Cannes Check: Sergei Loznitsa’s ‘In the Fog’

The director: Sergei Loznitsa (Belarusian, 47 years old)

The talent: Amid a sea of unfamiliar actors — some of them Russian workhorses, but many of them first-timers — two names stand out, though both of them are in supporting roles. Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov made a striking impression (and scooped an LA Critics’ award) as the surly abortionist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”; veteran Russian actress Nadezhda Markina’s stunning turn in the title role of “Elena” earned a European Film Award nod last year, and will hit US screens next week.

As on his last film (and first narrative feature) “My Joy,” Loznitsa wrote the script, while that film’s editor Danielius Kokanauskis, production designer Kirill Shuvalov and cinematographer Oleg Mutu are all on board. Mutu, in particular, is a name to note: he’s been a key figure in the recent Romanian new wave, having shot “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (which he also produced) and “Tales From the Golden Age.” This is one of two Competition credits for him this year: he also lensed Cristian Mungiu’s latest, “Beyond the Hills.” 

The pitch: Two years ago, celebrated documentarian Loznitsa’s fiction debut “My Joy” proved one of the delayed critical successes of the lineup: consensus was slow to emerge, and no prizes were forthcoming, but a number of estimable English-speaking eventually latched onto his brooding, free-form vision of human corruption and barbarism in contemporary Russia. International distributors didn’t rush to it (it finally hit US screens last autumn), while the Russian media accused it of Russophobia. His follow-up sounds, on paper, an easier sell. Picking up on the World War II flashbacks of his last film, “In the Fog” is a full-scale WWII drama set in the German-occupied Western frontier of the USSR. After a train is derailed by resistance fighter, innocent rail worker Sushenya is arrested by German officers, only to be set free — prompting suspicions of treason among his compatriots. Sounds robustly classical enough, with arthouse-crossover potential — but perhaps Loznitsa has a more radical treatment up his sleeve.  

The pedigree: Loznitsa is evidently a new pet of Thierry Fremaux: “My Joy” was an unexpected Competition inclusion two years ago, and despite that film not quite setting the Croisette alight, he’s been welcomed straight back in with his second narrative feature. “My Joy” was treated as a debut in some quarters, though Loznitsa had already built a substantial reputation among documentary buffs, having won numerous European festival awards for his non-fiction work. However, thanks to “My Joy”‘s limited exposure (it’s still awaiting a UK release, for example), he remains one of the lesser-known names in the lineup.

The buzz: Minimal, obviously — though the film isn’t as much of a mystery package as “My Joy” was two years ago. Loznitsa will have a few more admirers approaching his work this time, though he’ll also have to win over a number of sceptics wondering why the festival is backing him so keenly. International distributors will be hoping the film fits the mold of recent WWII dramas that won over middlebrow audiences (and even Oscar voters) alike, though the director’s record doesn’t promise such an outcome. 

The odds: Could be a smart bet for those willing to look beyond the obvious names. Paddy Power currently rank Loznitsa stone last in their Palme predictions, with odds of 33-1 — surely, given the director’s growing profile and the new film’s perennially awards-friendly subject matter (another WWII drama, “The Pianist,” took top honors 10 years ago), there are several less likely candidates. Loznitsa may not yet be ready for prime time, but a Jury Prize would not be at all surprising. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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