IN THE FOG. Starring Vladimir Svirski, Vlasislav Abashin, Sergei Kolesov, Yulia Peresild. Directed by Sergei Loznitsa. Rated M (Mature themes and violence) 127 minutes.
In the Fog is a throwback to melancholic films from the post-Stalin Soviet era such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959) and Destiny of a Man(1959). Viewed through the eyes of one man who becomes emblematic of the many, these films were poignant contemplations on the suffering caused by war, the bleakness of each being countered by faith in a Communist future.
In the Fogis stylistically similar, but reneges on optimism in favour of a hero who is burdened by doubt and moral uncertainty, and for whom survival is not everything.
Set in a small village in Belarus in 1942, close to the Russian border and a year after the Nazi occupation, In the Fog begins with three railway workers being hanged by the Germans for sabotage. A fourth, Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski), is set free to return to his family, and when rumours spread that he is a collaborator and traitor, two pro-Soviet partisansarrive one night at his home.
Without protest, Sushenya goes with them into the foresttaking a shovel with him, knowing what is in store for him. One of the partisans, Burov (Vlasislav Abashin)is a childhood friend, and his mission to execute Sushenya is not a job that he relishes. When they reach marshland, Burov raises his rifle to shoot his friend while his companion Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) looks on dispassionately. But Sushenya asks to be shot and buried not in the swamp but on dry land and Burov agrees to this request.
It is this split second decision that determines the fate of all three, setting in train events and revelations that in the manner of a parable, explore discomforting questions about the equivocal role played by conscience, especially during wartime.
In the Fog was written in 1989 by Belarusian author Vasili Bykov, whose life and writings were bound as much by the past, where he fought at the age of 17 on the side of the Red Army against the Germans, as by political events that followed the fall of the USSR in 1989, the year in which the novel was published.
As in Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War, about US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, the fog in question is the moral murkiness surroundingethical life and death decisions made during the exigencies of war.
In a time of great privation, when collaboration with the Nazis is viewed by some in the beleaguered village and elsewhere as justified real politic, and others opt to fight and die with the partisans, Sushenya is assailed by conflicting loyalties of another kind: one which pits the sanctity of individual human life against the greater good of the majority.
The moral crisis that besets Sushenya and haunts him, is whether to place the dictates of his conscience over partisan loyalty and his family's good name, and it is to the filmmaker's great credit that the manner of his storytelling is fully commensurate to the pathos of Sushenya's plight.
In the Fogis starkly lyrical. It has no musical soundtrack, and key scenes and flashbacks are demarked from one another by long fades to black which recall not only films from times past but how the mind works under duress. Action is slow and deliberate, men on horseback suddenly becoming apparent in the forest landscape, like figures from a dream or animals emerging slowly from camouflage. This is also the way that the truth emerges from the depths of Sushenya's tortured but resigned soul.
Not everyone will feel engaged by In the Fog, which like much of Eastern European filmmakingis far removed from the clichés of Hollywood. But for those interested in plumbing the spirituality and consciousness of former eastern bloc countries as they dig deep into the human condition and their own history, thoughtful viewers will see beyond the foreignness of the film into its great passion and humanity, exemplified in the profound and enduring image of Sushenya in his torment carrying Burov like a cross upon his back.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 14, 2013.