BERLIN — Well over a decade after filming started, and a year after its chaotic rollout as an immersive installation in Paris, “DAU” has finally made it here to Berlin, the city where it was supposed to first be seen.
The Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s unwieldy biopic of the Soviet scientist Lev Landau has found its way into the 70th Berlin Film Festival, not as a single project but as two feature films screening through Sunday. “Natasha” and “Degeneratsia” (“Degeneration”) have a combined running time of eight and a half hours. But that represents only a sliver of the 700 hours of footage shot for the project.
“DAU” grew out of a multiyear experiment in which hundreds of nonprofessional actors lived and worked in a replica of a Soviet research institute, what may be the most ambitiously immersive film set ever made, in Ukraine. People played versions of themselves, transposed to lifestyles and careers of the Soviet Union. Artists, scientists and religious leaders visited the set, becoming part of the production and even holding lectures and workshops.
Inside the 42,000-square-foot institute, an army of vigilant set and costume designers, as well as makeup artists, helped to ensure that the world of “DAU” looked and felt convincingly like the Soviet Union from 1938-68. It was an undertaking whose eccentricity and grandeur bordered on folly: a social experiment disguised as an art project, or perhaps the other way around.
There were no scripts, rehearsals or reshoots. Khrzhanovsky claims that not a single line of dialogue was written; the German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges compared the process to making a documentary. Aside from the two titles at the Berlinale, there are 11 planned features on the way, which Khrzhanovsky hopes to roll out at festivals, in cinemas and on a dedicated digital platform in the future.
Carlo Chatrian, the Berlinale’s artistic director, said in an interview that he had watched about 50 hours of the “DAU” footage before selecting “Natasha” — which has a relatively modest running time and straightforward narrative — for the main competition. He programmed “Degeneratsia,” which screens in the noncompetitive Berlinale Special section, because he wanted to give audiences here a taste of what was in Paris.
“After watching the film, you understand it’s so strong because it’s so immersive,” Chatrian said.
Powerful, gripping and uncompromising, both films rank among the festival’s best. They’re also so different from each other that it hardly makes sense to think of them as companion pieces.
“Natasha,” one of 18 films in competition, has become the scandal of the festival for its graphic scenes of sex and sexualized torture. Considering the monstrous ambitions and immense scale of “DAU,” the film is an unexpected introduction to the project. As co-directed by Jekaterina Oertel, it is an intimate chamber drama that follows a handful of characters over the course of a few days.
The film centers on a middle-aged canteen waitress at the institute in the early 1950s, played by Natalia Berezhnaya, who seems a shoo-in for the festival’s Silver Bear for best actress. After a drunken affair with a visiting French scientist, she is promptly hauled in by the security services for interrogation.
The film has faced a hostile backlash over allegations that the nonprofessional actors were coerced and mistreated on set, and subjected to both psychological and physical torture. Chatrian defended his decision to program the film in the absence of proper legal challenges against it.
One moment in particular has gained notoriety: “the bottle scene.” Here Natasha’s tormentor, played by Vladimir Azhippo, a real-life former K.G.B. officer who died in 2017, forces Natasha to insert an empty cognac bottle into her vagina. The director has maintained that the action is simulated, unlike the inebriated sex between Natasha and the French scientist earlier. In Berlin, the film has won both praise and condemnation. In Russia, where none of the “DAU” films have yet been shown, “Natasha” has recently been banned as “propaganda for pornography.”
At a staggering six hours, “Degeneratsia,” which has its world premiere on Friday, is a completely different beast. It is on a far grander scale than “Natasha,” although it still gives little sense of the breathtaking complexity and scale of “DAU.”
In “Degeneratsia,” set 15 years after the events in “Natasha,” a K.G.B. general named Azhippo takes over as director of the institute. He brings in a group of right-wing youths, led by Maxim Martsinkevich, a real-life neo-Nazi known as Tesak who is currently serving a decade-long sentence at a prison in Moscow. Growing weary of the institute, where alcohol and sex seem to have become more important than research, Azhippo enlists the far-right extremists to keep the institute’s staff in line. Eventually, he directs them to raze the place.
With a larger cast of principal characters who cover far more of the institute grounds, “Degeneratsia” gives a much greater sense of the relationships and dynamics that developed over the three years of filming “DAU.” Co-directed by Ilya Permyakov, it is fluid, furious and, despite its 355-minute running time, constantly absorbing.
Like “Natasha,” it has its share of wrenching images, including cutaway shots of babies in cages who are hooked up to electrodes. The most excruciating scene is a lengthy segment in which Martsinkevich slaughters, decapitates, guts and dismembers a pig on a living room carpet, a sacrifice that brought the “smell of death” on set, Khrzhanovsky said. Shortly after, Martsinkevich’s gang murders everyone at the institute in a brief yet bloody denouement.
As excellent as “Natasha” is, this is the “DAU” film that should have been shown in competition. A more courageous curator would have programmed it.
The party for “Natasha” was held at a fashionable club along the Spree River, with borscht, herring, vodka, Russian champagne and Armenian brandy. Khrzhanovsky glided about, speaking with luminaries including the director Tom Tykwer and the author Jonathan Littell.
In a candid interview over several whiskeys, Khrzhanovsky spoke about his artistic vision, his working methods and the controversies surrounding “DAU.” He defended his practice of asking personal and “existential” questions during casting calls — nearly 400,000 people auditioned for the project — and of guiding his nonactors to emotionally dangerous ground in the service of verisimilitude and uncompromising honesty.
Referring to the two films screening here as “a particle” of the full project, Khrzhanovsky said that both “Natasha” and “Degeneratsia” were good fits for Berlin. “One film is about ordinary life under a totalitarian system,” he explained. “And the other is about right-wing extremists getting into power.” He added that the project related not specifically to Russia or Ukraine, but more broadly to the “general sickness of amnesia” in Europe.
Khrzhanovsky defended the more unusual details of the shoot, denying the numerous charges of onset maltreatment and abuse from people involved in “DAU” that have appeared — mostly anonymously — in news reports. Yes, he had created a controlled environment in which nonactors were driven to extremes. And yes, the production has been handsomely bankrolled by the Russian telecom oligarch Sergey Adonyev. (The film’s budget has not been disclosed. Khrzhanovsky said it was significant for a foreign art house film but small by Hollywood standards. A Russian TV report from last year put it at $70 million.)
The director and his team have been less forthcoming in the past, often giving vague or seemingly contradictory answers in interviews and public appearances. It’s difficult to tell whether this caginess — for instance, about how much of a script or outline ever existed — is fuel for the film’s mystique, or simply the result of linguistic shortcomings.
A public panel discussion Thursday became heated when Khrzhanovsky dismissed a psychologist who said that, having seen “Natasha,” she felt that he had traumatized his performers. When someone called the film manipulative, he shot back: “If you feel manipulated, it’s about you, not about me.” Someone else asked Khrzhanovsky if he considered himself a psychopath.
“Life is a dangerous field,” he said during an interview. “It’s very fragile. It’s a dangerous game, for sure.” He denied that anyone was mistreated or abused on set and spoke about his “responsibility to the real people who dedicated years of their life for ‘DAU.’” The outrage about the film is misdirected, he feels, and a result of people not willing to confront the dark side of life and human nature.
Compared with what happens in everyday life, he said, “DAU” is nothing. Then, with a wry smile, he added, “It’s a kindergarten.”