Bleak and compelling Russian war saga in which metaphor hangs heavy in the air.
One of post-millennial festival filmmaking ’s favourite locations is the forest. In addition to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s arboreally obsessed work (Blissfully Yours, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), there are movies as dissimilar as Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos, Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux, Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month Of August and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. The visual appeal is obvious, even as the setting approaches cliché: the hypnotic textures created by trees and leaves in constantly shifting light, tiny variants usually amplified via low, slow tracking shots.
Sergei Loznitsa’s In The Fog takes as little joy in this setting as its characters, making this forest a bitter antidote to its previous uses. In World War Two occupied Belarussia (the film was shot in Latvia), partisan, anti-German resisters Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) show up in the dead of chilly night at the rural house of former peasant comrade Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy).
They’re certain he’s a collaborator who sold out friends to the Nazis, and so escort him to the woods, intent on executing and burying him. Military police appear out of nowhere, shooting Burov. Sushenya then sets out to prove his claimed innocence by carrying the bleeding body of his would-be captor back to a safe military base.
Two hours of trudging, In The Fog moves at the pace of its exhausted trio’s trek. Any Russian film with lots of wind is inevitably at least glancing at Tarkovsky, but this breeze isn’t sensual or exciting, just an irritating constant that can’t be escaped. The leaves are green but the overall colour palette is sepia, sapping the woods of sensual vibrance and creating an autumnal pallour even in springtime. Camera pans are coolly elegant and slow but resistant to overt aestheticisation. It’s grimly gripping, averse to hysteria or the overwrought.
The World War Two setting isn’t new to Loznitsa, who reconstructed the Siege of St. Petersburg in his compilation documentary Blockade. In his first fiction feature, 2010’s My Joy, there’s a character named "Mute" whose father returned from World War Two, spoke of the civility of the Germans and was killed by angry villagers. Mute subsequently gets a gun and goes around killing people, dragging the war into the present day. This is Loznitsa’s unsubtle way of suggesting contemporary Russia is a battleground with equally clearly defined combatants — vile authorities on one side, peasant resisters on the other and very little ground in between.
In The Fog is almost certainly meant to have similar contemporary resonance. "He was a bastard before the Soviets, too," it’s said of one collaborator officer who revels in his newfound authority. "His kind adapts to any regime," like the former Kremlin nationalists now in charge of the country. (Grim irony: the film is a German co-production.)
Rhythmically smoother than the lurchingly nihilistic My Joy, In The Fog finds Loznitsa pinning down an assured narrative groove. Infelicities are mostly symbolic, with not just the fog of war inevitably making an appearance but a bird in a cage flapping when a Nazi offers life in return for collaboration.
Received a kind, if hardly rousing reception from its Cannes premiere.
Heavy-handed metaphors hang in the thick fog.
Not quite there yet, but Sergei Loznitsa is on an upward curve.