Earlier this year at the Berlin film festival, I saw the brutal and bizarre DAU. Natasha. It is one of 14 feature films that have come out of the extraordinary multimedia DAU project devised by Russian film-maker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who over the past decade has built a detailed full-scale replica of the Moscow building housing the real-life Institute of Physical Problems, an experimental psychology unit presided over in the 60s by the free-thinking Soviet scientist Lev Landau (nicknamed “Dau”), and filled it with actors improvising the imagined lives of its scientist researchers on a 24/7 basis. He recorded the results in films, video art and photo collections.
DAU. Natasha, about the unhappy life of the institute’s fictional canteen manager, was shocking enough. Khrzhanovsky takes it to the next level with DAU. Degeneration, the 13th film in the series, co-directed with Ilya Permyakov – a grisly satirical ordeal about Soviet fascist-totalitarianism, taking place in the institute’s gloomy corridors, shabby meeting rooms, sinister experimental labs and occasionally the giant courtyard outside. It’s a monumental arthouse freakout weighing in at a mind-boggling six hours. Even now, I’m still not sure how to take it. Khrzhanovsky may come to be seen as the post-Soviet Alejandro Jodorowsky in his sheer ambition, or something like the Pasolini of Salò, Or the 120 Days of Sodom. And he resembles Charlie Kaufman’s imaginary mad genius Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who attempted a similar folie de grandeur in the film Synecdoche, New York.
DAU. Denegeration has the director’s now familiar mannerisms of deadpan extended improv dialogue, combined with a gonzo porn aesthetic, non-professionals being put through the wringer and a certain snuff-horror nausea, featuring a truly upsetting pig-slaughtering scene that is all too real. And the scenes of people being menaced, bullied, shocked – they look very real, too. The people playing the nasty people don’t look they’re pretending to be nasty. It is commonplace to say that some films are scary and mad. But this really is scary and mad.
The idea is that Denegeration takes place 10 years on from Natasha. It’s 1968, the time of the Prague spring, when the Soviet leadership is defensive and embattled. The overall chief of the institute, Lev Landau, is ill and all but comatose, following what appears to have been a stroke. (In real life, he was incapacitated following a car crash.) Olga (Olga Shkabarnya) – Natasha’s assistant in the first film – has risen to the status of administrator with a pair of stern glasses, while Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), the horrifying state-security interrogator from Natasha, has been given the job of institute director, and instantly makes it his business to clamp down on the louche goings-on: the drinking and the sex.
His predecessor was in the habit of harassing and sexually assaulting his secretaries (Azhippo’s disapproval of this is one thing of which we might approve, though this audience response is an outlier) and some younger students are infatuated with dancing to western-style pop records. Azhippo gathers a loyal cadre of the more uptight students around him and tells them to threaten and upset everyone else – which they do, instantly revealing themselves to be fascist thugs: racist, antisemitic and homophobic. And all the time, the strange experiments continue, on chimps, pigs and babies.
DAU. Degeneration is at one level a ferocious vision of Soviet communism as one big psychological experiment gone wrong, and this merges with new-style nationalism. It isn’t a stretch to see the hideous Azhippo as a Vladimir Putin-alike. But how is the satire working, exactly? From all the reports, Khrzhanovsky used real-life neo-Nazis to play the thugs, though – and this has to be said – they look ugly and stupid and fatuous.
My larger reservation (apart from a general glassy-eyed shock at the proceedings) is that DAU. Degeneration is not in essence telling us anything that wasn’t in DAU. Natasha, and takes three-and-half more hours to do it. But it is difficult to forget the scene where little schoolkids visit the institute to sing a bizarre song in praise of “science”, and then this song is repeated as a grotesque nationalist anthem. There’s something to be said for cinema as a disruptor.
• DAU Degeneration is available on DAU Cinema.
•This article was amended on 3 May 2020 to include the name of the film’s co-director Ilya Permyakov.
Source: The Guardian