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Revenge is a dish served cold, bitter and morally conflicted in this marathon World War II glumfest, which carries a heavy historical weight as Russia’s sole Competition contender in Cannes. Based on a novel by the Belorussian author Vassily Bykov, Sergei Loznitsa’s slow-moving three-hander methodically unpicks the agonising ethical choices facing citizens of Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1942. Fans of old-school Soviet cinema may find these wintry forests and fatalistic characters a touch over-familiar, but the film repays patient viewing as it evolves into an engrossing, nuanced, philosophical drama. Though hardly blockbuster material, In The Fog (V Tumane) should attract a niche global audience with its intellectual gravitas and technical prowess.
Never fully elaborated by the film-makers, the context is Nazi Germany’s wartime occupation of the western Russian territory of Belarus between 1941 and 1944, which led to a bitter guerrilla uprising by pro-Soviet partisans and left over two million people dead. These events remain contentious in Belarus, now a post-Soviet republic frequently described as Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, which may explain why Loznitsa shot this well-crafted pan-European co-production in the neighbouring Baltic state of Latvia instead.
The action begins with a grim public hanging of three alleged saboteurs for an act of resistance, initially unexplained, against the occupying Nazi regime. Strikingly, their executions occur off camera, like every death in the film. Instead, Loznitsa’s roving camera comes to rest on a pile of bones outside a butcher’s shop. Not subtle, but effective.
Two weeks later, armed partisans arrive at the cottage of a railway worker who mysteriously escaped the gallows, leading him off into the woods to be shot as a Nazi collaborator. The trio’s anguished debate about guilt, crime and punishment is interrupted by a clash with local pro-Nazi agents, leaving all three wounded and weighing up their mutual fate. At this point the non-linear story flashes back to fill in some crucial context, revealing how each of the protagonists has previously paid a hefty price for principled but often wrong-headed acts of heroism.
Russian films about the horrors and heroism of World War II have an illustrious track record, of course, becoming a major feature of the Soviet era for obvious political propaganda purposes. In The Fog is standing on the shoulders of giants like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, Andrei Tarkovksy’s Ivan’s Childhood and – especially – Elem Klimov’s savagely beautiful 1985 epic Come and See, which addressed the Nazi occupation of Belarus directly.
Possibly mindful of this, Loznitsa’s addition to an already overstuffed canon takes the opposite stylistic approach, being essentially an intimate meditation on the tortuous Faustian dilemmas facing ordinary citizens under brutally sadistic regimes. Although Bykov himself lived through the Nazi occupation of Belarus, he never wrote about partisan heroism in glowingly triumphalist terms, preferring to focus on more personal, psychologically driven stories.
Initially a documentary maker, Loznitsa earned the Best Director prize at Cannes two years ago with My Joy, a bleak existential trek across a hellish contemporary Russia. In The Fog is more conventional in structure and content, but shares some of the same elements. Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu returns, shooting with a similar mix of tight close-ups, long single takes and slow, Bela Tarr-style, back-of-the-neck tracking shots. His color palette is mostly drained and autumnal, cross-cut with deep shadows and striking chiaroscuro contrast.
The three main players – Vladimir Svirski, Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov – are persuasively understated throughout, their faces etched with decades of grim resignation to cruel fate. No soundtrack music is allowed to add even a crumb of comfort to this joyless, blighted, purgatorial land.
In The Fog ends a little clumsily, with the belated appearance of a heavily symbolic mist and a predictable offstage gunshot. But by this point the film has stopped being a specific wartime story and stealthily gear-shifted into a universal meditation on the human condition, with war as an allegory for life, and fog as a metaphor for mankind’s stumbling progress into the unknown. A ponderous trudge at times, it is ultimately worth the journey.
Venue: Cannes Competition screening, May 24
Production Companies: Belarusfilm, GP Cinema Company, Lemming Film, Ma.ja.de. Fiction, Rija Films
Cast: Vladimir Svirski, Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu
Editor: Danielinus Kokanauskis
Screenplay: Sergei Loznitsa, from the novel by Vassily Bykov
Sales agent: The Match Factory
Rating TBC, 127 minutes
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