KinoKultura: Issue 68 (2020)

The Russians in Berlin: Dens, Pits and Dumps

By Birgit Beumers

The fact that this year’s Berlinale went ahead as planned from 20 February until 1 March 2020 has to be seen as some kind of feat: the ITB Tourist Fair scheduled to start in Berlin on 4 March was called off due to fears over Covid-19, and it appears that we may have to wait a little while for the next major film festival to take off in 2020.

So even the more important is the Berlinale, in its 70th anniversary edition and with a new team at the top, Carlo Chatrain and Marianne Riessenberg. It was for the first time also that the festival relaxed the rules and included in its competition films from Sundance, as well as films that had been shown in a different format before, making way for a number of new entries, including in the first category Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize; and in the second, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU. Natasha, for which Jürgen Jürges won the Silver Bear for Best Cinematography.

In contrast to previous years, there was a quite bit of Russian fare in the official selection: besides Khrzhanovsky’s DAU. Natasha in Competition, his DAU. Degeneration screened in the Berlinale Special; Andrei Griazev’s documentary Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) was shown in the section Panorama Documentary; Mariia Ignatenko’s debut film In Deep Sleep (Gorod usnul)was presented as part of the Forum; and Vadim Perelman’s Russian-German-Belarusian co-production Persian Lessons screened in the Berlinale Specials Gala. And, taken together, they form what one might call an alternative programme to Russia’s state-sponsored mainstream.

Persian Lessons (Uroki Farsi) comes from Kiev-born American-Canadian director Vadim Perelman and is almost unexpected, following a number of television serials, such as Ash (Pepel, 2013) for Channel Rossiya and Betrayals (Izmeny, 2015) for TNT. This film rather returns Perelman to his early work in the US with the adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s bestseller House of Sand and Fog (2003). With Persian Lessons, Perelman found a rich source, even though not in a novelistic form but a story by scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. Set in occupied France in 1942, the film follows Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a young Belgian man, who is arrested by the SS alongside other Jews and sent to a concentration camp. There, the group is taken into the forest for execution, but Gilles manages to save his life by claiming—with the help of a book that his neighbour gave him and that is written in Farsi––that he is not Jewish, but Persian. However, what he cannot know: the commanding officer in charge of catering, Koch (Lars Eidinger), wants to learn Farsi, allegedly to join his brother who has long left for Tehran and runs a restaurant there; or at least so Koch believes. Gilles has to invent a language, word by word, fearing every day to be discovered; he does so by drawing on the names of Jews sent for execution, which he takes from lists that he has to copy—a task assigned by Koch to him as a privilege over kitchen chores. In this way, Gilles will remember after the war the names of those who perished and serve as a key witness to the Holocaust. The amazing duet between Eidinger and Biscayart (the latter played a lead role in Robin Campillo’s 2017 BPM) makes this film not only visually and structurally impressive, but draws out (almost too much into length) the fine balancing act between Koch’s suspicion and trust, and Gilles’ being both on guard and a close friend.

gorod usnulIn the Forum, Ignatenko’s In Deep Sleep was a most intriguing contribution. With its blurred story-line and patchy plot development it clearly bears the handwriting of the Moscow New School of Cinema and its director, Dmitrii Mamulia, whose own Criminal Man (Prestupnyi chelovek, 2019) screened in the Venice Orrizonti section and was co-scripted by Ignatenko. And Criminal Man bears the same characteristic feature of a disorienting plot line. In Deep Sleep traces the events that preceded (but not necessarily led to) the sailor Victor’s trial for alleged murder. Victor apparently killed one of his colleagues, a mechanic on the ship where he worked. The film seems to follow Victor’s mental reconstruction (with digressive associative excursions) of the events, veering between the real and a seemingly dead and frozen world, a sensation that may have been triggered by the death of Victor’s girlfriend. Or maybe this just seems to be a dead world to someone suffering loss, and people are just asleep, the city is in ‘deep sleep’?

kotlovanIn the Panorama section, Andrei Griazev’s compilation documentary Foundation Pit attracted significant attention thanks to its use of internet footage, where citizens can express their criticism of the regime in the absence of a free press and censorship in official media. The film offers a stunning montage of addresses from Russian citizens to the President via YouTube, presenting both serious allegations, but also revealing the reliance of the people for almost every aspect of their lives on an authority: for installing a light bulb or building a ramp for disabled access. Russia is itself that big foundation pit, which sucks people into its depth (literally and metaphorically). The spectrum of demands and allegations shows on the one hand the degree of corruption, of a dysfunctional management at all levels, and the reliance, therefore, on the man at the top. No country, especially not one as large as Russia, could manage those challenges, and certainly not with a broken, rotten and corrupt regional and local management. In the artful compilation of mismanagement, suddenly some very serious concerns and charges become absurd and citizens grotesque.

dau1The presentation of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU began with a media outrage. Coinciding with the week when the Weinstein trial began in the US, Khrzhanovsky’s project (already scandalous, for all sorts of reasons from length to cost) triggered a campaign from a Russian feminist website, where five journalists protested with an open letter to Carlo Chatrain for the choice of a film which, according to their statement, “contains scenes of real psychological and physical violence against non-professional actors, as well as unsimulated sex between people under the influence of alcohol” (Kimkibabaduk 2020). At the same time, film critics from outside Russia valued precisely this approach of the unobtrusive lens (the films were shot with a 35mm camera): “What makes the film so powerful is its hyper-reality: the idea that nothing, or very little, we see on screen is being faked” (Macnab 2020), placing the scenes of sex and violence into the overall context of the project and its ambition to show the effect of a totalitarian governance in this microcosm of Stalinist Russia: “Cooped up in the institute, they use alcohol and sex as a way of escape” (Macnab 2020). Indeed, The Independent’s Geoffrey Macnab agrees on the discomfort that the film provokes, but concludes: “Nonetheless, the film has an intensity and formal boldness that puts most of the other titles in competition in Berlin to shame” (Macnab 2020). True, watching DAU is a challenge, whether it is a single film or the entire project, but it is a unique experiment with time and people: what happens if you put contemporary people into a totalitarian regime.

dauDAU. Natasha, selected for the competition programme, is not the first film of the project but bears the number 12. However, Natasha unlocks several themes that run across all the films and covers all social levels of this microcosm—servants, scientists, supervisors and governors. The film also shows in a focussed manner the origin and effect of violence and abuse, verbal and physical. The film has no specific temporal or spatial signifiers: the action could take place anytime, anywhere, under any set of conditions of control.

dauNatasha, directed by Khrzhanovsky along with make-up artist Jekaterina Oertel (and it should be noted that most films are co-directed and edited by a group of co-directors working on the project, including Ilya Permakov, who worked on Degeneration, Aleksei Slesarchuk or Anatolii Vasiliev) starts in the refectory for institute staff. For Soviet times (and this episode would be set in the 1950s or 1960s) there is an abundance of food and drink, served to the scientists by the waitresses Natasha (Berezhnaya) and Olga (Shkabarnaya). After work, the two women sit and smoke together, and get drunk. The power relationship between the senior Natasha and junior Olga is played out magnificently, down to a sadomasochistic streak contained in their play with authority and submissiveness. Olga has so much to drink that she vomits, and their dialogue soon tumbles into a series of vulgarisms that signal the absence of any meaning in the conversation. Their relationship reflects and summarises, or replicates, what happens in the institute at every level, whether between director and employees or between the staff and the secret service controlling this tightly secured institute that is, however, open to foreign visiting scientists. In the science lab, a pyramid experiment with a number of nude males is carried out to trace energy flows. When Natasha and Olga return to their living quarters, the scientists have already been celebrating the success of the experiment and entertaining their foreign guest, the (real-life) biochemist Luc Bigé, with more booze—apparently the only way to avoid facing up to the reality in which they live. Natasha ends up having sex with Bigé (who is so drunk he does not seem to know what’s happening), which means that in the next scene, Natasha is called in for interrogation by the KGB officer Vladimir Azhippo, who accused her of unapproved contact with foreigners. Azhippo tries to make her aware of her mistake, warn her, and recruit her for the secret service. In order achieve this goal, he both threatens and humiliates her, locking her in solitary confinement before treating her to some brandy and delicacies, and then taking her back to the cell where he rapes her with a cognac bottle stuck up her vagina (one remembers involuntarily the infamous rape scene in Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200). Having surrendered to the recruitment, Natasha signs the papers and eventually offers herself to Azhippo as a potential lover: although a victim, she tries to take control back by making herself a permanent victim of power and control.

jurgesWhile Olga Shkabarnya is a former porn actress and model, who has since made a professional career as climbing instructor, Azhippo was a prison guard and presidential adviser on amnesties to the Ukrainian president; he died 2017 in London whilst working on the project. During the course of the project, Shkabarnya met and got married to the scientist Dmitrii Kaledin, who appears in other DAU films. Such details poignantly demonstrate the extent to which real-life experience feeds into the portrayal of characters in the film, and how the experiences have effects on real life. Whatever the circumstances of life in the Institute may have been, the people we see signed up to this project and knew that on certain days they were being filmed by this 35 mm Arricam cameras nicknamed “black angels” (Iurges 2019) that were handled so magnificently by Jürgen Jürges, who captures the slow flow of life with great attention to detail. Yet there is never a sense of voyeurism, of the camera’s intrusion into the personal sphere, or suggesting the participants’ awareness of being filmed.

Also presented in Berlin was DAU. Degeneration (#13), which over two parts and six hours shows the end of the experiment, brought about by Azhippo, now the institute’s self-appointed head, in an attempt to bring order and discipline into the growing debauchery. To this end he calls in the “new people,” a group of right wingers led by the neo-Nazi activist Maksim Martsinkevich (nickname Tesak, currently serving a prison term in Russia), who wipe out all the staff at the institute: on the one hand, the destiny of the Soviet past is its total annihilation; on the other hand, people placed in a social experiment of total control degenerate into alcoholism and debauchery, and make themselves easy victims for destruction.

Ultimately, DAU is a cinematic observation of an experiment that shows the stasis of time: there is no lesson that has been learnt from the past, and people move in the same cycles and circles, commit the same aberrations and abuses, subject to control and power, ultimately highlighting the stasis also of our time, space and forms of governance. As The Guardian’s Steven Rose (2019) aptly writes, this is an “anthropological experiment” and comparable to a “Stalinist Truman Show” or the Stanford prison experiment, only drawn out over time. 

Alas, as I am writing this report we are all caught up in a new experiment of restrictions due to the spread of Covid-19, which might also reveal quite unexpected sides of human life.  

Works Cited
Iurges, Iurgen [Jürgen Jürges]. 2019. “Chernye angely.” Iskusstvo kino 3-4: 50-54

Kimkibabaduk 29.2.2020. Open Letter to Carlo Chatrain.

Macnab, Geoffrey. 2020. “DAU. Natasha. Review, Berlin Film Festival: Top secret project finally unveiled, and with it comes a radical intensity.” The Independent, 26 February.

Rose, Steve. 2019. “Inside Dau, the ‘Stalinist Truman Show’: ‘I had absolute freedom – until the KGB grabbed me’.” The Guardian 26 January.

Images: Press Office Berlinale; Phenomen Films

Birgit Beumers © 2020

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Updated: 2020