There comes a scene in Dau. Degeneration, the smorgasbord of a film co- directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Ilya Permyakov, when a pig is painted with anti-semitic and anti-democratic slogans, dragged out of a pigsty to a boarding house, where residents (mostly members of scientific community) are having dinner, and then savagely slaughtered and hacked to bits before them, by a ruthless KGB-agent-in-training, as blood and guts gush out.
The long scene’s visceral shock says much about Dau as a project—an endurance test of sorts, which the Dau directors and cast undertook by secluding themselves for three years to film what, by now, reportedly amounts to 700 hours of footage. The saga is dedicated to the malice of Soviet Russia, but, as one of the actors present at the Berlin Film Festival where the film premiered put it, truly to how Russia never digested its past, and so continues to live it. That past, as painted in Dau, is ruthlessly dehumanizing. Repeatedly bodies are humiliated and assaulted. In the pig scene, it’s not even the gore, or the cold brutality that grips your throat. Instead, the camera fixates on the boarders’ despair. The moment says, “they’ve won,” a grim message indeed for contemporary Russia.
In Berlin, Dau premiered in two parts: the two-hour Dau. Natasha, co-directed by Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel, and the six-hour Dau. Degeneration, as separate films with vastly overlapping cast. The earlier part focuses on an ordinary Soviet woman, who works at a canteen at a top-secret science institute. Natasha unwittingly falls into the hands of the KGB after her one-night stand with a French scientist. It’s not clear why she should be so brutalized; the Frenchman ostensibly aids the Institute. Nevertheless, Natasha ends up in a bare KGB cell, where one Comrade Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo) plays cruel psychological games, beats and strips her, and then has her shove a bottle inside her vagina, simulating sex. It’s a terrorizing scene, all the more so since Natalia Berezhnaya, as Natasha, plays it with an uncanny flatness. Dau's cast consists solely of non-actors, which makes their willingness and ability to go to emotional extremes nothing short of astounding. The way Berezhnaya modulates her performance—her meekly engaging her torturer, despite the predictable ghastly outcome—is spine-chilling. It reminded me how Jafar Panahi once said in This Is Not a Film that he loves working with non-actors because they invent creative tactics that a professional may discard, as undramatic.
“This is not [just] a film” could be a motto for Dau. Natasha and Degeneration. On one hand, it masquerades as a documentary about its actors (Khrzhanovsky alluded to this in a Q & A, saying that at least one on-set romance ended in a real marriage), but on the other, it clearly strives to be much more. It is heavily directed, in the sense that performers are induced to hold nothing back, outdoing each other in simulations of boozing, sexual frivolity, and violence. Degeneration, in which Azhippo takes over the Institute as its director and unleashes his cohort on the hapless, terrorized scientists, builds up to a veritable orgy of violence. Its escalation is foretold by the thugs’ attack on a visiting American gay researcher, with their superiors’ permission. From then on, there is no stopping the vicious juggernaut machine. In the film’s key nihilist twist, Azhippo uses the chief scientist’s prediction that the Institute must dissolve, for its power to metastasize—an obvious nod to Putin’s Russia—as an excuse for slaughter.
At Berlinale, Dau won a prize for cinematography, which is arresting, albeit not strictly beautiful. The picture’s graininess and the camera’s frequent roving, from couple to couple, conflict to conflict in group scenes, has a prying quality that brings to mind Dogme 95. Its deliberate clumsiness—visibly searching for suitable angles, at times crammed into tight spaces and cutting bodies awkwardly—would be distracting, if it weren’t for the sheer fascination with what frightening scenario will unfold next. Certain scenes’ slacker naturalism brings to mind the European theater contemporaries, Ariane Mnouchkine and Krzysztof Warlikowski. In the end, Dau is its own resolute artifice, never dull, always disturbing.
The brutality of Natasha’s interrogation scenes, and others filmed in a similar vein in Degeneration, where women are molested and raped, prompted viewers in Berlin to veer in Q & A’s from considerations of craft to queries of the directors’ putting their female (though not only) cast through a psychological grinder. Such qualms aren’t likely to go away, not helped by the fact that, very much like the fictional Institute, the Dau project is shrouded in secrecy. But I was also reminded that in 1989, when Ryszard Bugajski premiered his fiction film, Interrogation, in Cannes, western critics grumbled that he exaggerated. Based on true events, and also featuring rape scenes, the film exposed a chasm between Eastern and Western Europeans’ understanding of what had happened behind the Iron Curtain.
Dau’s directors want to play it both ways. Natasha denounces the foreigner and signs a cooperation agreement with the KGB, but she has resisted bravely. Some women in Degeneration are also brave, standing up to their aggressors. In many ways, they are the last moral bulwark, as Azhippo unloads his loathing against more powerful men first. And yet, in both parts, women—Natasha, then a secretary, and the waitress Vika (Viktoria Skitskaya)—are besotted with their tormentors, as if their mental facilities, not to mention survival instinct, were severely impaired. Being so enamored of the scenario in which victims fall for their sadistic oppressors smacks of a wholesale homage to Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974).
With so much midnight oil to burn, and with operatically built-out casts, both films build up momentum slowly—two aspects that also lend the project a series-like watchability, with tensions and intrigues brewing, then emerging, in bits and pieces. At first, minor conflicts hint at a greater rot. In Natasha, Natasha and young canteen help, Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), have it out over Olga’s refusal to sweep the floor. The scene transitions from the canteen’s jolly buzz at peak, to the two getting plastered and catty, and then to name-calling, hair-pulling and blows. In its totality, Dau also depicts an almost Victorian split, into the upper echelons of secret service and public employees on one hand, and the slovenly, unruly plebs (cooks, waitresses, canteen servers and cleaners) on the other—a crude division that shows how badly communism failed to create an egalitarian society. Khrzhanovsky and Permyakov up the ante in Degeneration, as Azhippo’s unchecked thugs leash out against gays, Jews, women, Blacks, modern music, abstract art, and eventually, any expression of free will. Azhippo’s own ascent, from a ghoulish capo to arch-villain, signals the extent to which the bright minds serving totalitarian regimes may help tighten their own noose instead.
Ideas, in general, rule Dau. One is that communism was a religion, or at least behaved like one (as perhaps all ideologies do). It required its own suspension of disbelief, magical thinking, and had its rituals, its cult. It’s not exactly novel, but in Dau. Degeneration, Khrzhanovsky and Permyakov take it to such lengths it becomes revelatory. For all its cool scientific veneer, the Institute’s staff indulges in some funky spiritualism. Descending into its thick-walled, prison-like basement, you’re as likely to stumble onto a laboratory ape in a glass cube, babies and athletes monitored for brain waves, as you are on a debate about religion’s crossover with science, Buddhist monks performing rituals, or esoteric hypnotists inducing recruits to sensualist excess. It’s a pretty heady mix, especially if we consider how much Soviet propaganda touted atheism. Just as jarring, perhaps ahistorical, is the KGB thugs’ racism (the official Party line, after all, was solidarity with Black Americans, in a pan-socialist struggle against capitalism).
But then again, Dau is a parable of now and not just then. It succeeds by keeping a tight grip on the setting, and the action within the Institute’s bounds. Its claustrophobia makes it a stylistic kin of Lars von Trier’s Dogville—not accidentally, since both rural America and Azhippo’s utopia stink of vehement, bigoted puritanism. At times the neo-retro remix proves quite funny: When the Institute’s director is dismissed for philandering (the filmmakers opt to use the current term, “sexual harassment”), Azhippo has the disgraced employee write in his letter of resignation that he wishes to pursue creative interests—as if a woke new-age hipster just quit a posh corporate job. Such a clash of old and new speak keeps the telling lively, with an eye to quick jabs and double-meanings, plus Russia’s lasting vices.
Khrzhanovsky and Permyakov’s stroke of genius is to deliver their morbid passion play through the lens of an existentialist rabbi, who sparingly comments events in the voiceover. “Turning the other cheek,” the rabbi warns, “is not an ethical idea.” It enables the aggressors. Informed by the tragedy of pogroms, the Holocaust and Soviet antisemitic trials, the rabbi’s words poetically guide us through this purgatory. Without his wisdom, we might very well conclude that we’ve arrived in the first circle of hell.