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In the Fog: Principles Valiant

by Benjamin Mercer, 05.06.2013, www.thelmagazine.com

The opening shot places the Nazis’ first act of violence in the film offscreen, establishing that the main battles to follow are internal: the camera trudges through a busy Belarus village square as we hear a German officer’s public-address cant giving way to the unmistakable sounds of an execution by hanging. Director Loznitsa then retreats to the forest, where Soviet partisans Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) order suspected collaborator Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a rail worker who conspicuously escaped being hanged alongside his colleagues, to begin digging his own grave. The occupiers soon come upon the scene—they had hoped to lure the resistance fighters out of hiding by simply letting Sushenya go free—firing at and hitting Burov, whom Sushenya and Voitik soon rush back in to help once the police have scattered, the three of them agreeing not to do away with one another for now. As it moves deeper into the lawless woods, the film (shot by Death of Mr. Lazarescu’s long-take maestro, the Moldovan Oleg Mutu) often lingers on the burnt-out stare of Sushenya—a husband and father who is sympathetic to, but not driven by, the partisan cause, and who clings tightly to the principles that are all he has left.

Adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov (whose Sotnikov provided the basis for Larisa Shepitko’s snow-cloaked 1976 film The Ascent), Loznitsa dials down the panic, presenting his characters as effectively desensitized: “In the face of death, everything looks the same,” says Sushenya at one point, and here we get ample evidence of the Germans’ forcing their will by offering the basic choice of death or collaboration. Three parceled-out flashbacks go into the recent past to show the Nazis prodding each main player to betray one allegiance or another.

Here, the director of the recent My Joy, a bilious road movie that consisted mostly of detours, works with an all-too-clear formal symmetry, fleshed out by characters who essentially function as stand-ins for varying degrees of core-principle durability, as in a fable or a dead-on-arrival joke. But as it shows an already grim scenario growing still more so, this film does approach the punch-to-the-gut thrust of the earlier one—it comes to resemble a tight-spot survival picture, but one deeply enervated by its particular setting (the wind keeps rustling the leaves…) and the moral climate hanging over it. Under the occupation, what does it even really mean to survive in the first place?