Classical in a good way, “In the Fog” explores the moralities of wartime with restraint and exacting execution when fate throws three men into conflict with each other by fate in Belorussia during WWII. Belorussian-born helmer Sergei Loznitsa’s sophomore feature is a more conventional work than his audacious debut, “My Joy,” but no less accomplished in its craft, especially thanks to sterling work by ace Romanian lenser Oleg Mutu. Pic will need strong critical support west of the Danube to coax specialty auds, but may fare better in Eastern Europe by tapping race memories of the best Soviet war films.
Adapted by Loznitsa from a novel by Soviet writer Vasil Bykov, the action takes place in 1942, not long after the Germans invaded Belorussia, prompting a long and very bloody guerrilla war with the resistance. A bravura opening scene, consisting of one long, handheld take that harks back to similar shots in Loznitsa’s previous work (especially “My Joy” and “Landscape”), follows three men as they are marched into the village square, where they will be hung for sabotaging a railroad track. Their execution occurs offscreen as the camera pans around the square, taking in the locals’ stoic features as the police explain that this will be the consequence of anyone caught working for the partisans.
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The stakes having been set, Loznitsa’s script explores the trickle-down effect of such brutal rule. At a rural homestead, partisans Kolya Burov (Vlad Abashin, “Yuri’s Day”) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov, “My Joy”) arrive to collect railway worker Sushenya (impressive legit thesp Vladimir Svirski). Although the men collectively try to reassure Sushenya’s hysterical wife, Anelya (Julia Peresild), that her husband will be back soon, they know that Burov and Voitik have come to kill Sushenya for supposedly collaborating with the Germans, a putative betrayal that led to the hanging just seen.
The three men venture deep into the virgin forest to find a spot for Sushenya to dig his own grave; Burov generously agrees to a higher, sandier spot than the swampy terrain first chosen. Sparse dialogue reveals that Sushenya didn’t rat out his comrades to the Germans, but since everyone in town, including Anelya, thinks he did, his life is hardly worth living anymore.
When the moment comes to kill Sushenya, Burov — who’s known Sushenya since childhood — hesitates just long enough to be interrupted by an ambush that seriously wounds him instead. Sushenya tries to save Burov’s life by carrying him to the partisan camp on his back, accompanied by Voitik, who’s only interested in saving his own skin.
Neatly placed flashbacks, using seasonal cues to locate them temporally, underscore that the three principals are effectively doomed either to repeat the similar mistakes or, in the case of Sushenya, to discover that honor and integrity are of little salvation in wartime. Altogether, the men make up a moral spectrum, with the practically saintly Sushenya at one end and the weaselly Voitik at the other. Yet in Loznitsa’s cruel universe, congruent with Bykov’s, everyone will end up, literally, in the same place by the end.
Offering some balm for this bleak, existential lesson, the widescreen celluloid lensing has transcendental grace to spare. Skillfully lighting scenes set both in umbral darkness and dappled day, Mutu’s work fits hand-in-glove with Loznitsa’s elegantly spare emotional palette.
The titular fog that creeps in might seem like a too-on-the-nose metaphor for the ambiguities of war for some, but it also brings with it a deep evocation of well-known Russian pics about WWII, from Elem Klimov’s “Come and See,” the greatest film on the subject of the war in Belorussia, to Alexei German’s “The Last Train.” “In the Fog’s” emotional complexities also hark back to such masterpieces of Soviet WWII cinema as Chukhrai’s “Ballad of a Soldier” and Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying.”
Nevertheless, despite its classicism, Loznitsa’s helming still feels post-millennial in its austerity, particularly given the total absence of music and the slow-breath rhythms of its editing. The helmer doesn’t necessarily break new ground here, but he replows the field with precision.