There’s a school of critical thought that believes no contextual details or backstory to a film — be they to do with its source material, the circumstances of its production, or its makers’ motivation — should be examined or factored into a review of it, that the final product up on the screen is the only thing that counts. In many cases, that’s correct. It’s an all but impossible approach to take, however, to “DAU. Natasha,” the first theatrical feature to emerge from the mammoth, multidisciplinary DAU art project — equal parts long-term film shoot, performance installation and “Truman Show”-esque anthropological experiment — intended to recreate the experience of everyday life under Stalinist oppression in a vast, fictitious Soviet research institution in the 1950s.
Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel impressively punishing chamber piece is ostensibly self-contained, yet to view it with no knowledge of the DAU project feels tantamount to framing a single square inch of a large-canvas painting. As a sample of endeavor’s uniquely ambitious aims and eccentric execution, “DAU. Natasha” is thoroughly persuasive. A close-up character study of an institutional canteen waitress alternately seduced and abused by the scientists and officers she serves, it’s atmospherically vivid and emotionally agitating, and much of the suffering on screen feels duly lived rather than merely performed: an über-highbrow reality show of mindbogglingly elaborate conception yielding an experience of utterly authentic artifice, or vice versa.
Whether it would feel any less of these things if it were merely a conventionally scripted drama — as opposed to the outcome of two years’ filming on the largest film set in European cinema history, with non-professional actors recruited to effectively live as their characters the entire time — is open to question. The very existence of “DAU. Natasha,” in all its absurd, imposing, cement-heavy glory, is its principal achievement. Its presence in the Competition selection of this year’s Berlinale, moreover, brings the whole bizarre DAU universe into the (highly relative) mainstream: It’s doubtful, however, that many standard theatrical distributors (or streaming platforms) will be willing to spring “DAU. Natasha” on unsuspecting audiences.
Not that you need any advance knowledge of the project to follow its grim, simple setup, painted as it is in gray minimalist strokes. In the aforementioned research facility — what is actually being researched is held in macguffiny shadow — middle-aged, unmarried Natasha (Natasha Berezhnaya) spends her days running the canteen for the company’s boorish, demanding male staff and occasional outside experts, and we watch her tedious regimenof serving, clearing and cleaning with “Jeanne Dielman”-style dedication. Joys in her life are few: Non-working hours are largely spent in the closed canteen, drinking and kvetching with her younger colleague Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), despite the fact that the two women openly despise each other.
Respite comes in the form of visiting French scientist Luc (Luc Bigé), who’s no Valentino but a veritable catch compared to Natasha’s regular customers. He seduces her, sleeps with her and departs, leaving her vulnerable to the suspicious scrutiny of her KGB overlords, who fear she’s involved in some form of espionage. Cue an extended interrogation by unforgiving general Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), which devolves into a wince-inducing bout of nakedly misogynistic humiliation and torture — plainly intended as the film’s central talking point, though more seamily grueling than it is genuinely subversive. As a small-scale enactment of the cruel, debasing effects of totalitarian power, it’s suitably and viscerally pummeling, though not in any specifically pointed political sense: The DAU project is too large-scale an exercise in world-building for this convincingly accomplished extract to accrue its own subtext.
A selection of other, less feature-formatted DAU films were screened last year as part of an immersive gallery experience across multiple Paris venues. “DAU. Natasha” may eventually figure into future such installations, though as a 134-minute feature with a clear, if stark, narrative throughline, it risks falling between two stools: It’s not exactly suited to passing museum-piece scrutiny, though as an individual film, shorn of context and dialogue with its strange artistic mothership, it’s surprising how much less inspires rather less awe and curiosity than the whole.
It plays, for better or worse, as a more conventionally challenging arthouse endurance test, steeped equally in stern Russian formalism and Dogme 95 austerity. On those terms, it’s rather good: well-acted and well-made in its requisitely dour (or should that be DAUr?) way. Jürgen Jürges’ dizzily inquisitive camera pries into the grimiest corners of the whole project’s astonishing production design — built on the premises of an abandoned swimming pool in Kharkiv, Ukraine — and the exhausted visages of the actors alike.
Are they actors or subjects? The ensemble certainly doesn’t want for intense, vanity-free commitment to the cause, particularly market-worker-turned-experiment-volunteer-turned-leading-lady Berezhnaya in the beleaguered title role. She’s wholly in the moment throughout; for two years, working daily at this imagined Cold War canteen, she had no choice but to be. She weathers the physical ordeals she’s put through with enough emotional tuning and intuition to hold at least some concerns about the exploitational nature of the entire enterprise at bay, but not entirely.
Still, the egged-on interrogation scenes linger in the mind less than her roaring, glass-smashing love-hate confrontations with the equally formidable Shkabarnya: The pair paint such an arresting portrait of two women at once beholden to, and screwed by, the system that you want to zoom in closer, to see their whole lives outside of the institute. That, of course, would go very much against the project’s whole brief: It’s some testament to “DAU. Natasha’s” acrid, aggravating power that we end up as desperate as its protagonist to escape the institute.