Home Video Hovel: In the Fog, by Aaron Pinkston
Sadly, we don’t see enough films set in World War II from the Russian perspective. Though Russia was on the side of the “good guys” during the war, the rapidly volatile political climate that came out of the conflict is fascinating and totally worth exploring. Maybe this is an unfair introduction when thinking of Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog (V tumane), as it doesn’t really deal with the large global implications of Russia post-WWII, but the very personal story in the film stands in well for the societal turmoil at hand. At its core, In the Fog cares more for questions around personal morality than the morality of war, but they are thrust together in the taut and tense drama depicted in the film.
In the Fog opens in stunning fashion — a roughly three minute opening shot first tracking three men being led to their death and then focusing on a crowd of onlookers horrified by the event. This shot, in only a few minutes, immediately immerses the viewer into the tone and gravity that will be experienced for the next two hours. The sequence ends with the nameless men being hanged, though offscreen and unseen. This decision adds a delicate mercy to the otherwise brutal introduction, a hand Loznitsa displays that sets the film apart from many other bleak films. In the Fog is unquestionably difficult, but you can see the filmmaker wanting to make a film more than incessantly depressing for no other reason. Soon, it is learned that this sequence is actually a flashback, and once we fully understand where it takes place in the events of the film, it adds a narrative consequence that is challenging and quite rewarding. Though it is a stunning scene on its own (and In the Fog is full of stunning scenes), if the viewer can connect it to the whole the intensity magnifies.
The film throughout has a non-linear narrative, framed by a main dramatic thread that jumps back to full sequences that enrich the tense situation in the film’s present. It isn’t a flashy technique (really, nothing about In the Fog is flashy), feeling more literary — the flashbacks feel like specific chapters in a long novel. The main storyline primarily follows three men: Sushenya, a working class Russian who is suspected of colluding with the occupied German forces by his two captors, Burov and Voitik. We learn quickly that Sushenya and Burov are quite close, maybe friends, so leading Sushenya to his death is a particularly difficult situation. The best of the flashback sequences shows Sushenya’s time in the German work camp, where he is indeed propositioned to aid the Germans in blowing up a train in exchange for his freedom. It is without a doubt the best scene in the film, one of the best scenes I’ve seen in any film this year, dramatic for both what happens in the scene and how it changes what we think about the consequences that have already played.
By the end of the film, this narrative structure has really pulled off something incredible. Really quietly, pieces from the past and present come together, spiralling into bleaker fare without being showy or clever or puzzling. Without big moments or speeches, the film asks questions about the responsibility of being a human being in a world that is complicated and horrific. Filmed to emphasize the landscape and the elements, In the Fog is also a really beautiful looking film. The colors and shapes really blend together nicely, in part to the stillness of the camera and the characters in the frame. Though the landscape is more brutal than beautiful, the film is very picturesque.
In many ways, this is a very “Russian” film. The story is slow, but steady, with more focus on internal conflicts than external. The shooting style reflects the tone, so it will certainly be suffocating to some. Because of the choices these characters have to make and the implications their choices have, it can’t be anything but suffocating to experience. If you haven’t enjoyed films that have come out of Russia over the past decade, or generally don’t appreciate films that really can beat you down, In the Fog just probably isn’t for you. It is, though, appropriately tuned, smartly constructed, and another film in a now-growing list of contemporary Russian films that represent a bright future for the international film market.