Today: February 22, 2024

In The Fog

In The Fog just narrowly avoids being a very good film indeed. Based on a short story by one of the greats of Belarusian literature, the film opens with a group of Soviet soldiers being escorted towards an ominous train by a group of black-clad paramilitaries. Director Sergei Loznitsa’s shot selection is impressive and the cinematography is just as beautiful as you would expect from Oleg Mutu, the hugely influential Romanian behind such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Having introduced us to 1940s Belarusia in the aftermath of a Nazi invasion, the film delves inwards into the lives of real people.

The film concerns itself with two childhood friends. The first is a railway worker (Vladimir Svirskiy) who was mysteriously released by the Germans while the rest of his work crew was executed for sabotage. The second is a Communist partisan (Vadislav Adashin) who has been sent to execute the railway worker on the assumption that he must have betrayed his colleagues in order to save his own skin. Reminiscent of the magnificently slow-burning interrogation sequences of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the film’s second scene positively ripples with tension as both men try to skirt around the fact that one of them has been ordered to shoot the other in the head. Deliberate in its pacing, the scene drags on and on until eventually all of that tension and bottled-up emotion works its way free through the railway worker’s wife (Yuliya Pereslid) who blossoms from nervous hostess to grieving widow in what seems like the blink of an eye. “Take something with you,” she pleads… forcing food into her husband’s hands, but both men know that there is no point in the railway worker eating as he will soon be dead.

Unfortunately, while these opening scenes are beautifully shot, powerfully acted and bravely paced, they are the only things in the film worth watching as the rest of In The Fog is a slow, empty and overly-literal bore.

Having dragged the railway worker into the forest, the partisan prepares to shoot him but before he can do so, he is ambushed and wounded by a bunch of fascist paramilitaries. Seizing his opportunity, the railway worker runs away only to promptly change his mind and scurry back in an effort to save his friend. Out of sight but stranded with a wounded man, the men sit down in the fog and begin discussing how the partisan came to take up arms and how the railway worker came to be seen as a collaborator.  Hopping back and forth between different timeframes, the film explores the different characters’ pasts in an effort to explain how they came to be the people they are. However, while the structure of the film is sound and the flashbacks undoubtedly well executed, the film’s pacing is so agonisingly slow that none of its insights feel as though they are worth the time it takes to explore them. This feeling of too few ideas spread too thinly is entirely due to Loznitsa’s overly literal direction of his already overly literal script.

While glacial pacing is quite common in European art cinema, the purpose of the long drawn-out pauses and shots of scenery is usually to draw attention to ambiguities and provide the audience with breathing space in which to reflect upon what it is that they have just seen on the screen. The problem with In The Fog is that while it may be littered with awkward pauses and shots of Belarusian forests, the film contains neither the ambiguity nor the complexity that might require these extended periods of contemplation. For example, the film’s opening sequences do a great job of establishing that the railway worker is a calm and noble man but rather than using that character’s flashback to explain or complicate his saintly demeanour, the film simply contents itself with re-iterating the same basic character beats: A man who is calm and noble in a forest is evidently just as calm and just as noble in a German prison cell. Had Loznitsa dared to introduce a note of ambiguity into either his plot or his characters then all of those (admittedly decorative) shots of Belarusian forests would have been welcome, instead they merely feel like padding. Loznitsa’s literal-mindedness is even more evident in the final act when he attempts to step back from his character studies and broaden the film’s themes out into a wider discussion of wartime morality. However, rather than introducing some fresh plot element that might have encouraged the audience to reflect upon the characters in a wider context, Loznitsa simply has his characters sit around in a forest wondering out loud about what their experiences say about the morality of war.

Like far too many works of contemporary art house cinema, In The Fog is a beautiful dolt. Exquisitely made and powerfully acted, its decorative characteristics simply cannot compensate for a tragic lack of intellectual substance.

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