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.