On its own terms, DAU. Natasha is a brutally queasy and stark picture of the life of a fictional woman who works in the staff canteen of a Stalin-era scientific research institute in Moscow, headed by theoretical physicist Lev Landau (nicknamed “Dau”). It shows us her quarrelsome relationship with her younger assistant Olga, who waits on tables while Natasha serves at the till. Eventually, the film gives us a look inside Room 101, with all its terror and squalor.
However, the film cannot simply be judged on its own terms, but as part of a gigantic (but mostly unseen and perhaps unseeable) whole: a colossal multimedia art installation project 15 years in the making that has become legend. Not least, this is because of its weird similarity to the folie de grandeur envisaged by the fictional theatre director in Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, who proposed an entire city block full of actors improvising “real” lives on a 24/7 basis for months and years until the director thinks the resulting dramas are ready to be shown to an audience. This film originated as a conventional biopic of Landau begun in 2006, but which director Ilya Khrzhanovsky repurposed by taking the part-replica of the Moscow institute, built already in Ukraine for location shooting purposes, and then finishing every room inside as an absolutely accurate clone of the research institute. It was filled with hundreds of actors who lived and “worked” in an ongoing improvisation there for months, cut off from the internet and the outside world, before shooting could begin, showing the many stories generated within this artificial universe. So far, 13 films have emerged from the Dau project, 12 of which were shown last year at an immersive Dau exhibition in Paris. This is the first of the Dau franchise to be shown in conventional theatrical terms.
Natalia Berezhnaya plays Natasha, who serves impassively wearing the black uniform and mob cap that might remind you of someone working at a British railway station in the Brief Encounter era. When the customers have all gone home, she gossips and bickers tensely with young Olga (Olga Shkabaryna), who is too lazy to help clean up and mocks Natasha for a life wasted in the affair she has been having with a married man. (Ambiguously, both women appear to have had sexual episodes with the institute’s director.) One evening, Natasha and Olga get roaring drunk with all the scientists and apparatchiks who have come in to celebrate a sinister experiment in radiation conducted by Luc (Luc Bigé), who goes to bed with Natasha. And then, with a sickening inevitability, Natasha is pulled in for questioning by the security services, in the form of hatchet-faced officer Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo).
What DAU. Natasha shows is the bizarre way that, in totalitarian societies, the normal and the abnormal, the banal and the grotesque, and the human and the inhuman live together side by side. Again, the Orwellian word “doublethink” occurred to me while watching this, along of course with the fabled room of horror. While Olga and Natasha are doing their dull jobs in the cafe, Luc and his colleagues are doing bizarre, occult radiation experiments nearby with naked men in a triangular based pyramid. And after the resulting celebratory bacchanal, Natasha is careful to maintain a kind of devil-may-care good humour, but Berezhnaya devastatingly shows us her solitary, hungover descent into despair and depression, which was always there under the surface. Then, as if to mock her (and our) conviction that things could hardly get worse, she is told to report for questioning in an interrogation cell.
The conversation with Azhippo that precedes this, and which intermittently continues throughout, is terrifyingly ambiguous. Partly it is a kind of misogynist exercise in punishment: Natasha’s presumption in having an escapade with a visiting and prestigious foreign official must be viciously corrected. But perhaps it is more that she is to be recruited into spying on Luc and his international comrades – and this exercise in fear, this boot grinding into Natasha’s face, is a way of frightening her into line. Azhippo repeatedly asks if he and Natasha are going to be “friends”, and it isn’t simply sadism. They might need a cordial working relationship: she and Azhippo coexist in a grisly Stockholm syndrome, like the one that unites the people and the Stalinist state. It is a strange high-functioning kind of despair. An eerie, intimately disturbing film.
• DAU. Natasha is available on dau.com from 24 April.
Source: The Guardian