By Mónica Delgado

Due to its extensive and polemic process of production, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel’s DAU. Natasha is a work whose value resides in how to detect the frontiers of fiction, to hunt those moments where the true catharsis of the real comes to float. At least, in my case, it was an uncomfortable exercise, since the non-professional actors and actresses let us see in several situations the way they assaulted with agency some scenes in a free way, in their own way, but submitted nevertheless to certain specific rules for the shooting. The filmmaker’s yoke, contained and destroyed, inside the fictional limits, to achieve moments of sudden commotion.

Presented in the official competition of the last Berlinale, where Jurgen Jurges’ splendid cinematography was awarded “best artistic contribution”, DAU. Natasha is part of a mastodonic project that has taken over 10 years to be materialized. It’s an immense experiment, made with the support of over 400 volunteers, who, together with the production team, lived in lock-down in a simulation of a soviet center, imitating the patterns of pre-Stalinist times, but in a set in Ukraine. DAU. Natasha may not completely reflect the ambition of the experiment (there were hundreds of hours of footage, and at least a second six-hour film, DAU. Degeneratsia, which was also premiered in Berlin), but it does achieve its goal as a gate to this harassing sub-world, where the filmmakers explore all the possibilities and consequences of power, and state terror as an institutionalized system.

From its first minutes, where the figure of Natasha (actress Natalia Berezhnaya) appears, the film is posed as a small exercise of following this protagonist, a 40-year old woman who works in a canteen in a scientific investigation institute, in a certain period of the former USSR (somewhere in the 30’s or 40’s). Throughout the film, we see three or four locations where the majority of scenes take place: the restaurant, the scientist house, the investigation center and then, a police torture center. And all these spaces appear in relation to Natasha, who becomes the catalyst in a kind of domination exerted in several levels. The purpose of this is to detect certain mechanics of power in a totalitarian system, where individualities are suspended.

This experiment of filming scenes without a previous script, and following an scenic pattern, with high doses of improvisation (there are some scenes of drunkenness plus vomits where everything is real, for example), could match with the attempt of recovering certain behaviors in contexts of repression and contention, since the intention of Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel is not only to recreate an epoch (we already have dozens of films that represent different historical times) but to register and understand some mechanisms of the relation between people, inside the process of the film and also in the fiction. Inspired in the statements and biography of scientist Lev Landau (hence, the apellative DAU), and in the context of the so-called Great Purge, at the end of the 30’s, the film poses as a psychological and social thesis on how this campaign of repression and submission acted.

There’s a remarkable scene in DAU. Natasha where its protagonist submits her employee in the canteen, Olga, to get her drunk and humiliate her. After Olga bangs the door, and escapes, drunk and unstable from the jaws of her boss, Natasha starts crying, resigned to live the life she’s living. In this moment of drunkenness, where we don’t know if what she says is in relation to her character or related to a state of being fed up with the production process of the film, a state of resignation emerges, which looks extenuating. Here Natasha looks like a guinea pig inside a project of emotional and psychological exploitation.

Besides the sensationalism which promoted the film (“Oh god, Berlinale projecting a film of torture and explicit sex!”), DAU. Natasha is an experience which materializes, in an shocking way, something which Michel Foucault called bio-politics, to portray the power exerted over a whole community, where entities manage and regulate the vital and quotidian processes of a society, and where the film, in all its complexity, shines as a piece of a huge out-of-field system, as an initial approach.

There’s a torture scene (which can be seen as unjustifiable for some) where the lead character is submitted to an interrogation, but it’s quite a hard moment, which serves the same function that the scene where Natasha manipulates Olga, hitting her, or forcing her to drink, since the motive here is to detect different possibilities of human nature towards humiliation and admiration towards the tyrant. We’ll be expecting further deliveries that will complete this great DAU, which we understand as a recreation, not only of an epoch but of the structure of the generational sentiments that this submission implied, something which lasted decades, and left a trauma difficult to resolve.

Official Competition
Directors: Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel
Script: Ilya Khrzhanovskiy (Libro: Kora Landau-Drobantseva)
Cinematography: Jürgen Jürges
Cast: Natalia Berezhnaya, Olga Shkabarnya, Vladimir Azhippo, Alexei Blinov, Luc Bigé, Alexandr Bozhik, Anatoliy Sidko, Raisa Voloshchuk, Valery Andreev
Production Company: Phenomen Films
Russia, UK, Germany, Ukraine, 2020, 146 mins