Issue 39 (2013)
Sergei Loznitsa: In the Fog (V tumane, 2012)
reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2013
German-occupied Belarus, circa 1942. Four railway workers are accused of sabotaging the tracks. Three are hanged; one is released to his family. Sushchenia, the freed man, finds his liberty illusory. His neighbors despise him as a supposed collaborator; even his beloved wife Anelia thinks her life would have been better had he joined his comrades on the gallows. At least he would be remembered as a hero. Two partisans, Burov and Voitik, come to the Sushchenia home to exact retribution for the unlucky man’s alleged crime. The three go off into the forest, Sushchenia with shovel in hand. After he has dug his own grave, Sushchenia faces Burov, a childhood friend, to be shot. Burov hesitates. In that second, native polizei come upon them, and it is Burov who is shot, while Sushchenia makes a getaway. But Sushchenia returns to help the wounded Burov. While Voitik is away looking for a wagon to transport Burov, Burov dies, yet Sushchenia doggedly stays beside him, to Voitik’s astonishment. Carrying Burov’s body on his back like a cross, Sushchenia and Voitik attempt to reach the partisan unit, when polizei ambush them. Voitik is killed. Alone and in despair over his fate, Sushchenia commits suicide.
Sergei Loznitsa’s second feature film is a bleak and uncompromising deconstruction of the relationship between collaborators and partisans in wartime Belarus as well as an examination of the degradation of morality during wartime. Filmed in a dark palette at a glacial pace, with long tracking shots, In the Fog looks and feels as depressing as its subject matter. (So austere is the aesthetic of this film, there is no music.) The story unfolds in a linear fashion, with the exception of three flashbacks, sharply demarcated by fades to black.
In the Fog is essentially a three-character morality play. The two supporting characters, partisans Burov and Voitik, are imperfectly delineated. Burov first appears at Sushchenia’s house in an awkward scene in which Burov is forced to chat with Sushchenia’s friendly little boy, Grisha. It is clear that both husband and wife know him; Anelia asks after his mother and sister (both are dead) and attempts unsuccessfully to feed him. (Later in the film, Sushchenia tells Voitik that he and Burov, whom he calls “Kolia,” lived on the same street as children.) Burov assures Anelia that they have only a bit of business to attend to and that her husband will return soon. In the forest, a remnant of Burov’s humanity is shown when he allows Sushchenia to select his own burial site and then again when Burov finds that he cannot shoot Sushchenia, at least not face-to-face. In a curious flashback, this ambiguous picture is complicated. Burov is shown as a headstrong young man who has joined the partisans because the local polizei commandeered his precious truck. After setting the truck on fire, Burov has nowhere else to go, except to the partisans. So much for patriotic feelings motivating partisans!
Nor is Voitik a particularly patriotic partisan. In fact, he is a downright coward, as evidenced when he flees the polizei instead of warning Burov and Sushchenia about the imminent attack. Voitik does not return to them until the next morning. In his flashback, we see him being fed by an elderly couple, who give him potatoes to take back to the partisans. When he is stopped by polizei, he hesitates for only a moment before taking them to the old people’s house, thus betraying them. A brief exchange of gunfire ends, we assume, with the couple’s deaths. True to form, Voitik runs away, rather than helping them.
Given that both Burov and Voitek are underdrawn characters, the success of the film depends on how effectively the hapless hero Sushchenia, the moral center of the film, is delineated. In lesser hands, he might have ended up as no more than a cartoon saint, but Vladimir Svirskii’s portrayal is brilliantly complex. For much of the film, the viewer has to rely on Sushchenia’s word that he is innocent of collaboration. The film opens with the prisoners being marched to the gallows; Sushchenia is not among them. The hanging is not seen but rather heard: the sound of the trap door falling and the creaking of the ropes.
The viewer meets Sushchenia for the first time at his house, where he is happily carving a dog for his little boy. When Burov arrives, Sushchenia simply says “I knew that you’d come. I’m not guilty of anything.” Anelia reaffirms this—“It’s not true!”—to which Burov stoically replies: “But those men were hanged. He was released.” Sushchenia continues to protest his innocence as he travels through the forest with Burov and Voitik—“I didn’t betray them”—before he resignedly begs Burov to tell his wife that “the Germans killed me.” His resignation to his fate is sublime. Later, the wounded Burov, ever rational, asks Sushchenia, “Why didn’t you run away?” to which his prisoner replies logically, “Where could I have run?” But Burov persists in believing that Sushchenia is guilty; Sushchenia tells the baffled dying man that he would have welcomed hanging over this uncertain fate.
Sushchenia’s flashback, unlike Burov’s and Voitik’s, is essential to the film’s meaning. Here Loznitsa reveals the true perfidy of collaboration. Sushchenia introduces his flashback by telling Burov that he was a railroad worker for 13 years. Then we see Sushchenia with three other workers, one no more than a boy. It is the boy’s idea to cause a crash by loosening a joint bolt on the track. The other two men are enthusiastic and argue to the disbelieving Sushchenia that they would not be caught. Sushchenia tries to argue them out of it by telling them that the Germans will retaliate by killing everyone in the village. The others scoff at this and Sushchenia sits and glumly watches as they undo the bolt. The train crash is never shown (Loznitsa rigorously represses any hint of “action” in the film); in the next scene the men are being dragged to a cell. Grossmeier, the village’s commandant, singles out Sushchenia as a “positive man” who might be willing to cooperate with the Germans. He proposes a plan: he will arrange for Sushchenia to escape to the partisans, where he will serve as a mole, reporting back to the Germans. “I can’t,” replies the beaten and exhausted Sushchenia. He is urged to think about it. The next morning, he is left behind as the men go out to be hanged, but his answer to collaboration is the same, strangely powerful, “I can’t.” He is let go, to the fate the partisans will arrange, as the commandant sneering informs him.
Back in the present, Sushchenia tells Burov that people came to hate him and that even his wife was suspicious. He thought of suicide but knew that such an act would be seen as a sign of guilt. He realizes to his horror that he has opened his soul to a dead man. He sits beside Burov’s body, waiting to Voitik to return. When Voitik finally reappears, Sushchenia wants to bury Burov (while Voitik wants to leave him to the ravens). They set off for the partisan camp, Sushchenia again carrying Burov, his cross, on his back. Voitik thinks about shooting Sushchenia, but, like Burov, cannot bring himself to do it. He is still curious about Sushchenia, though, and once again asks him to confess his sin. Sushchenia repeats his denial; “You’re probably lying, right?” replies a wondering Voitik, who of course could not imagine himself taking such a moral stance. Sushchenia muses aloud that he was always respected in the village, on good terms with everyone, but laments “Why have they stopped believing in me now? … How can a man who wants to live choose betrayal?” Shortly before he is killed, the uncomprehending Voitik assures Sushchenia that war changes everyone. Shortly thereafter, the fog of war rolls in, obscuring everything but the sound of a gunshot...
In the Fog was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, as well as the best picture prizes at the Minsk, Odessa, and Erevan film festivals. Overall, it has received sympathetic praise. To those conversant with the rich canon of the Soviet and post-Soviet World War II film, however, In the Fog feels more than a bit familiar. Comparing it to Elem Klimov’s masterpiece of the Belarusian occupation, Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985), as a few Western critics have, is very far off the mark, given the considerable stylistic differences between the two films (Bradshaw 2012). A better comparison is with Larissa Shepitko’s The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie, 1977), which also focuses on individuals grappling with the moral issues of wartime collaboration, but has much more emotional resonance, although it is equally as harsh a view. Yet there is no denying that Sushchenia’s painful existential dilemma will remain with the viewer long after the fog has faded from the screen.
Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont
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Bradshaw, Peter (2012), “Cannes 2012: In the Fog Review,” The Guardian 25 May
In the Fog, 2012
Color, 119 minutes
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Screenplay: Sergei Loznitsa, based on the novel by Vasil Bykov
Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu
Art Director: Juris Zukovskis
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Producer: Heino Deckert
Cast: Vladimir Svirskii, Vladislav Abashin, Sergei Kolesov, Vlad Ivanov, Iulia Peresild, Nadezhda Markina
Production: ma.ja.de.fiction in collaboration with GP Cinema Company, Riga Films, Lemming Film, Belarusfilm, ZDF/ARTE
Sergei Loznitsa: In the Fog (V tumane, 2012)
reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2013