BERLIN – Well over a decade after filming began and a year after its chaotic deployment as an immersive installation in Paris, “DAU” was finally able to arrive here in Berlin, the city where it was supposed to be seen for the first time.
The bulky biopic of Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky on Soviet scientist Lev Landau found its place in the 70th Berlin Film Festival, not as a single project but as two feature films screened until Sunday. “Natasha” and “Degeneratsia” (“degeneration”) have a cumulative duration of eight and a half hours. But that is only a fraction of the 700 hours of footage shot for the project.
“DAU” was born out of a multi-year experience in which hundreds of non-professional actors lived and worked in a replica of a Soviet research institute, which may be the most ambitiously immersive film set ever made , in Ukraine. People were playing versions of themselves, transposed to the lifestyles and careers of the Soviet Union. Artists, scientists and religious leaders visited the ensemble, being part of the production and even organizing conferences and workshops.
Inside the 42,000-square-foot institute, an army of vigilant set and costume designers, as well as makeup artists, helped make the world of “DAU” look and feel convincingly to the Soviet Union from 1938-1968. It was a business whose eccentricity and grandeur bordered on madness: a social experience disguised as an artistic project, or perhaps the reverse.
There were no scripts, rehearsals or covers. Khrzhanovsky claims that no lines of dialogue were written; German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges compared the process to making a documentary.
“DAU” was to arrive in Berlin in 2018, like an immersive exhibition that included films cut from the material filmed. But City officials rejected the project at the last minute on plans to erect a 1.5-mile-long concrete barrier across the city. In addition to the two titles presented at the Berlinale, 11 feature films are planned, which Khrzhanovsky hopes to deploy in festivals, in cinemas and on a digital platform dedicated to the future.
Carlo Chatrian, Berlinale’s artistic director, said in an interview that he had watched about 50 hours of the “DAU” sequence before selecting “Natasha” – which has a relatively modest operating time and simple narration – for the main competition. He programmed “Degeneratsia”, which is screened in the special non-competitive section of the Berlinale, because he wanted to give the public here a taste of what was in Paris.
“After watching the film, you understand that it is so strong because it is so immersive,” said Chatrian.
Powerful, captivating and uncompromising, the two films rank among the best of the festival. They are also so different from each other that it hardly makes sense to consider them as side pieces.
“Natasha”, one of the 18 films in competition, became the festival scandal for its graphic scenes of sex and sexualized torture. Given the monstrous ambitions and the immense scale of “DAU”, the film is an unexpected introduction to the project. Co-directed by Jekaterina Oertel, it is an intimate chamber drama that follows a handful of characters in a few days.
The film centers on a middle-aged canteen waitress at the institute in the early 1950s, played by Natalia Berezhnaya, who appears to be a shoo-in for the festival’s Silver Bear for best actress. After a drunken affair with a visiting French scientist, she was quickly transported by the security services for questioning.
The film faced a hostile reaction following allegations that unprofessional actors were coerced and ill-treated on set, and subjected to psychological and physical torture. Chatrian defended his decision to schedule the film in the absence of appropriate legal challenges against him.
One moment in particular gained notoriety: “the bottle scene”. Here the executioner of Natasha, played by Vladimir Azhippo, a former real-life K.G.B. officer who died in 2017, forces Natasha to insert an empty cognac bottle into her vagina. The director argued that the action is simulated, unlike the intoxicating sex between Natasha and the French scientist earlier. In Berlin, the film was praised and condemned. In Russia, where none of the “DAU” films have yet been released, “Natasha” has recently been banned as “porn propaganda”.
At a staggering six o’clock, “Degeneratsia”, which has its world premiere on Friday, is a completely different beast. It is on a much larger scale than “Natasha”, although it still gives little sense of the complexity and breathtaking scale of “DAU”.
In “Degeneratsia”, which takes place 15 years after the events of “Natasha” Azhippo, K.G.B. general, takes the direction of the institute. He brings a group of young people from the right, led by Maxim Martsinkevich, a true neo-Nazi known as Tesak, who is currently serving a ten-year sentence in a Moscow prison. Increasingly weary of the institute, where alcohol and sex seem to have become more important than research, Azhippo calls on far-right extremists to keep the staff of the institute online. Finally, he orders them to shave the place.
With a larger cast of main characters who cover much more of the institute’s land, “Degeneratsia” gives a much greater sense of the relationships and the dynamics that have developed over the three years of filming “DAU”. Co-directed by Ilya Permyakov, it is fluid, furious and, despite its running time of 355 minutes, constantly absorbing.
Like “Natasha”, it has its share of heartbreaking images, including cross-sections of babies in cages that are connected to electrodes. The most excruciating scene is a long segment in which Martsinkevich slaughters, beheads, guts and dismantles a pig on a living room rug, a sacrifice that brought “the scent of death” to the set, said Khrzhanovsky. Shortly after, the Martsinkevich gang murdered everyone at the institute in a brief but bloody outcome.
As excellent as “Natasha”, it is the film “DAU” which should have been screened in competition. A braver conservative would have programmed it.
The party for “Natasha” took place in a fashionable club along the Spree river, with borscht, herring, vodka, Russian champagne and Armenian brandy. Khrzhanovsky hovered, speaking with luminaries, including director Tom Tykwer and author Jonathan Littell.
In a frank interview with several whiskeys, Khrzhanovsky spoke of his artistic vision, his working methods and the controversies surrounding “DAU”. He defended his practice of asking personal and “existential” questions during calls – nearly 400,000 people interviewed for the project – and of guiding his non-actors to emotionally dangerous territory in the service of plausibility and honesty without compromise.
Referring to the two films screened here as “a particle” of the full project, Khrzhanovsky said that “Natasha” and “Degeneratsia” suited Berlin perfectly. “A film is about ordinary life under a totalitarian system,” he said. “And the other concerns right-wing extremists who are coming to power.” He added that the project did not specifically concern Russia or Ukraine, but more broadly the “general disease of amnesia” in Europe.
Khrzhanovsky defended the most unusual details of the shooting, denying the numerous accusations of ill-treatment and abuse by people involved in “DAU” which appeared – mostly anonymously – in reports. Yes, he had created a controlled environment in which non-actors were taken to the extreme. And yes, production was largely funded by the Russian telecommunications oligarch Sergey Adonyev. (The film’s budget was not released. Khrzhanovsky said it was significant for a foreign art house film but small by Hollywood standards. A report from Russian television last year put it at $ 70 million.)
The director and his team have been less open in the past, often giving vague or seemingly contradictory answers in interviews and public appearances. It is difficult to say whether this awkwardness – for example, the amount of scenario or plan which never existed – is the fuel of the mystique of the film, or simply the result of linguistic shortcomings.
On Thursday, a public discussion heated up when Khrzhanovsky dismissed a psychologist who said that having seen “Natasha”, she believed that he had traumatized her interpreters. When someone called the film manipulative, he said, “If you feel manipulated, it’s yours, not mine.” Someone else asked Khrzhanovsky if he saw himself as a psychopath.
“Life is a dangerous area,” he said in an interview. “It’s very fragile. It’s a dangerous game, that’s for sure.” He denied that anyone had been abused or mistreated on set and spoke of his “responsibility to the real people who have spent years of their life in “DAU”. to face the dark side of life and human nature.
Compared to what is happening in everyday life, he said, “DAU” is nothing. Then, with an ironic smile, he added, “It’s a kindergarten.”