Thursday, February 6, 2014

Film Atlas (Belarus): In the Fog

Country: Belarus
Title: In the Fog / V Tumane (2012)
By 1942 the Germans have pushed back the eastern front beyond Belarus and established a military police force over their newly occupied territory. Partisans Burov and Voitik journey through a moss-covered forest on a special mission: to hunt down and execute Burov’s childhood neighbor Sushenya, an accused traitor and collabor. Burov arrives while Sushenya, his wife, Anelya, and son are about to eat supper. Despite an outward calm, the adults immediately recognize the finality of this parting and Anelya slowly breaks into tears. The partisan avengers take Sushenya first to a marsh, where he begs them not to bury him because the body would resurface, and then to a pine grove, where he digs his own grave. 

However a surprise attack by the German police mortally wounds Burov before he can kill Sushenya, and the latter rescues him and carries him to safety on his back. Along the way we are shown three extended flashbacks, establishing how the trio arrived at their current situation. 

Burov, an auto mechanic living with his mother, fled across his fields after sabotaging his own truck which the German invaders forced him to keep in good repair for their use. Sushenya, a train station track-walker unwilling to participate in sabotage for fear of the consequences others will suffer, is nevertheless arrested after a disastrous derailment along with the three actual perpetrators, all of whom are hanged. The diabolical German overseer offers Sushenya his life if he agrees to spy for him, but when Sushenya refuses, he's freed anyway. Only later does Sushenya understand that he is bait; his mysterious pardon intentionally designed to draw partisan assassins. Voitik, a resistance member without much initiative, intelligence or courage, was captured returning to his forest hideout after receiving rations from a nearby farmhouse, and led a pair of German soldiers back to them before escaping, his betrayal undetected, during the ensuing shootout. Interspersed with these flashbacks, we follow the three men trying to link up with the main resistance force as a fog descends, symbolic of the fading clarity of justice.

In the Fog is based on a short story by beloved Belarusian writer, Vasil Bykaw, and directed by former documentary-maker turned art-house up-and-comer Sergei Loznitsa. The immaculate virtually all-outdoor cinematography with its landscape painter eye for natural textures and their fluctuations under shades of sun and moon, comes courtesy of Romanian New Wave cinematographer Oleg Mutu (4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu).

Though a war film, there is almost no action to speak of and the few exceptions take place off-screen. The viewer's attention is focused solely on war’s smallest, most fundamental element: the individual. Through asymmetric flashbacks (letting the audience know something about each character that the other men never learn) and pared down conversations we are given insights into the way ethics, appearances, duty, honesty, reputation and self-regard are warped by wartime conditions. Particularly interesting is the contrast between Sushenya, who’s remorselessly plagued by guilt for a betrayal he didn’t commit (but which everyone, including his wife, suspects) and Voitik, who actually did betray but is never suspected and seems untroubled by guilt. The film’s final lines belong to its most mercenary caricature, two men dispassionately looting a body, furthering the idea that survival and prosperity are inversely proportional to moral maturity. The fog-shrouded final moments imply the corollary, that Sushenya’s overdeveloped moral sense is actually antithetical to life.

But tempering this pessimistic philosophy is an intriguing network of coincidences and ironies that seem to imply cosmic metaphysical forces at play: Sushenya rescuing his would-be executioner, his pacifist non-participation failing to save him from the suspicion and ire first of the Germans and then of the Soviets, Burov destroying a truck at the start of his partisan career only to die for want of even a cart at the end of it, Voitik surviving one unfortunate road-crossing only to meet his fate at another, bookending scenes involving boots, etc. Loznitsa thankfully doesn’t employ these ironies for laughs (he’s serious almost to a fault) or pedagogy (he’s studiously ambiguous about larger meanings), but they give this otherwise reserved and minimalist film its soul-searching complexity. The film’s only structural flaw is that Burov’s flashback, the first, is too straightforward and orthodox, and in a film whose stately long-take style is justified by making every scenes matter, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

Major Directors:
Sergei Loznitsa

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