Review: DAU. Natasha
by Kaleem Aftab
- BERLINALE 2020: The long-gestating feature film by Jekaterina Oertel and Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, part of the DAU project, has surfaced in competition at Berlin
Playing in competition at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, DAU. Natasha [+see also:
interview: Ilya Khrzhanovskiy
film profile] is the first feature from the extraordinary – and, for some, controversial – DAU project to play at a film festival. DAU was pitched at IDFA in 2006 as a movie based on the life of Soviet atomic weapons scientist and Nobel Prize winner Lev Landau, before morphing into a project where the filmmakers recreated a Soviet research institute, where Landau worked for three decades until 1968. The physicist’s life story is said to involve sexual experiments, periods of psychiatric hospitalisation and a car crash.
The feature was written and directed by Jekaterina Oertel and Ilya Khrzhanovskiy. Khrzhanovskiy's debut film, 4, launched at the Venice Film Festival in 2014, and it was about four people meeting in a bar and telling lies about their past; these stories then start to infiltrate their everyday lives. DAU. Natasha takes this idea of fake lives becoming our reality to the extreme.
The shoot took three years, involving 400 principal actors and 10,000 extras. The Institute, as the filmmakers named the facility, saw the participants live life as faithfully as possible as Soviet citizens. When the cast arrived, it was 1938 in DAU time, and the directors took excessive attention to period detail to its very limits. Every few weeks, they would update the costumes, hairstyles and food packaging so that the participants would experience the facility in fast-forwarded, chronological order. So, over the three years of the shoot, 30 years passed by in DAU time.
What's odd was that most of what went on during those three years was not filmed. Only one camera was used at a time – that held by German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, who with his three-person crew shot 700 hours of footage from 2009-2011. From this footage, many films were made, as well as virtual-reality installations, and they first emerged at exhibitions in Paris and London. Now the Berlinale is showing the first film, and in Panorama, there is also a six-hour audiovisual work in nine chapters, called DAU. Degeneration [+see also:
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film made with no script, DAU. Natasha is episodic. It has scenes of startling drama, but also much of the plot happens off screen. Well, that is, apart from an unsimulated sex scene that does raise questions of exploitation, both for the characters themselves and the actors playing the roles. Indeed, during the making of the film, questions were raised about the directors filming real sex.
Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) runs the café in the canteen of the Soviet facility. The movie starts with her singing a traditional song while the screen remains black – and, as anyone who has seen Ida [+see also:
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile] will know, this may not sit well with the communist authorities. Later, she will question why she has to forsake God. However, for the most part, Natasha is concerned with ageing, especially as her underling, the doctor's daughter Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), is younger and more beautiful than her. Natasha says her colleague is a prostitute! The gender stereotypes are out in full force.
The clients are the scientists who frequent the canteen. The opening scenes set out the world perfectly, and the directors show remarkable talent for filming sequences involving long dialogues. Away from the dinner tables, there is a futurist element – although can something be sci-fi when it actually happened in the past? – with experiments being conducted, while in the scientists’ residence, Natasha connects with a visiting French physicist (Luc Bigé). This is a relationship that contributes to her visiting a torture chamber, raising more questions than it answers.
DAU. Natasha is a German-Ukrainian-British-Russian co-production staged by Phenomen Berlin Filmproduktion, Phenomen Ukraine (Kiev), Phenomen UK (London) and Phenomen Films (Moscow). The producer was Sergey Adonyev, while the co-producers were Svetlana Dragayeva, Susanne Marian and Alexandra Timofeeva. The world sales are handled by France’s Coproduction Office.
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