DAU: What′s behind the ′most ambitious film project of all time′? | Film | DW | 27.02.2020
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DAU: What's behind the 'most ambitious film project of all time'?

Blacklisted as "pornographic propaganda" in Russia, the epic film project also triggered headlines for its allegedly abusive production context. Here's what emerges from the "DAU. Natasha" premiere at the Berlinale.

The films from the controversial "DAU" series are featured at the Berlin International Film Festival: competition entry DAU. Natasha, which premiered on Wednesday, and DAU. Degeneration, to be screened on Friday.

Even before the screening, critics have questioned the festival organizers' decision to promote, three years after the launch of the #MeToo movement, the works of Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, accused of creating an oppressive work environment for women with his ambitious project.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky

Ilya Khrzhanovsky co-directed the epic film project with Jekaterina Oertel

After an alternate version of the film was shown in February 2019 at an immersive multimedia exhibition in Paris, the most controversial scene of DAU. Natasha was already revealed before the Berlin premiere: Interrogated and tortured by a KGB officer, a woman called Natasha is forced to perform sexual acts with a bottle.

Actress Natalia (Natasha) Berezhnaya described the creation of such scenes as "going with the flow."

"We were in charge of our own senses and emotions. We were well aware of what we were doing," she said at a press conference ahead of the premiere in Berlin. "Of course, we were a bit scared."

Read more: Berlin blocks controversial Wall project

An 'insane' production

The production is already legendary for its extremely unusual concept: In 2009, filmmaker Khrzhanovsky recreated a closed Stalinist society in Kharkov, a city of 1.4 million in eastern Ukraine. Participants such as Natasha interrupted their own lives to spend three years cut off from the outside world, living in the 13,000-square-meter fake city known as "The Institute," where a Soviet-era totalitarian regime was reproduced. 

Natasha Berezhnaya

'We were living our lives': Natasha Berezhnaya at a Berlinale press conference

On the largest film set in European cinema history, participants were to dress and behave according to the strict rules of The Institute, where occult scientific experiments were conducted. The mostly non-professional actors played scientists, intellectuals, security officers, family members and, in the case of Natasha and her co-starring colleague Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), canteen waitresses. 

Dubbed the "Stalinist Truman Show," hundreds of participants were expected to stick to their characters — even if there weren't any cameras around. 

That led the fake community to develop its own surreal dynamics, a bit like the infamous Stanford Prison experiment in which participants who had been assigned the role of prison guards started taking their repressive tasks a bit too seriously.

At the DAU Institute, the participants' roles often reflected their real-life past experiences. For example, the agent torturing Natasha was portrayed by Vladimir Azhippo, a former KGB officer.  

For Khrzhanovsky, those who joined the project were aware of the fact that they could end up in difficult situations: "This is a project about how people consciously decide to go on a journey, a difficult emotional journey that is very honest."

He said he feels the environment he created was more controlled and safer than walking around in a big city like Berlin.

"We didn't work according to a screenplay; we were living our lives," added Berezhnaya, though she later clarified that those who believed that everything they were seeing in the film was true should be reminded that "we have amazing directors and amazing editors, and we are amazing actors."

Berlinale 2020 Wettbewerb Filmstill | DAU. Natasha

Natasha: Depressed about the state of her life — even before things get worse

"This project was about the whole team working together — with lighting, equipment, sound, the whole crew — we all had to maintain its atmosphere. We were all a part of it," added Khrzhanovsky at the press conference on Wednesday.

The next day, during a talk part of the Berlinale Talents program, it became more obvious that not all members of the crew shared that impression of unity.

Khrzhanovsky spent the entire talk offering evasive answers to the host's and audience's questions. For example, when asked, "Was there a a psychologist on set to allow the actors to process traumatic experiences?" he answered: "The question is, what is really a psychologist..." pointing out that certain people naturally took on the role of confidants, such as costume designer and make-up artist Jekaterina Oertel, who later obtained a co-director credit for DAU. Natasha, as she developed its story by editing the footage.

Towards the end of the discussion, one woman from the crowd stood up and directly told him, "The way you are playing with us and avoiding our questions, I must say, I feel manipulated — and this reveals more about your creative process than the film itself."

Another man from the audience then said he had actually been part of the project, as first assistant second camera team. Matthias Ganghofer testified that even without playing a central role in the production, he experienced this feeling of manipulation and humiliation first-hand; as punishment for having used his cell phone in the instute, his name was marked on a blackboard. He said that he left the project after three months. The filmmaker claimed he had rather been fired. "I fired a huge amount of people," concluded Khrzhanovsky.

On the red carpet: Natalia Berezhnaya, co-director Jekaterina Oertel, Olga Shkabarnya and Ilya Khrzhanovsky

On the red carpet, from left to right: Natalia Berezhnaya, co-director Jekaterina Oertel, Olga Shkabarnya and Ilya Khrzhanovsky

Forbidden as 'pornographic propaganda' in Russia

During the three years of the Dau Institute, legendary German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges shot 700 hours of material, filmed over 180 days. From that footage, 13 films have already been made.

Khrzhanovsky said the different films will all be collected on the website dau.com before the end of the year.

Olga Shkabarnya

Olga Shkabarnya also played a canteen waitress

But for now, many of the films have been labeled by Russia's Ministry of Culture as "pornographic propaganda," which according to Khrzhanovsky, is worse than the simple pornography category. "Pornographic propaganda means that if I enter the country with a DVD of the film, I can be arrested," the director told the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

He is now filing a lawsuit against the listing.

"So the fairest court of all times will make its decision," he ironically added at the press conference, referring to the Russian justice system.

Too disturbing for mainstream audiences

From its megalomaniac scale to its pornographic and oppressive scenes, from Russian censorship to the backstory of the main investor in the project, Russian oligarch Sergei Adoniev — the project definitely has many headline-grabbing aspects.

Yet despite all the free publicity, the resulting films predictably won't become mainstream hits.

With its slow-paced, realist acting, impressive cinema-vérité cinematography and minimalist storyline, DAU. Natasha will please arthouse cinephiles. But even at the press screening of the film, many culture journalists walked out — way before the aforementioned torture scene.

Revealing very little of the ambitious scale of the project, the depressing portrayal of Natasha's life shows her getting drunk and quarreling with her canteen colleague Olga every night after work, or enjoying a long sex scene with French scientist Luc. That apparently wasn't compelling enough — or too disturbing — for the many viewers who refused to stay until the end of the film.

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