Thursday, March 21, 2013

In the Fog (V Tumane)

IN THE FOG (V Tumane)                   B          
Russia  Belarus  Latvia  Germany  Netherlands  (127 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Sergei Loznitsa
Official site 

Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for those men, whose souls are of barbarian nature.
—Sergei Loznitsna, film director quoting pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus

Not sure how this film qualifies to play in the European Union Fest, as this is a decisively Russian-Belarus filmmaker, neither country members of the EU, though much of the film was shot in Latvia, the supposed country of EU origin.  Ironically the filmmaker has moved to Germany, a country with one of the best run and most efficient state-assisted cinema programs in all of Europe, allowing him to make films that would be impossible to make in Russia, also helping to produce the financing for his films.  It’s the Russians, however, that have a fondness for their own history and that of the former Soviet territories, where they never forget the terrible price paid in human lives to keep the Germans from overrunning Moscow and Stalingrad in World War II, coming within 20 miles of Moscow before the Russian lines finally held.  Over the course of the war they eventually lost anywhere from 22 to 26 million dead, 15 – 20 % of their entire population defending their nation.  Nearly every family was affected by this kind of dramatic impact, leaving behind for generations to come the terrible scars of history, where no one makes films about this era with more wretched misery than the Russians, who suffered tremendously through this unimaginable horror, perhaps best represented by The Five Best Soviet Era War Films.  Like Trial On the Road (Proverka na dorogakh) (1971), The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) (1976), and Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), all set in Belarus and all steeped in the psychological horrors of World War II when the occupying Nazi forces applied a scorched earth policy, burning Belarusian villages to the ground, slaughtering all the inhabitants, literally attempting to wipe Russians off the face of the earth, leaving whatever civilians that survived to starve or die of exposure to the cold.  Carrying the historical weight of Russian history, where more than two million were killed defending the western territory of Belarus, this is a slow moving, morally conflicted, bleak interior drama that takes place far from the front lines, where in the masterful opening shot, out of stillness heads rise out of the lower edge of a snowy forest, as we see German soldiers on horseback marching Russian prisoners into a small Belarusian village to the stare of onlookers.  After a long offscreen pronouncement, set to a slow 180 degree pan, suggesting anyone aiding or abetting those defying the prevailing German order would be shot, the order is given for the men to be publicly hanged.  
IN THE FOG is an existential parable much like Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE (1998), an anguished requiem for the dead where the experience of watching the film subjectively involves the viewer in a partnership with history, becoming a transforming meeting of the minds that elevates one’s understanding of events.  Told out of sequence, Loznitsa constructs a war film with no war action, a long, slow slog into the psychological descent into the madness of war, shot with cinematic depth by the same guy (Oleg Mutu) who filmed Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (După dealuri) (2012), supposedly only 72 shots in a little over two hours, where comrades turn against comrades, suspecting there is among them a collaborator for the other side, where there is slow pacing, no musical score, and an intense, interior moral dilemma about what to do.  Its release comes at an interesting time in modern Russian history, where a film about Russian “morality” is an ironic choice during the reinstatement of the dictatorial, KGB-like police state reign of Vladimir Putin.  Perhaps not as intricately constructed as Loznitsa’s earlier brutal road movie My Joy (Schastye moe) (2010), which allowed just the briefest sliver of light, in both mood is paramount to character, told in long takes with near documentary precision through mostly empty, snowy landscapes, an existential journey following two or three characters as they make their way behind enemy lines through the natural protection of the dense forests.  The story concerns Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski), whose story remains a shrouded mystery lost in the fog, revealed only near the end in flashback for the audience’s benefit, where no one in the film ever hears it.  This is the kind of history, personal, family, and national, that gets lost during wartime.  Based on a novel by Belarusian writer Vasily Bykov, Sushenya is a local railroad worker for nearly thirty years, ordered by his boss to continue working for the Germans or he’d be killed, so what real choice does he have?  

Sushenya could just as easily be anybody, as all fell victim to circumstances beyond their control, and he is sympathetically portrayed throughout as he makes his way through a hellish landscape that continually leaves him no choice.  Accused of being a German collaborator, two Soviet partisans arrive out of the forest to execute him, one a lifelong friend who takes no pleasure in his duty.  Instead it’s his friend that is shot and severely wounded in an unexpected ambush, where Sushenya is forced to carry him on his back in an absurdist Sisyphus reference as they attempt to make their way to safety.  Despite their partisan loyalties, each man is viewed traveling this isolated journey alone, as that is how they will be judged by history, expressed through extended minimalist sequences of long shots trekking through the wintry forest where man is nearly inconsequential, a mere solitary speck, engulfed in the immense natural landscape and of time immemorial.  Sushenya is continually judged by others, Nazi’s and partisans, even his own family, where during wartime, a full accounting of the truth never comes out until the distance of time passes and people can objectively investigate facts, circumstances and allegations.  But during the imposition of unspeakable violence and the blurry events of war, everything comes down to immediate perceptions, where Sushenya can’t believe why his wife or his lifelong friends would choose to believe the German accounts rather than his own, doubting his pleas of innocence, somehow forgetting everything that they ever knew about him because of an accusation from Nazi criminals and cutthroat murderers.  All that he knows about humanity quickly spins on its ear, where everything that matters is suddenly gone forever, leaving him in a state of abject misery and horror.  This kind of nightmarish journey takes us to the other side of darkness where the end of the world is near, very similar to the coming apocalypse expressed in Béla Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011).  While Tarr visually expresses the external reality, Loznitsa explores the last gasp, the internalized personal anguish of all light going out of the world, and, if not for Loznitsa and this film, all would be forgotten.

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