It is easy to get absorbed "In the Fog," Sergei Loznitsa's gritty treatise on the art of war.
Set on the Russian western front in 1942, the skirmishes between German occupiers and the partisans rage somewhere off-screen. Loznitsa's film, based on the Vasili Bykov novel that gives the film its name, examines what combat does to men in the moment, in the mind, without ever taking us to the battlefield.
Using three of the region's rural poor and a single event, the film spins into a philosophical examination of how such conflicts create accidental martyrs, guilt-ridden sinners and weak-willed betrayers out of ordinary men.
Intimate in the telling, sweeping in the implications, Loznitsa has created an unusually incisive film.
The threat of a village execution sets things in motion. The German forces have rounded up four local men suspected of sabotaging a train. Three are hanged; one is set free. Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski) returns to his home, his wife and his son, but he is far from free. Rumors that he was a traitor, his freedom bought with the blood of the other men, follow him. Even his wife wonders.
When partisan soldiers Burov (Vlad Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) show up at his farmhouse, no one is surprised. Sushenya denies betraying the other men but does not resist as they take him. His first request is not to be shot in front of his young son. His second is to ask if he should bring a shovel to dig his grave. The final one comes soon after — not to be shot in the stream where Burov has stopped. His body would foul it and his family might find him there.
The film turns on the decision Burov makes in the stream. He is in charge of the mission, a decent man not comfortable with killing, but willing to carry out his duty. As they march to higher ground, Burov wonders why the Germans set Sushenya free if he is not a traitor. The condemned man just shrugs — better they had hanged him is all he can offer.
Though the Germans are certainly the most visible villains, Voitik represents the enemy within. His crime is expediency, willing to do whatever is necessary to survive. He would be a traitor given half a chance. Instead, a cigarette smoked when he was supposed to be standing watch in a forest alive with German troops is his undoing.
Shots are fired. Burov is wounded. Sushenya could run. But he stays at the soldier's side, binds his wounds, carries him on his back in an effort to save him. That journey, and the flashbacks that fill in a fuller picture of what has brought Sushenya, Burov and Voitik to this point, tests the belief structure and the mettle of each man.
The Belarus director has cut the novel's narrative to the bone in the adaptation he began nearly a decade ago, distilling action and ideas to only what is absolutely necessary. It simplifies complicated ideas of right and wrong, and in a way makes the film more human.
These are stoic men of few words. Rich interior performances, particularly Svirski's as Sushenya, only amplify the tragedy. Burov is troubled that he might be taking an innocent life. Voitik is not one to question orders, but fear, not loyalty, drives him. Sushenya remains unwilling to compromise his principles to the end, a steadfastness that will bring the film its disquieting final scene.
Shot in a relatively untouched area of eastern Latvia, it does feel as if the filmmakers have stumbled on a place out of time. On screen there is a sense of movies from another era too. There are no easy transitions between past and present. When Loznitsa wants to go back a few months or years, the screen goes black. And then we are in Burov's house, the quarters cramped, his mother berating him to join the partisan ranks, or on Sushenya's work detail, as he and the others repair the tracks, check the trestles, argue over the sabotage.
When that chapter is wrapped, the screen goes black again, and we are back in the forest, Burov's blood saturating Sushenya's weary shoulders. It is abrupt; it is affecting.
Part of what gives "In the Fog" its ethereal feel is another throwback to the past. There are only 72 cuts in the roughly two-hour film — a fraction of the 5,000 edits typical for a 90-minute film, even more when the format is digital. Multiple scenes exist as a single piece — the characters, the camera, and by extension the audience, moving through space and time together.
Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who worked with the director on his 2010 nightmarish look in on a trucker's life in "My Joy," only occasionally employs the hand-held style of that film. Instead, there is an eerie stillness in the way the camera follows the characters, a softness in the light filtering through trees.
The poverty of the region, as well as the spirit, is felt sharply. The harshness of their world, the layers of grime, is captured in that evocative way of great Depression-era photos, a kind of desolate beauty found in resigned faces, in run-down hovels, in plates that dwarf a single potato.
But this is always at its core a morality tale rooted in war, gunshots in the distance, German soldiers around the edges. It's a reminder that danger is ever present and the men move not toward safety but in the fog to meet their fate.
'In the Fog'
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes; Russian with English subtitles
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; additional weekend matinees at Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino