Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In the Fog - Sergei Loznitsa

In the Fog (V tumane) (Sergei Loznitsa — Germany/Netherlands/Belarus/Russia/Latvia) 127 minutes

The predicament of Belarusians living through the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War — caught as they were between the barbarism of the Germans and the potentially deadly repurcussions that might be visited on them by Stalin if they were seen to be too compliant — was fertile ground for Soviet-era cinema. Husband and wife Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko provided notable examples, Shepitko with her 1976 Golden Bear-winning The Ascent and then Klimov nine years later with Come and See. Sergei Loznitsa’s second fiction film after the excellent, harrowing My Joy follows in this tradition but its historical connotations are somewhat broader.

To a Western European audience, In the Fog will just appear another gloomy eastern art movie — albeit a recognisably impressive one — but Lozitsna’s choice of source material tackled by Loznitsa is a ballsy one. The film is based on Vasil’ Bykaw’s novel of the same name. Bykaw, himself a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, is a big deal in former Soviet countries and he is arguably the most important figure in the literature of 20th-century Belarus. He is, if one may put it glibly, Solzhenitsyn, Günther Grass and Camus rolled into one. Bykaw had numerous brushes with Soviet officialdom but managed to maintain an independence of sort and was always a hugely popular writer before the break-up of the USSR. In the Fog was published in 1989, just as the Iron Curtain was coming down, presaging the split further east two years later. The novel, about the impossible situation a man falsely accused of collaboration finds himself in, may also be read as an allegory for more contemporary dilemmas. Bykaw would maintain his dissidence in Belarus up until his death in 2003 as the newly independent republic descended back into dictatorship under Aleksandr Lukashenka.

Loznitsa’s lucid and tough-hearted film adaptation offers similar scope to the attentive viewer. The hero of the film is Sushenya (Vladimir Svirksiy), a railway line-man in his 30s, who refuses to take part with three colleagues in what is a practically suicidal derailment of a Nazi train. When all four are arrested, Sushenya is offered to be spared by the local Gestapo Commandant if he turns informer; when he refuses the officer spares him anyway, only to leave him under the perpetual cloud of suspicion for having betrayed his comrades. One night two pro-Soviet partisans, Burov and Voitik, knock on his door and take him away to execute him. But there are more twists to the stories awaiting in the dark Belarusian forests.

In the Fog is deceptively titled, for all the mist that is evident on screen; it is a clean, uncluttered drama, recounting the back stories of all three characters, two of whom have been pushed to make conscious choices to decide their fate, the third caught up in an absurd web of destiny beyond his control. Loznitsa does remarkably well to bring the novel’s interrogation of moral quandaries to life. It is a living, organic film of speech and actions rather than contrived ideas. It also looks great, with Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who has worked with Christian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu as well as with Loznitsa on My Joy) capturing the drab autumnal tones in splendidly-mounted Scope, alternating stately set-ups with Loznitsa’s more trademark handheld, shoulder-hugging travelling shots. To successfully adapt a major writer such as Bykaw is an achievement in itself; to turn the material into such a fine film is something remarkable indeed.