THE Ukrainian director and former documentary-maker Sergei Loznitsa scored a succès d’éstime with his first fiction feature My Joy, which was in competition in Cannes two years ago.
Now he has returned with a mysterious, compelling and grim story from the Nazi-Occupied Soviet Union in 1942, shrouded in the fog of war, the fog of fear and the fathomless fog of European history – comparable, perhaps, to Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See.
It is a second world war story about something with which few war movies concern themselves: the banal and poisonous disgrace of collaboration that the Nazis visited on every corner of the Reich.
Here former Soviet commanders put themselves eagerly at the disposal of the Nazi invader, assuming administrative duties and enforcing the new order with the usual cruelty, and Russian police strut around wearing armbands reading: “In the service of the German armed forces.” Meanwhile, the partisans hide out in the forest, waiting to hit back.
At the centre of this stark parable is Sushenya, a Russian railway worker whose face is etched with pain: he looks like a cross between Anatoly Solonitsyn in Andrei Rublev and Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.
When the innocent Sushenya is arrested with a group of rail saboteurs, the Nazis hang everyone but him and soon the rumour gets out that he must be a collaborator who has cut a shameful deal.
Two partisans Burov (Vlad Abashin) and Voitek (Sergei Kolesov) turn up at Sushenya’s house and take him away into the forest, making him bring a shovel to dig his own grave before they shoot him.
The innocent Sushenya submits to all of this without complaint, although a dramatic twist of fate ensures his survival and he must retreat further into the ancient trackless forest, with a wounded captor on his back – the cross he has to bear.
Why does Sushenya behave as he does? Is it though Soviet patriotism, fatalism and sheer world-weariness? Perhaps. But why did the Nazis spare him? The officer who took this decision is Grossmeier, well played by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.
Sushenya suspects it was a ploy, to lure the partisans into the open. But Loznitsa shows it was also pure cruelty, a sadistical caprice to enforce the stain of collaboration on a man who had actually refused this deal. As for Sushenya, he may indeed feel the pain of obscure guilt, having tried to dissuade the saboteurs, because of the vicious reprisals the Nazis would carry out on nearby villagers.
And so Sushenya’s mysterious Passion in the forest begins – perhaps that same forest where Tolstoy described the partisans fighting Napoleon’s invasion in War and Peace. The forest is an abyss of history, where Sushenya must undergo a spiritual ordeal. In the Fog is an intense, slow-burning and haunting drama.