If anyone has any lingering illusions about the grimness of the Soviet system, a bracing 145 minutes watching the film “DAU. Natasha”, a main competition entry at the 70th Berlinale, should remedy that.
This dark and disturbing offering from director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, the mastermind behind the long-running DAU project in Ukraine, which employed tens of thousands of people over more than a decade to recreate the atmosphere of a Soviet-era physics institute, goes where perhaps no films have gone before to depict the misery, loneliness and sheer terror of life under Soviet rule.
The emotions portrayed in the film are raw — so raw that the DAU project has been plagued by reports and allegations that people on the set were abused, and that women had been harassed.
Khrzhanovskiy dismissed some of the allegations as typical of Soviet-era propaganda, where accusations were made anonymously or, as he put it, “let’s call people ‘N.'” But he acknowledged emotions could run high.
“This project was running for a long time and we worked with a lot of different people and there were various conflict situations but they all had to do with the work itself, that people have their freedom,” he told reporters before the film’s premiere on Wednesday night.
“You can’t build a career on this project, it’s not Hollywood. This is a project about people who decide to go on a journey, a difficult, emotional journey and this journey is very honest, the journey itself.”
Khrzhanovskiy originally set out in the mid-2000s to make a biopic of the Soviet-era physicist Lev Landau, the last part of whose name provides the overall moniker for the project. This morphed into perhaps the most ambitious film project in cinematic history as Khrzhanovskiy built a precisely detailed replica of Landau’s Moscow institute on a site in Ukraine. The mock institute over the years reportedly cast tens of thousands of people to live and work in the facility full-time, doing the jobs that would have been done in Landau’s time, while microphones recorded the sounds and camera crews showed up to film events.
Some of what was filmed has emerged previously, at art installations in Paris and London. But this is the first time Khrzhanovskiy has released a DAU film aimed at the cinema — and a devastating bombshell it is.
The Natasha of the title is played by Natalia Berezhnaya who, like everyone else who appears, is an amateur rather than a professional actor. Khrzhanovskiy said that professionals tend to be too fixed in what they do well, while amateurs have a “naturalistic approach”.
The naturalism that Natasha portrays is grim indeed as she grinds through the day as the head waitress and cashier of the institute’s canteen, where all the physicists go after work to eat and get pissed. Her younger, and prettier, co-worker is Olga, played by Olga Shkabarnya. At first they seem the efficient team, but after the day is done, their animosities emerge. Natasha orders Olga to mop the floor, and she refuses. The upshot is a prolonged shoving, slapping and wrestling match between the two women, who are otherwise alone in the canteen.
This scene, which goes on perhaps a bit longer than it should, is followed by showing the two women at work the next day, acting as if nothing had happened. They plough through the day again, but that night they are invited to a party, which is held at Olga’s apartment, in honour of a visiting French scientist, Luc Bigé.
The drinking is on a scale that is, well, Russian and as the evening progresses, Luc and the lonely Natasha, who lives alone and has abandoned an affair with a married man, fall for each other. This leads to a one-night stand on a bed in Olga’s apartment that is as graphically filmed as the famous lesbian sex scenes in the 2013 Cannes hit, “Blue is the Warmest Colour”. In Russia, the film has been accused of peddling “pornography propaganda” but what is shown is natural human interaction, not images intended for a porn site.
Where the film does plunge into the dark unknown comes after the tryst, when Natasha is hauled into an interrogation room by state security. Accused of consorting with a foreigner, she is terrorised and humiliated by the hulking KGB interrogator Vladimir, played by Vladimir Azhippo, who apparently was a professional interrogator. The scenes of Natasha having her clothes ripped off and being pushed around in a stark, concrete-block cell are hard to watch. But the worst comes when Vladimir offers Natasha a drink of cognac, then empties the bottle and employs it for vaginal penetration.
International film critics reviewing “DAU, Natasha” have raised the issue of whether the scene crosses an ethical boundary line. But in the context of the terror, oppression and misery the film portrays, from its opening moments to the end, it seems almost inevitable.
By Michael Roddy