Berlinale 2020 review: DAU. Natasha (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy)

Context matters. This rule of thumb applies to life in general, but it certainly does when it comes to DAU, quite possibly the most insane (in every sense of the word) film project ever mounted. What started out as a biopic about famous Russian physicist Lev Landau turned into something that can be best described as a social experiment that happened to also be filmed, sometimes. Having started in 2007, about two years later the largest ever film set in Europe was built on the grounds of an abandoned swimming pool in Kharkiv (Ukraine), where a science institute resembling Landau’s actual (secret) institute from the late ’30s to the late ’60s was erected. Hundreds of participants were drawn from the area, but also abroad, not counting the thousands of extras. Most of them were amateurs. A lot of them lived on the facility for years, doing mostly the jobs that they had been doing before the project, with their own life story adapted to the period setting. Actual scientists worked in the science lab, waiters worked in restaurants, policemen worked in the facility’s own police force. They would live and work on set for months without ever being filmed, living their lives to the tiniest period detail, down to the clothes they wore (including underwear), the food they ate, the money they used, even reading the daily newspaper that was created specifically for the project.

The brainchild of Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, who with his debut film 4 had won the top award at the Rotterdam Film Festival, DAU grew into a project of epic, legendary proportions. By the end of it, over 700 hours of film had been shot. At the time of writing, ten feature films have been edited out of that material, with possibly more to follow. Some of this material was on display in early 2019 in Paris in a continuously running art installation that had, as everything with this project, a tumultuous run. And now, at the Berlinale, for the first time two actual films were shown to the public: DAU. Degeneration, a six-hour look at the last days of the institute, which played in the Berlinale Special section; and DAU. Natasha, a film about the struggle for power and love in a totalitarian state, which played in Competition, where it got famed German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges the award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement.

DAU. Natasha centers around Natasha (Natasha Berezhnaya) who works in the canteen of the institute with her younger colleague Olga (Olga Shkabarnya). She is a central figure in the institute since she feeds many of its people every day, including the group of scientists working there. Natasha and Olga have a love-hate relationship: one moment they support each other, the next they are bickering and trying to humiliate each other. One night Olga throws a party for the group of scientists, including French biochemist Luc (Luc Bigé, indeed a renowned scientist in real life). Natasha drops by, and over the course of the night she and Luc become close. After much alcohol this culminates in them having sex.

The next day in the canteen Luc acts as if nothing happened. This breaks Natasha’s heart, and once all their guests have left she and Olga sit down and discuss love. Alcohol flows abundantly, and Natasha takes her disappointment out on an absolutely plastered Olga. Olga goes home, where she is bathed and put to bed by Luc and fellow scientist Blinov (Alexei Blinov). Natasha, however, is called into the office of secret police investigator Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), who interrogates her about her relationship with Luc, pushing Natasha to her psychological and physical edge.

The story of DAU. Natasha in itself is not that noteworthy until the long interrogation scene that ends the film. The interactions between Natasha and Olga, as well as their interactions with the scientists, oscillate between amusing, gripping, and tedious. The drawn-out sex scene between Natasha and Luc is at once tender and voyeuristic, not in the least because the sex is unsimulated. The most talked about scene, however, will be that between Azhippo and Berezhnaya. Azhippo is an ex-KGB officer who is basically playing himself in his old job. Berezhnaya knew going into this scene that she was going to be interrogated, but not a lot more. The pressure Azhippo puts on her, which leads to an act that can be qualified as nothing other than sexual assault, is painful to watch. It does allow Azhippo to break Natasha though, and she becomes Azhippo’s informant on Luc, showing in gruesome detail how a totalitarian system can get a choking grip on its citizens.

The biggest question coming out of DAU. Natasha is, where does the acting stop and reality begin? Or perhaps the other way around: how much is really acted? As said, Berezhnaya worked almost two years as head of the canteen, much of that period without a camera on her face. So did Shkabarnya. Essentially they became their characters in a method acting preparation that would make Daniel Day-Lewis jealous. The same goes for the other ‘actors’, real scientists that worked in the institute on actual scientific research which even resulted in published papers. It would be announced when cameras would start rolling, but a minimal amount of setup for scenes would be given, with most of the acting coming from improvisation. This adds a layer to the film which is frankly hard to fathom given what’s on screen, certainly when it comes to its final scene. Everybody from Khrzhanovskiy to co-director and makeup artist Jekaterina Oertel to the lead actress stressed that if at any point Natasha or any of the other actors wanted to stop the scene they could. Still, at one point Berezhnaya slips out of her role when she cries out, “I hate this director.” It is clear that this was an incredibly tough experience for her, and she doesn’t seem to have been the only one. Accusations of sexual assault on set, including the rape of an assistant of performance artist Marina Abramovic (who presumably features in one of the other films), have been leveled at the production. Accusations that have been waved off by Khrzhanovskiy, but given the nature of the project and what’s on display in DAU. Natasha, doubt lingers.

As a stand-alone film, DAU. Natasha does not fully justify its existence. But it is that extra layer of reality on top of it that makes it a fascinating watch that keeps the viewer pondering long after the credits roll. At the press conference both Berezhnaya and Shkabarnya seemed unperturbed by the end result, when certainly on any level one would expect at least Berezhnaya to be. She claims, however, that virtually all of what we see is her, not a character. This justifies the question: what are we actually watching then? This is real life inside a bubble that’s not real life, yet if you didn’t know the context of the film you would think these people were just acting as if it were a regular film. As such, the film is only mildly interesting, in particular because there is no real beginning or end. It is the context, the whole myth around the project and the incredible way this film came to be that make it interesting as a social experiment. What led people to decide to participate in this, to let themselves be filmed at their most fragile, in their most intimate moments, to let themselves be humiliated? DAU. Natasha is a grim curiosity, the result of a runaway production that has to be seen to be believed, even if you can’t believe everything you see. But it must be seen at least once. It is a bit akin to watching Big Brother, but with all the people in the house in dress-up and playing a slightly different version of themselves. Which the people in Big Brother probably are, because isn’t that what we all do, playing the version of ourselves that we want to project? And just like Big Brother, DAU. Natasha holds that schizophrenic middle between voyeuristic fascination and “Why the hell am I actually watching this?

Photo copyright: Phenomen Film