskiy really put through his paces as Sushenya, and passing emphatically with flying colours.
The dusky landscape and melancholic aura of the woodland setting is as much a vital part of the film’s personality, heightened by the austere silence created by the beneficial absence of a musical soundtrack.
In The Fog is a war film in essence but not a bombastic or dynamic one that makes its point with graphic bloodshed and explosive battle scenes. It’s a simple morality tale of the complexities of human nature in the most desperate and life threatening of times, when rational thinking is compromised to the fullest extent. The titular fog is both literal and metaphorical, the former playing a major part in the powerful denouement, silently drifting in to the frame, taking over everything in front of us then leaving us perplexed but deeply touched.
With a brisker pace and a little trimming this film may encourage a wider praise but for those with patience, this is poetic and profoundly rewarding experience.
PCM Stereo Audio
DTS Master Audio 5.1
Letter (short film)
Rating – ****
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