The decisive experience of warfare is not victory or defeat; it is being occupied. The significance of that ordeal is not just numbered in the loss of lives, re- sources, and sovereignty. Nor is it a matter of secret police and internment camps, sabotage and torture, collaboration and informing, and learning a new language. All those tests and humiliations are gathered in the single most devastating self- recognition: that you have not been as brave, steadfast, loyal, and principled as you wanted to be. You are wretched and ordinary, desperate to survive. Sophie Zawi-stowska (despite the beauty and brilliance of Meryl Streep) did make her choice: her daughter went to the gas chamber.
The trauma of occupation lasts longer than anyone expects. France was demoralized by the Nazis and Vichy beyond the point of recovery, and beyond the chance of being honest about what really happened. Ordinary Germans went along with evils they knew were happening: in that sense they were occupied, too—a nation can be occupied by tyranny or insanity. The country I was born and raised in, Britain, came close to being occupied in 1940, and it has lived ever since with the rhetoric of fighting an invading enemy on the beaches, in the fields, on the streets, and in the hills, wherever it was required or wherever fitted the rhythm of Churchill’s inspiring speech in the House of Commons in 1940. Maybe. The Britain I know is also conservative, law-abiding, fearful, and self-interested. If Germany had occupied that country, there would have been some passionate resistance and widespread passive collaboration quietly lied about after 1945. (The only part of Britain ever occupied has been Ireland, unless you go back to William the Conqueror.) That mood would have handed over its Jews and then “forgotten” the ugly moment.
War allows so few real heroes, despite the medals it hands out. But there are virgins whose attitudinizing over warfare and crisis is bolstered by inexperience of what occupation entails. The United States is the world’s assertive virgin. Even the most dedicated opponents of the government call their movement “Occupy,” a term that would hardly be acceptable in many parts of the world.
In the Fog, which seems to me a masterpiece, is about occupation and the destruction of an understanding of one’s own history. That is the fog to which its director, Sergei Loznitsa, refers in a film where at the end the literal fog that has threatened the forests of Belorussia closes in and obliterates vision. We cannot determine what happened, just as the movie cannot be confident about heroes or villains.
That dismay is examined from the first shot. It is daytime, but there is no sun. We are in some untidy settlement in a clearing in the forest. A single tracking shot picks up a group of hunched male figures escorted by men in uniform—are they German soldiers or maybe the Belorussian police? It’s not clear. But as the camera follows this cortège through the village, we see broken vehicles, people arriving by train, washing hanging out to dry, a youth having his hair cut, children playing, men in uniform talking to girls, animals grazing, horses and sheep, some people watching with foreboding and suppressed sympathy, a cookhouse for soldiers with sides of meat hanging up. It is a day like any other and a casual panorama. We see a young soldier, German, carrying a helmet full of white eggs. The cortège reaches its destination. An unseen voice says, “Hang them,” and we must suppose that, while the camera stays looking at a cartload of skeletons from the cookhouse, three men have been strung up. We see nothing of the execution, but we hear the ropes creaking above their load.
This is Belarus in 1942, the territory that lay roughly between Poland and Moscow, and which suffered first Soviet invasion, then Nazi onslaught, and then a second turn for Russia. It saw early massacres, at Katyń, for instance, when the NKVD slaughtered around 22,000. That meant that some Belorussians initially welcomed the German invasion—but not for long. In the course of the war years, as many as three million Belorussians were killed by Germans, the Soviet police, their own police, or one another. It is probable that one in five of the population perished: the highest national death toll in the whole war. Historians still argue over the numbers, and no one will ever be certain because in war and occupation the regular niceties of bureaucratic recording are abandoned. Personal enmities may be worked out in the fog. There are too many dead to bury or count. At one moment in the film, a black crow on a high branch looks down on death. It is a bird of carrion, a forest inhabitant, croaking in readiness. But it was only in reading around on the subject that I discovered that the term “black crow” was also used in Belorussia to denote execution squads.
You could call this film “days and nights in the forest,” and the nearly tranquil camera observes the action and the trees as if they were both species of nature. The film is full of minimal but sustained conversations, so composed and beautiful, but unable to prevent the chaos and terror of the world. We fix on three men, their actions beset by misunderstanding and the gradual appreciation that the forest has only one reliable exit. The fog is a metaphor for that confusion, and it might be argued that it is sometimes a little heavy-handed, but I think you will find that any sense of allegorical setup is dispelled by a feeling that this film might have been made in 1945 when the disasters of war were fresh and corpses were being found everywhere. The film is drawn from a novel by Vasiliy Bykov (1924–2003), a man who had fought for the Red Army, who wrote many novels, and who was reckoned a contender for the Nobel Prize. (He was nominated by Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz.) He remains a beloved figure in Belarus, and though I haven’t read the novel involved here, I have to believe that the writer- director has served it well.
The film may be called slow and gloomy—and there were such comments at the Cannes festival in 2012, where it won no prizes, even though Loznitsa’s previous film, My Joy, had many admirers. I don’t think that it is possible for a non-Belorussian audience to pick up all the details of infighting and betrayal. But the central, shifting arrangement of three men is uncannily intimate and absorbing. One of them, Burov, starts off seeming like a cruel implacable face staring at us and his victim. But then the face becomes gentler and even noble because of what we learn about the whole story. It is a tangled narrative, by necessity, with unannounced flashbacks, and we do not have a clear-cut picture of all that has transpired, but that is in keeping with the loss of records and humanity. The fog that this film understands is the creep of chaos and the loss of belief when occupation has gone as far as madness, stripping every citizen of confidence.
It is striking that Belarus should make such a film nearly seventy years after the events occurred and with such a sense of urgency. But occupation is not quickly forgotten or recovered from. In those seventy years, our own nation has occupied so many other countries—often with the best of intentions and the most eloquent rhetoric. (Could a high-school kid name them all? Could you?) We may be planning more now. In the Fog is a superb movie not just for its endless, undeterred camera and long takes, or for Loznitsa’s handling of three fine actors—Vladimir Svirskiy, Vladislav Abashin, and Sergei Kolesov—but because it leaves no doubt about the damage and the disenchantment left by occupation. It is a kind of rape, and we know by now that, while the raped may get up on their two feet, walk around and smile, and tell us everything is all right, the turmoil of the disaster is never settled. The only films I can think of that are in a class with this are Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977, and also taken from a Bykov novel), another grim study of partisans and occupiers, made in black and white, and Elen Klimov’s Come and See (1985), which is also set in Belarus. In the Fog has the color of an autumnal sereness, and it is without the forced religious conclusion to Shepitko’s film, but it is devastating and immaculate. It is like Tolstoy.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.