Sergei Loznitsa is fixated on time, thematically and formally. While his follow-up to My Joy lacks the earlier film's tricky structure, which suggested a present condemned to continually echo the trauma of the past, it foregrounds the subject in other, subtler ways.
A spartan not-quite-war movie, In the Fog is set—or, perhaps more accurately, located—in Nazi-occupied Belarus. Long takes—camera carefully dollying backwards through endless forest—are the movie's stock in trade. Loznitsa uses match cuts sparingly, and because of this, each shot registers as an individualized formal / narrative structure—a chunk of real time. Edits register as gaps rather than links. The titular fog—which rolls in during the final scene—is the fog of history; for Loznitsa, the past is first and foremost a once-present.
In the Fog opens with a three-or-so minute handheld shot of a village marketplace, where disinterested Belarusians and Germans half-observe an off-screen group execution. The next shot picks up some time later, with two partisans (Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov, the latter a stage actor making his film debut) making their way through a forest on horseback. After night falls, they arrive at the house of a peasant (Vladimir Svirsky) who was part of the executed group but was spared by the German authorities for unknown reasons.
Svirsky knows that the partisans have come to kill him; his refusal to resist or escape becomes the film's central existential issue. It teases a question: "Is he a traitor or isn't he?" The answer to that question—which arrives via a lengthy flashback at around the movie's halfway point—forms the basis for something close to a thesis statement on the way individuals are trapped by historical circumstances.
In an era when vague is en vogue—when filmmakers are more likely to find acclaim for posing big questions than for trying to answer them—In the Fog stands out for being resoundingly unambiguous. Everything—camera style, performance, structure, pacing—is in the service of establishing and contextualizing Svirsky's dilemma. Even the fact that Loznitsa withholds key information about Svirsky's character until an hour into the movie serves a rhetorical purpose; by establishing the effects first, he makes the cause seem even more tragic.
Compared to the broad cultural canvas of My Joy, In the Fog seems narrow. Nonetheless, there's something to be said for a filmmaker who believes that he has something to say, and—in the film's final moment, where a single sound effect is juxtaposed with an image of opaque fog—says it clearly and forcefully.
Sergei Loznitsa's new short film, Letter, is currently playing on MUBI in the US and Canada.