Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa returns to the London Film Festival with Cannes Palme d’Or nominee In the Fog (V tumane, 2012), a sombre wartime drama set in Belarus at the time of the Nazi occupation. The film begins with the execution of three local men, hung by the Germans for sabotage. We then move on to a night-time scene as two shadowy figures on horseback move through the woods: one, Burov (Vladislav Abashin), is in uniform and they both carry rifles. Inside a house the pair find a man carving a wooden animal for his son. He was the fourth prisoner, Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), released by the Nazis under a cloud of suspicion, who the two partisans have come to shoot as a traitor.
At that moment, a German patrol ambushes them. The three men all escape, but Burov is wounded and it is now Sushenya who rescues him. Through a series of flashbacks, we begin to learn what brought the men to this position. Burov’s principled stand against collaboration with the Nazis leads directly to the death of his mother, and paradoxically it is Sushenya’s decision not to betray his friends to the end that sees him fall under a partisan death penalty.
Despite the horrors of history and the nightmarish scenario, Loznitsa’s In the Fog looks beautiful. Its interiors have a Flemish attention to detail and the woodland in which it is predominately set is comparable with the ageless forest of W.H. Auden. The symbolism at times can be heavy-handed – a single black horse stands in a field, a single black crow balances on a branch – and Loznitsa is certainly a member of the school that dismisses cutting a shot at 30 seconds in favour of dragging three minutes out of a frame. This pace also extends to the dialogue, where everyone talks with the leaden pace of people considering the political and historical significance of every word they utter – followed (naturally) by a long pause.
That said, the drama is intense throughout and perhaps, considering historical circumstance, it isn’t that surprising that those portaged have lost their sense of humour. Sushenya, with his beard and stoic act of self-sacrifice, is a Christ-like figure. Burov seems like a simple man with a strong code of honour which he cannot but abide by. Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), the man who holds the horses of history, likewise has a quiet fatalistic patience. Ultimately, historical complexity, contradictions and betrayals will all be erased by an almost holy fog. One would hope Loznitsa’s In the Fog, with its images and relentless seriousness, will endure.