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by Kai Wessel

grade: 7

Kai Wessel’s Fog in August presents a mise-en-scène with mainly monochrome cinematography, in which the lighting is always too low, too weak. A mise-en-scene that is also complemented by a script in which the bravest characters, the most justice-seeking characters never really manage to make their voices heard.

Is there still a place for dreams?

Once upon a time there was a boy of about thirteen years old named Ernst. A child who, motherless and the son of a pedlar of Jenisch ethnicity, was first sent to a labour camp, then later to a hospital to help the sick. His father, since he does not have a residence certificate, cannot take his son home with him. And the child, in the hospital, will find himself in a situation much greater than he. This is the story staged in the feature film Fog in August (original title: Nebel im August), directed by Kai Wessel, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Domes, and a 2016 co-production between Germany and Austria. But the adventures of young Ernst are, in fact, not fictional at all. Young Ernst Lossa did, in fact, really exist. And the hospital where he lived and worked has gone down in history as the hospital where, during the Second World War, creepy experiments were carried out on human brains, after patients considered to be weaker were killed by lethal injections or – in the case of children – by giving them barbiturates in raspberry juice.

Germany, more than Austria, has often staged the ugliness of National Socialism and all that it caused, while Austria, for its part, sees its greatest film strengths in avant-garde cinema, documentaries and – not least – in romantic and sometimes musical comedies (particularly concerning the first decades of the 20th century). Yet, it too devoted itself, from time to time, to the period of the Second World War. And among the last times it did so, it even won its first Oscar (thanks to The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky).

As far as this Fog in August is concerned, we can observe how the mise-en-scène adopted by Kai Wessel, although very similar to a television film, is well suited to German standards. And if, at first, one of the first films that comes to mind is the famous The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Mark Herman, 2008), then, in certain respects – and especially when we see the young protagonist who, despite being locked up in such a cramped place, never loses hope of escaping far away and never gives up on his dreams – the much more recent How I Taught myself to be a Child (Rupert Henning, 2019) comes to mind. But only in terms of the attitude of the two young protagonists towards life and the most hostile situations.

And if in Fog in August, when young Ernst sits on the rooftop with his friend Nandl dreaming of America and talking about wishes that will surely come true, the scene takes on a magical, almost dreamlike character, then, looking at the whole film, we realise that, in fact, there is no place at all for dreams and wishes. And this is confirmed by the mise-en-scene itself. A mise-en-scène whose cinematography tends to be monochrome, in which the lights are always too low, too weak. A mise-en-scène that is also completed by a script in which the bravest characters, the most justice-seeking characters never really manage to make their voices heard. This is the case, for example, with sister Sofia or Dr Max Witt (played by Banko Samarovski, winner of the Österreichischer Filmpreis for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 2017 for this performance).

The sense of claustrophobia inside the hospital is here well conveyed by Kai Wessel, in a sort of labyrinth with no exit where no one is allowed to have a say. Not even (or almost) in the interesting scene in which the patients – led by a charismatic Ernst – refuse to eat their lunch by throwing the fish in their dishes against the ceiling in order to keep them stuck there.

Fog in August, then, stages real events, pointing the finger not only at Nazism, but also – and above all – at a society that is unable to learn from history. A disenchanted and disillusioned portrait of a world that belongs to the past, but which, even today, seems sadly alive and pulsating.

Original title: Nebel im August
Directed by: Kai Wessel
Country/year: Germany, Austria / 2016
Running time: 121’
Genre: drama, historical
Cast: Ivo PIetzcker, Sebastian Koch, Thomas Schubert, Fritzi Haberlandt, Henriette Confurius, Branko Samarovski, David Bennent, Jule Hermann, Niklas Post, Karl Markovics, Patrick Heyn, Lyonel Hollaender, Juls Serger, Franziska Singer, Arne Wichert
Screenplay: Holger Karsten Schmidt
Cinematography: Hagen Bogdanski
Produced by: Collina Film, Dor Film, Studio Canal, ORF

Info: the page of Fog in August on iMDb; the page of Fog in August on MyMovies