Moral dilemmas don’t come any bleaker than in Sergei Loznitsa’s adaptation of Vasil Bykov’s novel, “In the Fog.” Set in a Nazi-occupied region of the Soviet Union, this existential parable explores three possible responses to an impossible situation and concludes that, in the end, none makes any difference. As remorseless in style as it is in message, “In the Fog” offers little hope and few pleasures, but earns admiration for its elegant exploration of the lowest depths of the human condition.
In the first of many long, uncut sequences, the film opens with a tracking shot following three prisoners accused of sabotage as they are marched through an occupied village to their deaths. The screen fades to black, and cuts to Burov (Vlad Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), two partisans sent to liquidate Sushenya (Vladimir Svirsky), who is believed to have turned in the three executed men in order to save his own life. Burov, a childhood friend of Sushenya, agrees to the condemned man’s request to be shot and buried in a pine grove, some distance from his home, to spare his wife and child. This slight kindness backfires when the pro-German local police discover them, and a firefight ensues.
Three flashbacks interrupt this central narrative, each from the point of view of one of the main characters. In the first, Burov, months earlier commits an impulsive, petty act of vengeance against the police, forcing him to flee and take refuge with the partisans. In the next, Sushenya, held in custody with the three saboteurs, refuses the German commander’s offer to let him go if he collaborates. But he is released anyway to lure in the partisans who will be sent to kill him. And in the third flashback, Voitik, who, unlike the others, is motivated neither by justice nor compassion, confronts a situation in which he, too, must make a moral decision.
As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Neither fear nor courage saves us,” and so it is with these three. Each ends up in the fog, the nebulous, amoral void that remains when total war revokes all values. Loznitsa’s film operates in a fog of its own, its characters sleepwalking to their inevitable fate, without appeal or hope of vindication.