Friday, June 14, 2013

IN THE FOG: Sergei Loznitsa's WWII drama of wartime morality among Russia partisans

TrustMovies has not yet seen Sergei Loznitsa's much-heralded My Joy, the 2010 feature that seemed to put this relatively young Russian director on the international movie map. I see that it is available via Netflix streaming, so maybe one of these days, I'll grit my teeth, gird up my loins and try it. Meanwhile, we've got Loznitsa's newest opening up today, which I have seen and lived to tell about. IN THE FOG is a very long and very bleak tale of wartime Russia in 1942 on the western frontier, where partisan activity against the Germans, who have overrun and conquered the area, is high, and any incursion is greeted with nasty retaliation from the Nazis.

The film begins, in fact, with a trio of... well, they're not even really partisans in the strict sense. As we later learn, they're just railway workers mad at their unpleasant boss ("He was a son-of-a-bitch when he served the Soviets, too." one of them declares). The three are marched along through the Russian citizenry, as examples and warnings, and then hung. (This hanging is not seen but it is heard.) Filmmaker Loznitsa (shown at right), who directed and adapted the screenplay from the novel by Vasili Bykov, tosses us into the midst of it all and then allows us to find our way via some fractured storytelling that -- once we figure out where and with whom we are and at what point in the story this particular event is happening -- finally fills in the blanks.

The meat of the movie involves Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy, above, center) the fourth member of that railway team who tried his best to get the guys not to pull their dirty trick on the Germans. When they went ahead, they were all arrested but instead of being hung, Sushenya was let go. "Collaborator!" is what the entire town, including maybe his own wife (played by Yulia Peresild, below), now believes. The truth, when we learn it, is otherwise.

Meanwhile, head partisan Burov (Vladislav Abashinbelow, left) and his underling, Voitik (Sergei Kolesovbelow, right) show up at Sushenya's home to kill him for his "betrayal." But first they take him away, so that his wife and child will not witness the event. And this is pretty much where the real story begins. As it meanders onward (and although the pacing here is extremely slow, it possesses, I think, its own justification and integrity), via flashback, exposition/explanation and occasional action, we learn not just what has happened but how these events have rather forced the three men to think and act the way that they do.

Still, certain of our characters (Sushenya) seem one hell of a lot more decent than others (Voitik). And the movie makes us consider, as it drifts by, the meaning of morality in wartime and if, in fact, those two words/things don't cancel each other out. Other questions pop up, too: Can people change? Is our hero morally incorruptible -- or simply slow? And just how sleazy is this guy, Voitik? Oh, lordy: You'll find out.

If we used to imagine that the phrase "war is hell" referred mostly to combat, this movie will cure us of that idea. There is no combat here; still, everything about this situation proves godawful -- and only gets worse. I would guess that Loznitsa's view of humanity is pretty bleak. Even so, his view, as seen here also proves pretty predictable, too. (From about the mid-point onwards, I began to guess correctly every event prior to its happening.)

The slow pacing also gives us plenty of time to question certain things. This movie contains enough coincidences to choke a rom-com, albeit these coincidence are always bleak, rather than feel-good. Eventually, you may come to the conclusion that you've been playing with a stacked deck. (On the other hand, doesn't war always offer a stacked deck?)

At over two hours running time, In the Fog's one long, long journey. And its ending, which takes us literally into that title place, borders on the comical, so drearily and absolutely negative is it. You sit there, thinking, "Wait for it. OK, wait for it. Now, wait some more. And here it comes.... Ah, yes: right again." From Strand Releasing and running 137 minutes, the movie opens today, Friday, June 14, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and in Los Angeles on July 12 at the Sundance Sunset Cinema.

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