The question is older than cinema itself: where does acting end and real life take over? At this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, audiences were confronted with llya Krzhanovskiy’s DAU, a grand-scale and ethically thorny project screening as a two-hour film, DAU. Natasha, and a six-hour film, DAU. Degeneration. Outrage coalesced around rumours — fuelled by marketing mystique, and a film perhaps too convincingly immersive for its own good — that everything in the film had really happened to the actors themselves, even rape, living trapped on a Truman Show-like set.
DAU’s production conditions reached the level of popular myth, tipping into notoriety, long before the project was ever shown to the public. Originally conceived of as a conventionally packaged biopic of Lev Landau, a Nobel-winning Soviet physicist and proponent of free love, DAU soon spiralled into an artistic and anthropological experiment of mind-boggling ambition.
In 2009, an entire Soviet-style research facility was built in Kharkiv, Ukraine and a cast of non-professional actors started living, working, and theorising on the set in strict period detail, under the eye of an oppressive security apparatus. At the same time, footage began to be shot over the course of two years; the editing process of 700 hours of film stretched on for even longer. So long, in fact, that DAU fatigue soon set in for journalists and movie critics. I myself doubted anything of substance would emerge from the endless artistic process.
The idea of the volatile genius whose whims must be indulged to create a masterpiece has worn thin in the 21st century, and it was no surprise that DAU’s methods came under great scrutiny at the Berlinale — even among journalists who had not watched the film. ln an era in which safety on set has become a key focus of an industry reckoning in the wake of #MeToo, here was a project whose very premise rested on recreating an air of totalitarian dread in an immersive and isolated environment. A scarcity of information of what happened on set, amid limited access and non-disclosure agreements, has added to speculation of abuses of power which crossed the line into reality. Khrzhanovskiy was distrustful of the media after a 2011 GQ article which described a sexualised working milieu where the cast was referred to in a derogatory manner, and quoted anonymous friends on unsavoury details of his private life. Other allegations from former crew members also appeared. Afterwards, the director refused to grant interviews for several years.
At the Berlinale, he was talking to the press again, but was forced to defend the scene that had caused the most scandal. In it, the eponymous canteen worker of DAU. Natasha (played by Natasha Berezhnaya) is commanded to penetrate herself with a bottle during an interrogation by the Soviet secret police. She has slept with foreign biochemist Luc Bigé, and the security agency wants her to denounce him. The scene is chillingly realistic, not least because her interrogator, Vladimir Azhippo, is actually a former KGB officer. During the screening of DAU. Degeneration I attended, somebody had stuck signs up in the women’s toilets labelling Khrzhanovskiy “satanistic” (sic) and denouncing the festival’s inclusion of DAU. Natasha as legitimising rape.
Khrzhanovskiy and co-director Jekaterina Oertel, who was also make-up artist on the shoot, were adamant that Natasha had been briefed about the upcoming scene, could opt out at any time, and that the act had been simulated, although such attestations are perhaps to be expected.
In a press conference, Berezhnaya and her co-star Olga Shkabarnya confirmed their free choice and consent in all of the scenes. This does not render void the problematic ethics surrounding the pressure of expectation upon Berezhnaya, a former blue-collar worker from Kharkiv with no previous acting experience, or the potential trauma she may have suffered carrying out the scene or going through this wider experience. The reassurances she gave were in her official capacity, representing the film in a high pressure, public environment. But it is also patronising to merely disregard her own assertions and her right to define her own experience, as if a film critic from Berlin, Moscow or London knows better what she went through.
It is also patronising to merely disregard [an actress’] own assertions, or the right to define her own experience, as if a film critic from Berlin, Moscow, or London knows better what she went through
It is unsurprising that these scenes are traumatic for many people. It testifies to the ambiguous, manipulative realism of DAU that scenes like this hit so hard. A preceding explicit sex scene, unsimulated, between Natasha and Luc was not unduly eroticised but seemed intended, rather, to deepen our sense of genuine reality — as well as the illusion that the actors were free to spontaneously do anything they wanted. It’s only with the very end of the longer film being shown at the Berlinale, DAU. Degeneration, when the fake institute is razed and its inhabitants massacred, that the sight of the dead bodies takes us back to the realisation: this is a film, and while the emotions elicited within the actors may have been very real, the extreme danger to bodily integrity in the form of physical violence was staged.
Outrage over the ethical minefield the production raised has so dominated the press, it has completely overshadowed the question of whether the films are any good, and what they are actually trying to do. To the first, I can say an unequivocal yes. The core frenemy relationship between cafe head Natasha (Berezhnaya) and her young protege Olga (Shkabarnya) in DAU. Natasha is engrossing to watch, shifting fluidly between camaraderie and bitter sparring in a witty dance of toughness and vulnerability (and one sodden in alcohol, a common tool of Soviet escapism.) As much cult of personality as may be attributed to Khrzhanovskiy, his influence is effaced from inside the frame, and it is the sheer multi-layered force of the participants that infuses the film with its nuance, vividness, and depth. The jury, stating they were split over its immersive ethics, awarded DAU’s cinematographer Jürgen Jürges a deserved Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution.
DAU. Natasha is remarkable, but it is the very different DAU. Degeneration (co-directed with conceptual artist Ilya Permyakov) that offers the real meat and scope of the project. Conceived as a distilled, free flow of ideologies, we witness the mood of the institute shift from partying dissolution to something darker. Teetotal neo-Nazis are brought into the community as an “experimental group” under the command of Azhippo, who has taken over as institute director, and nationalism slowly eclipses communism.
The film’s approach is one that we might call “extreme inclusion”. The ringleader of the film’s neo-Nazi gang is played by real-life Russian white supremacist
Sex is peripheral to a film that is utterly teeming with ideas and gripping exchanges. Marina Abramovic’s assistant conducts an experiment in behavioural psychology on the neo-Nazi subjects, which requires them to slowly tear giant sheets of paper. American neuroscientist and psychopath expert James Fallon discusses interrogator mentality with Azhippo; a string theorist who believes in multiple planes of reality struggles internally with loving more than one woman; a girl imitates the movements of a monkey in a cage to create an image of an earlier stage of development… and on, and on. Amid gathering oppression, warmth abounds: a cook, often plastered on the job, claims responsibility without hesitation after his group is apprehended by officials after playing a game of strip dominoes, showing integrity lies dormant in unobvious places.
It is also where other ethical boundaries have been pushed or even crossed, although the film has not been placed under as much scrutiny as Dau. Natasha. Its approach is one that we might call “extreme inclusion” — the very opposite, we could say, of cancel culture. The ringleader of the film’s neo-Nazi gang is played by real-life Russian white supremacist Maxim Martsinkevich, who is very much known for carrying out hate crimes online. Ultimately, he and his cronies are unglorified, the barren, creative paucity of their mindsets a black hole in a setting in which real theories are being worked on by world-class thinkers (the cast, as well as shaman and religious leaders, also included top physicists).
However, it’s troubling that, for the sake of the project, Maxim is able to eat, sleep, chat, have sex even, as a member, art-maker, and destroyer of the parallel society. But, as with life, no honest assessment of what ails a world can be made without looking in the eye what threatens its flourishing. The method of enlisting participants to play characters very close to themselves, their biographies simply shifted back decades, to bring the right “energy” may sound like a pompous excuse for empty provocation were it not for the fact that it works. In an inspired move, the last word is given to a real Talmudic rabbi, Adin Steinsaltz, who uses his role as narrator to place it all in the context of a wider spiritual reckoning (it’s worth noting that Krzhanovskiy is himself Jewish.) Earlier, this rabbi had explained to scientists why communism is a religion. Perhaps DAU is, too. But more likely, it’s a mirror onto society itself.