Over the past decade, the memory of the Second World War has been reestablished as one of the major narratives in the Russian public memory discourse. Whereas the Soviet past was largely rejected following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the war is colloquially referred to in Russia, has been restored to its former significance as a pillar of national identity and pride. The return of military hardware to the annual Victory Parade on Moscow’s Red Square in 2008, after being absent since the Soviet Union’s collapse, has reinforced the resuscitation of the Soviet tradition of glorifying the war’s end. Recent Russian films on the Second World War generally abide by this patriotic interpretation of events and never fail to turn their protagonists into heroic figures. Films such as We are from the Future(2008) and its sequel We are from the Future 2(2010), Fortress of War(2010, also known as Brest Fortress), Nikita Mikhalkov’s two-part Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus(2010) and Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel(2011), and most recently Stalingrad(2013), call upon their audiences to honor those who defended the motherland. Big budgets, extensive battle scenes, spectacular special effects and a dash of romance keep viewers entertained as they receive a dose of patriotic education.
The contrast with Sergei Loznitsa’s bleak, slow-paced feature In the Fog(2012) could not be any starker, and in many ways it provides an alternative to mainstream “blockbuster history.” The film, based on a novel by Belarussian author [End Page 27]Vasili Bykov, is set in German-occupied Belarus in 1942. Following the derailment of a train, Sushenya, a rail worker, is arrested together with the men who sabotaged the tracks. The saboteurs are hanged as a warning to the local inhabitants about the consequences of supporting the partisan resistance. But for reasons that remain unclear, the innocent Sushenya is released; an unexpected turn of events that soon gives rise to rumors of treason. Even the person closest to him, his wife, appears to question the true reason behind her husband’s safe return. Before long, two partisans, Burov and Voitik, arrive at the house to claim revenge. Burov, who turns out to be an old acquaintance of Sushenya, collects him and leads him into the forest to carry out the verdict. Mere moments before he pulls the trigger, the group is ambushed, and in the commotion Voitik flees the scene. After escaping imminent death for the second time, Sushenya is now left with the severely wounded Burov and makes an unlikely decision. Instead of turning a gun against his would-be executioner, he decides to carry him to safety.
“What is left of morality in the midst of war?” forms the central question of the film. How can one differentiate between right and wrong when the final battle has not yet been fought and the fine line between victors and losers, heroes and traitors, has yet to be established? In the Fogmakes tangible the uncertainties and impossible decisions individuals are confronted with by focusing on the everyday reality of occupation and the impact it has on the interpersonal relations within a small community. Steering clear of big battle scenes, the camera moves slowly through the forest that the protagonists have known since childhood, but that has suddenly become perilous terrain. The superb, emotion-ridden performance by Vladimir Svirski keeps the character of Sushenya from lapsing into saintliness. Convinced that salvation is no longer possible, the morality of his actions simply is the one thing left within Sushenya’s control.
Through the flashbacks that intersect the film’s main storyline, it becomes all the more apparent how the advent of war can turn old friends and neighbors into enemies. It also becomes apparent how, for some, it may signal opportunity. In one of the flashbacks, Burov receives a visit from Mirokha who appears to be a close acquaintance or even a relative...