February 26, 2020
As part of a colossal art project, Ilya Khrzhanovsky has made an intimately eerie examination of the banality of evil
DAU. Natasha review – an exquisitely sinister study of Soviet oppression
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 it 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.
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