Western frontiers of the USSR, 1942. The region is under German occupation, and local partisans are fighting a brutal resistance campaign. A train is derailed not far from the village, where Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a rail worker, lives with his family. Innocent Sushenya is arrested with a group of saboteurs, but the German officer makes a decision not to hang him with the others and sets him free. Rumours of Sushenya’s treason spread quickly, and partisans Burov (Vladislav Abashin)and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) arrive from the forest to get revenge. As the partisans lead their victim through the forest, they are ambushed, and Sushenya finds himself one-to-one with his wounded enemy.

Silent menace seeps through complex WWII morality tale.

In the dark forest of Belarus in 1942, the black crows perch in trees and wait for the wounded to die. They aren’t the only ones making the best of what’s on offer. For those unfortunate enough to perish from the cold or, more likely, an enemy bullet, they are destined to lose their boots as well as their lives to a foe that could turn out to have been once a trusted friend.

the violence here is more emotional than explicit

In the Fog is the second film from Sergei Loznitsa, who spent time as a documentary filmmaker. A couple of years ago he won best director in Cannes for My Joy. This new film has a 'you-are-there’ immediacy, a graceful, austere style and a story so bleak and harsh it could chill marrow – as befits a tale of moral confusion.

It’s based on a novel by Vassily Bykov. The contained plot, almost a chamber piece, deals with the bitterness and angst that arose amongst the Russians after the Nazis invaded and collaboration became, for some, a necessary evil.

Death haunts the film. Loznitsa kicks off the story with three Russians hung, executed as saboteurs. But the violence here is more emotional than explicit. A lot of people die in this movie but it’s the stench of betrayal that fills every scene. It’s almost as if Loznitsa’s camera arrives too late to record the actual carnage. The technique turns us, the audience, into mourners.

The narrative burns on the issue of trust. One day, railway worker Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski) receives a visit from an old childhood friend, Burov (Vlad Abashin), who is now a partisan. Sushenya was recently arrested by the Nazis over the sabotage matter and then released – why wasn’t he hung like the other three? For Burov, this is enough to have him condemned as a traitor. It’s an agonising moment, a scene of cryptic dialogue and shameful looks because Sushenya must beg for his life in front of his young family and yet not tip them to what is really going on.

Eventually, Sushenya heads off with Burov and his partisan comrade Voitek (Sergei Kolesov) into the forest. As Sushenya prepares to dig his own grave, he makes a final plea. He is not an enemy or an informer. The Nazis released him as a way to create dissent and confusion amongst the partisan ranks and Burov, blinded by hate, has fallen prey to this ploy.

Is Sushenya to be believed? Everyone wants to live. Loznitsa plays with our sympathies to create an aura of scepticism that infiltrates all motives here. In this world, the truth is hard to read because what passes for practical necessity can look a lot like moral corruption.

Fate intervenes on Sushenya’s drama. Burov is wounded in an ambush before he can kill his friend. Instead of running away, Sushenya remains. Big and strong, he elects to carry Burov to safety, that is, partisan headquarters, if Voitek is prepared to lead the way.

Loznitsa’s script is complex and rich and has a tricky time-structure that moves between past and present. The action is split between Sushenya’s existential crisis in the forest – lengthy dialogues he shares with the partisans over the nature of guilt – and sequences that describe the history of how each of the characters in this internecine war had them fated to meet in the forest.

As a number of critics noted after its Cannes debut last year, In the Fog is a film heavy with religious imagery; but that shouldn’t be confused with some kind of lofty one-to-one symbolism. With his beard and martyred eyes, Svirski’s face recalls some half-remembered Biblical icon. Loznitsa takes great pains to establish him as a vulnerable character, not brave or heroic exactly, but a man in possession of sound instincts that prove something of a liability. Indeed Sushenya, outwardly calm, spends the movie scared out of his wits not only by the savagery that surrounds him, from both allies and enemies, but also his own feelings of inadequacy. What makes Shushenya special in the movie’s cast of sellouts and zealots is that he has a clarity of vision that understands too well the price of war on the soul.

The cast are well nigh perfect and the film is a potent mix of the cerebral and the visceral; halfway through I was reeling, not only overwhelmed by the human tragedy but by Loznitsa’s masterful grasp on technique and the compassion he directs toward his tortured characters.

Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu dresses In the Fog in an unforgiving pale light that dims the sun and turns the cast into the walking dead. Loznitsa likes long scenes and lengthy takes – often with a mobile camera – and only cuts when he has to. It’s a style that produces a creeping feeling of menace and paranoia in the most mundane of moments. The effect is startling; we’re not observing the action, but living through it with the characters; their angst, no longer a remote experience, but something that is very much a matter of life and death.