Thursday, December 5, 2013

In The Fog (2012)

Saw this in the Cinemobile earlier this week as part of the Subtitle Film Festival. Grimly impressive Second World War parable set in German-occupied Belarus and adapted from a short story by that country's greatest writer Vasil’ Bykaw. A film about how unstable our identity is, how it can change, especially in times of war, and also how the perception of others can rob us of who we think we are. It's 1942 and two Partisans, Burov and Voitik, arrive at the house of Sushenya to kill him for being a traitor. They believe he sold out three of his fellow workers to the Nazis in exchange for his freedom. They take him out into the woods to execute him but the group are ambushed by a German patrol and one of the partisans is wounded. Sushenya carries him on his back through the woods as they try to reach safety. With the use of flashbacks we learn how these three men have ended up here. We learn that Sushenya is innocent, that offered the chance to be an informer he refused. The German commander's response is to let him go. It's a brilliant piece of cruel thinking. He knows Sushenya would prefer a martyr's death to the shame of betrayal, so he turns this honourable man's refusal against him. With his companions hanged, Sushenya's release can only mean one thing. Even his wife doubts him. This is the crux of the story. When you take away someone's reputation, their good name, what do you leave them with? How much of who we think we are is bound up in how we're thought of by family and neighbours? Innocence isn't enough. It's meaningless if no-one believes you. We're in a moral fog here. A man feels he must atone for something he didn't do. Guilt envelops him. For the two Partisans, their stories are clouded in dumb defiance and self-preservation. History would see them as heroes for fighting the invaders, but their actions get innocent people killed. The tone is fatalistic, the acting powerful, the direction strong. There's nothing flashy here, just a steady clarity, a Christ story where an innocent man must die for the sins of others. But there's no salvation. Just fog.

Kontroll (2003)

I love films set in subways and Nimrod Antal's Budapest-set Kontroll is a mostly cracking example of this sub(way)-genre. Gritty, funny, anarchic with a pulsing soundtrack it really should be a cult classic but an attempt to make the underground setting symbolic of the wider world (the way an increasingly polarised and violent culture can infect everyone with that violence) begins to dilute the film's visceral qualities towards the end. But those qualities are considerable. Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi) is a ticket inspector who never leaves the Metro, spending his nights sleeping on the platforms. He's part of a crew of oddballs that include veteran Professzor (Zoltan Mucsi), machete-weilding nutter Lecso (Sandor Badar), narcoleptic Muki (Csaba Pindroch) and new arrival Tibi (Zsolt Nagy). Their days are spent being disrespected, assaulted and evaded by gangs, pimps, tourists, junkies and countless others who don't have tickets. While all this is mostly played for thrills and laughs, at the same time, people are committing suicide at an unusual rate. Soon we discover there's a serial killer on the loose pushing passengers to the deaths. And this hooded, nightmare figure looks uncomfortably like Bulcsu. Could the relentless air of conflict have sent him over the edge? Along the way he meets the beautiful Szofi (Eszter Balla), wearing a beguiling bear suit and minis a ticket. Bewitched, he lets her go. Soon a bond develops between them. Can she be his salvation, the one to help him back into the light? For most of the time Kontroll is equally bewitching, atmospheric and entertaining. But once it tries to answer these questions it drifts towards too-obvious symbolism. The real pleasure of the film, however, lies in its physical evocation of the underground, Budapest's famous old metro system (the second oldest in the world), with its vertiginous escalators, empty platforms, glowing air vents, the sound of trains rushing through tunnels, eerie banks of fluorescent lights flickering on and off, belligerent passengers, a near-lawless atmosphere where the vividly cartoonish inspectors are nearly as dangerously deranged as the people they deal with. For all this Kontroll is a journey well worth taking.