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Ilya Khrzhanovskiy Jekaterina Oertel Dau.Natasha Review

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DAU. Natasha | 2020 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

DAU. Natasha | 2020 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

The Russia House: Khrzhanovskiy & Oertel Arrive from Russia with Love

Ilya Khrzhanovskiy Jekaterina Oertel Dau.Natasha ReviewAs far as the cinematic form has been concerned, there’s been nothing which courts the now mythic production of the project known as Dau, what was supposedly conceived as a biopic about Nobel-prize winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau from director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy. What began as the director’s sophomore film project began prepping in 2006, with its production commencing from 2008…and didn’t complete principal photography for three years. The brief but provocative snippets of muted information revealed Khrzhanovskiy had built a contained cityscape, wherein cast and crew lived as members of The Institute, a secret Soviet facility in operation from 1938 to 1968. The completion of production ended with a fiery destruction of the set in 2011 with over seven-hundred hours of footage. In 2019, the project at last saw its first unveiling in Paris as an immersive installation which included a dozen standalone feature length films. And now, Khrzhanovskiy, joined by Jekaterina Oertel (who worked as make-up and hair designer on the actual production and director of the editing process) have presented the first stand-alone chapter, Dau. Natasha.

Culled from footage from over a decade old, which lends another timeless dimension to this fascinating undertaking, the focus is on the titular parenthetical, an unhappily employed canteen worker in the secretive Institute. Although many who may stumble onto this equivocal standalone feature without knowledge of its agonizing and mysterious origins (which only adds to its exoticism), such research isn’t exactly necessary to appreciate a stunning foreplay of despairing hilarity before switching into a nauseating nightmare of the totalitarian terrors behind the Iron Curtain.

In the hopping canteen of a secret Soviet research institute, Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) and her younger subservient Olga (Olga Shkabarnya) serve the other members of their contained community, which includes a horde of scientists and physicists. However, the two women, who have been assigned their roles, seem to only find fulfillment in nagging one another to violence and heavy drinking. French scientist Luc (Luc Bige) has taken a fancy to Natasha, and one drunken evening, they become lovers, though she doesn’t seem to keen on the idea of their being a repeat scenario thanks to her fascination with his cohort Blinov (Alexei Blinov). But one day, Natasha is called into an interrogation by an officer from the Secret Service, Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), who has a new clandestine assignment for Natasha—one she has no choice but to accept.

Comprised of a handful of lengthy exchanges, which run the gamut from drunken catfights, overwhelming despair, mysterious experiments, unsimulated sex, and psychological torture, to many Dau. Natasha may seem a laborious affair. To be sure, it’s often a grueling experience, especially as it descends into Kafkaesque claustrophobia in its last hour. But it’s also surprisingly, even shockingly vibrant in its careful illustration of Natasha, played with fiery turpitude by Natalia Berezhnaya, a faded blonde waitress confused about her future romantic options as she spars in a love-hate relationship with her assigned co-worker at the canteen, the willowy Olga Shkabarnya. Having had to bid adieu to her married lover Pasha, a relationship which seems to render Natasha unable to ‘love’ another man, her penchant for vodka leads to a series of crises she can’t seem to avert. A sexual rendezvous with the French physicist Luc (which is funnier and more humanly touching than all the mention of its graphic sex might have one believe) only leads her to vocalize a preferred attraction to his colleague, who appears to be a brute compared to the gentle Frenchman. Her complex relationship with Olga seems to be born out of a necessity to flex what little authority she has while simultaneously depend on the younger woman for female camaraderie. Their drunken caterwauling, cussing, and hair-pulling might be one of the most stirring and troubling relationships ever committed to film. It’s with wrenching regret the film veers, as it apparently must, into the dark recesses of totalitarianism during Natasha’s interrogation at the hands of grimy goon who forces her to insert dirty objects into her vagina and humiliate her into subservience. Her chosen codename in this farce of cooperation happens to be ‘Renaissance.’ But it seems the world is in the swing of the wrong type of revival.

Of the several cinematographers who had a hand in creating Dau, this segment was lensed by DP Jurgen Jurges (of another seminal torture porn art-house affair, Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games), and his Natasha segment is dictated by the repressive, muted interiors of the Institute canteen, the spare tenement houses for brief, drunken reveries, and the chilling interiors of the interrogation chambers. If it’s first half seems an over-the-top stereotype of vodka swilling Russians, by the final frames, it all seems to make sense. And Natasha’s nonsensical, drunken internal monologues all the more desperate and startlingly human.

Far from the miserabilism which marks many of Russia’s most beloved cinematic offerings, Dau. Natasha hums with an otherworldly vibration, where love, hope, terror and cognac intermingle into a sickly, toxic mixer. As we return to Natasha’s routine, and the necessity of mopping the floors, one can only hope hers is the pinhole into the corrosive universe still awaiting to be unveiled of the monstrously beautiful Dau. In the words of Boney M.’s classic disco hit Rasputin, “Oh, those Russians.”

Reviewed on February 26th at the Berlin International Film Festival – In Competition. 145 Mins.

★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

 

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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