FNE at Berlinale 2020: Review: DAU. Natasha

    DAU. Natasha by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel DAU. Natasha by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel

    BERLIN: An unlikely and daring choice for the main competition in Berlin the Russian, German, Ukraine, UK coproduction DAU.Natasha directed by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel is the first film to emerge from the massive, multidisciplinary DAU art project an experiment in film and performance installation and probably some other things that no one has dreamed up a name for yet.  DAU is meant to recreate the experience of living everyday life in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and is set in a fictional Soviet research institute.

    The DAU project is a recreation of a top secret 1950s scientific institute built in a former swimming pool and sports facility in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The DAU team furnished this vast set with authentic items from Soviet era facilities and recreated the whole look and atmosphere of such an institute.  In 2009 they recruited hundreds of non-professional actors to actually live in this set, some of them for years, actually living the roles of their characters while DAU cameras moved among the actors recording this giant reality show.  The whole project became a kind of experimental anthropological and artistic study while the DAU team shot hundreds of hours of film.  But the project was more than a film it was also billed as an immersive work of art.

    Whatever you decide to call it the controversial project provoked complaints that the actors were mistreated and rumours swirled around the team.  Filming wrapped nine years ago and since then there have been a number of DAU exhibitions and installations at art galleries and collaborations with famous artists and actors.  With more than 700 hours of footage to wade through the DAU team are working on three TV productions and 14 films with DAU.Natasha as the film to emerge for the cinema audience.

    The story such revolves around the research institute’s canteen where Natasha played or perhaps more accurately lived by Natasha Berezhnaya works serving the institute staff and drinking with her colleague Olga played by Olga Shkabarnya. Despite disliking each other there is clearly not a lot of choice for company.  The canteen and the characters are as grim as might be expected.  Natasha adds interest to her life when she has sex with Luc played by Luc Bigé a visiting French scientist.  After Luc’s departure Natasha is suspected by the KGB or consorting with the enemy and she is interrogated and tortured by General Azhippo player by Vladimir Azhippo. The reality here is so strong it makes you cringe and there seems to be no question that the actors went so far as to have real sex for the camera.

    While Berlinale audiences were able to pack into cinemas to experience this unusual 135 minute long feature that combines reality show and social experiment it is doubtful that there is a commercial audience for DAU.Natasha. This is not the only bit of film the project has produced although it is the first that the group has billed as a feature film.  Last year film segments from the DAU project were screened at galleries in Paris.  DAU.Natasha might eventually be more suited to art exhibition or installations than to the art house cinema public.

    DAU. Natasha (Germany / Ukraine / United Kingdom / Russian Federation)
    Directed by by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel
    Cast: Natalia Berezhnaya, Olga Shkabarnya, Vladimir Azhippo, Alexei Blinov, Luc Bigé