BY AARON LIGHT, 10.06.2013, www.filmcomment.com

Sergei Loznitsa is one of contemporary cinema’s most underrated humanists. The Belorussian mathematician turned filmmaker cut his teeth on documentaries before making the switch a decade later to fiction with the ironically titled My Joy (10), one of the most recent entries in the longstanding Slavic tradition of grim and frostbitten (not to mention long and languorous) parables about endless cycles of violence and the general pointlessness of life. The film earned him just as many accolades (a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes; director Andrei Zvyagintsev calling it the best Russian-language film of the decade) as condemnations (accusations of everything from self-hating Russophobia to good old-fashioned misanthropy), which proved, if nothing else, its success as a provocation. In the Fog is similar to its predecessor but less extreme, its heavy-handed fatalism tempered by an undeniable compassion for its characters.

It’s also one of the quietest war films ever made, a glimpse at Nazi-occupied Belarus (shot in Latvia) that turns into a slow-moving meditation on morality and mortality. During the 1942-44 occupation, the inhabitants of an unspecified region are locked in a cycle of conflict and cruelty, their loyalty to each other nonexistent thanks to the choosing of sides forced by the war. Rebel partisans attempt to undermine the operations of Nazi collaborators, and vice versa, while the Germans lean back, watch, and enjoy the proceedings, pleased with their ability to turn the peasants against one other. In the middle of it all is the hapless, Christ-like Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a gleaming beacon of decency in a wasteland of moral destitution. Imprisoned by the Nazis for an act of sabotage he didn’t commit, then released as bait for the partisans while his “accomplices” are hanged, this stone-eyed and stoic family man who is just trying to survive the war is eventually wanted dead by all sides—the reward he gets for his attempt to do the right thing.

Loznitsa uses a roving handheld camera in order to wring as much atmosphere and emotion from the film’s setting, primarily an Auden-esque forest that feels equally lush and Spartan. Every scene is composed of one or two shots, in the manner of Béla Tarr, and the soundtrack is devoid of music, comprised instead of wind in the trees, birds chirping, and the occasional gunshot. The symbolism of the film’s stark imagery walks a fine line between evocative and risible: the pile of bones outside the butcher’s shop on which the camera comes to rest during the off-screen hanging; the lone black horse in a field followed, soon after, by a lone black bird in a tree; the titular fog that eventually swallows the film whole. Yet these effects hang together in an expressive nonlinear framework that fleshes out the characters’ lives and the extent to which their world punishes those (especially Sushenya) who dare to be heroic.

There is certainly some humor lurking in Loznitsa’s slavish (and Slavic) devotion to depicting mankind’s collective heart of darkness, a tragicomic method to his madness. His is a world of heightened absurdity, an atrocity exhibition where noble intentions invariably meet horrific ends and no good deed goes unpunished. Loznitsa is still intent on portraying mankind as a writhing, impotent mass of dubious morality and wretched cruelty—life as one long cautionary tale of human folly with a series of inevitably tragic ends. But with In the Fog, he allows his characters good intentions. The film is the director’s big reveal, a glimpse past the steely façade (one might call it the iron curtain) of My Joy—an expression of his overarching cynicism as a thinly veiled hope for humanity, not a battle cry in favor of its extinction.