Berlinale 2020: Day 7

By Sascha Krieger

DAU. Natasha (Competition / Germany, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Russia / Director: Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel)

DAU is Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s gigantic but somewhat ill-fated art project about totalitarianism. It is also quite controversial, not least because of accusations of power and sexual abuse during its creation. Centered around many ours of film and embedded in a simulation of a Stalin-era-style society, it evolves around a Soviet-era science institute and its secret projects. DAU. Natasha is a two-and-a-half hour film extracted from the material. And it needs to be said at the outset that some of its graphic details sit uneasily especially in the light of the accusations. Judging the film on its own merits, therefore, is a rather difficult task but will be attempted here nonetheless. The film centers on the title character, a woman working in the institute’s canteen. Through much of the film we see her at work which never seems to cease in the hermetic world everyone is caught in. She banters and fights and reconciles with her younger, insolent colleague Olya, serves and jokes with the scientists, drinks with them after hours, sleeps with a French guest expert. The handheld camera captures the scene in grainy, sepia-tinged images, a close-up of a claustrophobic parallel universe which doesn’t have an outside (until the very end when that outside is revealed as yet wider prison confines. Some of this is redundant – especially when the film moves away from Natasha and shows the experiments conducted but also a few of the women’s squabbles are repetitive. However, the sense of this almost absurd airless universe is strong, the atmosphere dense. Which serves the film’s final third well as the dread becomes real and Natasha gets caught up in the deadly grips of the KGB. The interrogation scenes are conducted in the same mixture of naturalism and archival historicism, which makes the more than drastic brutality – which is indeed over the top and even downright abusive at times, especially in its aspects of sexualised violence – even more poignant. The mechanics of totalitarianism are evident in the matter-of-fact sadism of the officer and the „learning curve“ of Natalia Berezhnaya’s Natasha. So, while the film may be a little long, it presents an almost real-time glimpse into an exemplary totalitarian system. Just as if we’re visiting, looking on as invited voyeurs. Which is precisely what the DAU project was intended to be. Even though there remains a bad taste due to the circumstances and those many unanswered questions surrounding it.

DAU. Natasha (Image: © Phenomen Film)

The Roads not Taken (Competition / United Kingdom / Director: Sally Potter)

An old demented man aided by his doting yet increasingly despairing daughter is at the heart of Sally Potter’s new film. He’s „not quite there“ as they say which the film takes literally as it wanders to other places, Mexico, Greece, memories, it seems at first, imagined alternative realities as it turns out. In them appear his childhood love with whom he seems connected through a tragedy and a contemporary copy of his daughter’s mother. The colour schemes are very different: Murkey greyish the „reality“, bright and warm Mexico, crisp and even in sunlight nocturnal Greece. The camera feats on Javier Bardem’s face and on Elle Fanning’s. He 50 shades of troubled and lost, she at least as many of concerned. This could be a film about the boundlessness of love – and the limits of living it – or a portrait of a mind getting lost or of the trauma of loss – instead, it’s all of this and none, at the same time. The time and reality jumps are as much on the obvious side as the representation of dementia and the rather obnoxiously tear-jerking „return“ at the end. The story is full of clichés – for the grief as well as the dementia storylines – the daughter’s devotion so over the top angelic it belongs rather in the realm of soap opera than a A festival’s competition. Potter gives her film’s potential away for effects. Yes, Bardem is impressive though a little on the show-offy side as is Fanning’s attempt at genuine emotion while Laura Linney is underused as the mother/ex-wife. Thus, The Roads Not Taken is less an exploration of the choices we make – all of which here lead to misery anyway – than an exhibition of some story ideas which shine on the surface but refuse to go beyond.

Un crimen común (Panorama / Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland / Director: Francisco Márquez)

Cecilia is a rather successful professor facing likely promotion which is aided in her two-person household by Nebe, a middle-aged woman from a poorer district of the city. When one night, Nebe’s teenage son knocks on the windows, a scared Cecilia doesn’t let him in, leading to the boy’s murder. Following this, Cecilia is gripped by fear created by guilt, everything is scary, she can hardly function anymore, her face becomes a mask of paralysed fear. That’s all there is to the film – just over 90 dreary minutes of watching the cliché of a frightened woman with a never-changing facial expression. The social divide at the heart of the wealthier classes‘ permanent fear – a central topic of much of contemporary Argentinian cinema – is hinted at but never really enters the picture despite both worlds being shown in exemplary ways. They and the issues at hand remain a backdrop – Cecilia’Äs fear, however, is a completely private one as is her guilt. Which pretty much kills any attempt at a story. Instead, the film drags on in ever more repetitions of the same, just a woman paralyzed by her self-induced fear, again and again and again. The conclusion is lazy and clichéd and involves a cheesy rollercoaster metaphor at the end of a film which isn’t a rollercoaster ride at all but more of a treadmill set at the slowest possible pace.

Welcome to Chechnya (Panorama Documents / United States / Director: David France)

In 2017, Chechen authorities began a systematic persecution of LGBTIQ+ people. They were arrested, abducted, tortured, murdered, a practice that has been going on till today and has spread to neighbouring countries. In Welcome to Chechnya, American film maker David France follows a group of activists trying to rescue those under threat, getting them via Russia to safe places around the wrld. We see Olga and David and some of the refugees (they’re faces digitally altered) in shelters, in cars, in safe houses. Fleeing, waiting, fearing for their and their families‘ lives. Interspersed are short video snippets, original footage from anti-queer violence. It doesn’t even need them. The stories told, the fear and that panic in these faces, the increasingly frantic pace at which the film follows the missions and ultimately some failures, the quiet devastation they cause in the activists, are enough. Built almost like a thriller, the tension rises, nerves are strained, people are beginning to fall apart. The camera is kind but unrelenting. What goes on must be told, the disappeared need faces – as in the memorable moment and Maxim Lapunov’s (the first to go to court over the persection) real face is finally revealed while his partner’s remains altered. This more than anything signifies the existential threat being perceived as different poses – not just in Chechnya but all around the world. A threat this film doesn’t just talk about but makes the viewer feel with every fibre. A must-see and a call to action.

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