At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, a competition entry which struck as outstanding was Ukrainian director and former documentary-maker Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog, which not only had a brilliant performance from Vladimir Svirski, but has clearly an imaginative and audacious innovative director.
This Vasil Bykov’s novel adaptation is set in a German-occupied region of USSR in 1942. Local partisans are fighting a brutal resistance campaign, when a railway worker, Sushenya, is wrongly accused of being a collaborator. It’s an arresting and powerful account, a movie which speaks about the war, without talking about military action. With enchantingly striking camerawork by Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, compound and stimulating, In the Fog, Loznista’s second feature, is a revelation.
After his debut, My Joy, the growth of his directorial style is impressive. From the opening shot, it focuses on details, full of vibrant visuals, setting a unique tone and atmosphere, at each frame, showing different shades of reality. In the Fog has a sense of getting lost in the land, correspondingly, in Loznitsa’s previous My Joy.
In My Joy, the protagonist, Georgy, gets lost on the dust roads criss-crossing the country, finding himself in a sort of no-man’s-land, looking for an exit. It sets a claustrophobic sense of place and vision. Shot in a documentary style, with the use of a hand-held camera, it keeps awake the vision on the reality, a physical loss; cynical. Set in present day, it’s a contemporary vision, a poor cinema, a rather cold reality, keeping the spectator alert.
In the Fog is shot in a patently dissimilar and rather conservative style, the camera well-handled, creating a steady and fluid image. It’s a style laced with the cinema of the past. A much more monumental image, In the Fog has the action taking place in the Belorussian forest in beautiful, wild landscape. The atmosphere of the time is perfect; farmhouses are impeccably built, with meticulous interiors. Dissimilarly aesthetic, but a similar sense of claustrophobia transpires.
In a mathematical approach, Lozinsta organizes the editing inside of the shot, building the movie with only 72 cuts, using the movement of the camera as a tool making an “inner editing” and introduces cuts only in places when the development of the plot begins.
The camera is instrumental in the dramaturgy of the film. Building tension slowly plays with time of the sequences. One sequence goes smoothly into another, and another, slowing down, lethargic, to take straight to a full stop. Lozinsta builds a story of struggles of conscience, with a strong sense of life-affirming integrity, with precise idiosyncratic directorial choices, showing his understanding of cinematic grammar, which he can bend perfectly to his needs of telling a story.
He pitches the mysteries of human existence, with poetic long takes and personal approach to the flow of time on screen, following spotlessly his protagonist’s inner challenges. In this movie, the central character Sushenya is not at peace with himself. In a climactic sequence of unique, visual impact, Lozinsta masterly builds the interrogation of Sushenya by the German officer, which is at the centre of this movie. “Do you want to die” asks the officer; Sushenya replies: “I don’t want to die, I want to live”. Soon after, the officer decides not hang him with the others and sets him free.
Universally compelling and griming, this is a moment of liberation; the freedom, it’s dramaturgic and stylistic. In a way, it becomes liberation of cinema itself. In the economy of the shots, only 72 cuts in 128 minutes, it is a remarkable work, Lozinsta rethinks dramatic structure and film language to energising effect. With steady frames of his depicted he builds the drama to the top. The absence of words are filled by the actor’s glances, poetically reimbursed by the light, a ream of emotions is captured in small fragments, which evokes ghosts of the war dead. Like Andrej Tarkovskij, Loznitsa captures life as a reflection, like a dream; this is a film of lasting power and relevance.
© FIPRESCI 2012