'DAU. Natasha': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Phenomen film
Fascinating multimedia art project fails to deliver onscreen.

The first spinoff feature from Ilya Khrzhanovsky's epic “Soviet Truman Show” experiment paints a bleak picture of love and sex in Stalinist Russia.

Probably the most unusual entry in this year's Berlinale competition, and certainly one of the most hotly anticipated, DAU. Natasha is the first theatrical feature to emerge from Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky's wildly ambitious, mildly notorious multimedia project DAU. Originally conceived as a biopic of Nobel prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau, this increasingly fictionalized experiment then took on a life of its own, expanding and mutating into a vast immersive artwork the size of a small town.

In 2009, after building a gigantic recreation of a top secret Stalin-era science institute in a former sports arena in the Ukrainian town of Kharkov, Khrzhanovsky and his team recruited hundreds of non-professional actors to live and work on set, some effectively staying in character for up to three years. With roving cameras free to potentially record every conversation across this mammoth space, the DAU experience has been likened to a “Soviet Truman Show.” It also generated plenty of lurid headlines, with some insiders complaining of mistreatment on set.

The Ukraine shoot actually wrapped nine years ago, but the wider ongoing DAU project, with backing from Kremlin-linked oligarch Sergey Adonyev, has since spawned grand-scale gallery installations and attracted famous collaborators including Marina Abramovic, Gerard Depardieu, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Rampling, Eric Cantona, Brian Eno and others. Khrzhanovsky and his team are now reportedly working on 14 films and three TV productions using the 700 hours of footage that they amassed. Indeed, the small-screen series DAU. Degeneratsia also premieres in the Berlinale this week.

Given its enticingly bizarre origins, it was perhaps inevitable that DAU. Natasha would fall short of expectations. Co-directed and co-scripted by Khrzhanovsky with Jekaterina Oertel, who also serves as makeup supervisor, this Russia-Germany-Ukraine-U.K. co-production is a disappointingly conventional, small-scale, low-voltage character study at heart.

Admittedly, the cast's commitment to extreme naturalism extends to having real sex onscreen, as well as subjecting themselves to clammy simulations of sexualized torture. But even these minor provocations feel slightly dated, like a throwback to Lars Von Trier's Dogma 95 period. Big on atmosphere but low on drama, DAU. Natasha is fascinating conceptually but weak cinematically. Theatrical prospects will likely be chilly beyond the director's esoteric art-world circles.

Much of the film's distended running time consists of long, rambling, booze-soaked conversations between world-weary middle-aged canteen boss Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) and her insolent young co-worker Olga (Olga Shkabarnya). The two women serve food, flirt with customers, bicker, laugh, gossip about lovers and argue over the nature of love itself, sometimes even coming to blows. These semi-improvised scenes have a freewheeling, flinty energy at first, but they soon begin to drag and repeat themselves. Ragged, unpolished naturalism is not the same thing as emotional truth.

Eventually, Jurgen Jurges' restless hand-held camera moves beyond the cramped canteen walls to other locations, notably a party house where Natasha seduces a visiting French scientist (Luc Bige). Shot in unsparing anatomical detail, their booze-drenched sex scene has a clumsy tenderness and a gauche charm, though it would be hard to justify on dramatic necessity grounds.

The stumbling, shuffling plot finally gathers pace in the final act, when Natasha is summoned to a grim interrogation cell by a monstrous KGB officer (Vladimir Azhippo). Using her illegal affair with a foreign scientist as leverage, he methodically breaks her will with a sustained session of psychological torture, his tone alternating between solicitous bonhomie and withering contempt. Having secured a forced confession and blackmailed her into working as an informer, he finally orders Natasha to strip naked and perform humiliating acts of self-violation. This close-up portrait of state-sponsored sadism is genuinely chilling at times, but still not quite enough to salvage an overlong, underpowered film.

Shot in mottled, muddy hues under low lights, DAU. Natasha has a severe visual aesthetic that suits its bleak mood and spiritually impoverished, Stalinist-era setting. Packed with forensically accurate period furniture, clothes and food, this marathon glum-fest is an impressive feat of retro production design at least. Berezhnaya's performance is also bravely raw and self-exposing, especially for a non-professional actor.

But for all its thrillingly strange conceptual roots, DAU. Natasha ultimately lacks dramatic force. Featuring just a handful of exterior shots, very little of its rich background narrative even figures in the action. To viewers unfamiliar with the wider multimedia project, this uninspired spin-off story will feel like old news, just another stereotypically grim slab of vintage art-house misery porn.

Production company: Phenomen Berlin Filmproduktion
Cast: Natalia Berezhnaya, Olga Shkabarnya, Vladimir Azhippo, Alexei Blinov, Luc Bige
Directors-screenwriters: Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel
Producer: Sergey Adonyev
Cinematographer:Jurgen Jurges
Editor: Brand Thumim
Costumes: Lyubov Mingasitinova, Irina Tsvetkova, Olga Bekritskaya, Elena Bekritskaya
Makeup: Jekaterina Oertel
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Coproduction Office, Paris

145 minutes