Dau, the 700-hour behemoth of a cinema project, directed by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel and Ilya Permyakov, caused quite a stir when two of its films premiered this year at Berlinale. The six-hour Dau. Degeneration and the four-hour Dau. Natasha both featured an extensive cast of mostly non-professional yet intensely watchable, often heartbreakingly convincing actors. Most of the project had been shot on the 42,000-square-feet set in Ukraine, which created an isolated, immersive atmosphere. With panache, some debauchery and plenty chugged vodka, the films (which the directors consider to be independent from each other, but whose casts, settings, and plots overlap) inducted viewers into the universe of an isolated, top-secret Soviet research institute, where science and reason succumb to ruthless might and political machinations.
In contrast to the sprawling Degeneration, and in line with the more intimate Natasha, the latest feature of the project to be released, Dau. Nora Mother, is modest. At just under one hour and thirty minutes, it feels slight, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that the project—all three films now stream on the Dau website, with more to come, though rights vary by country—can be consumed as an alternating series of main courses and hors d’oeuvres, or sides. And though Nora Mother is the latter, it provides a welcome change of pace. Where Degeneration was a polka that built up fast to a frenzy, Nora Mother is a nocturnal sonata. It unravels in minor, soulful notes.
The film introduces the chief-scientist Dau, played by the Greek conductor and musician Theodor Currentiz, as a young man. Dau of the other parts was old and decrepit, so this is quite a leap into the past (the project spans the years 1938 - 1968). Dau’s wife, Nora—played fabulously by the project’s only professional actress, Radmila Schegoleva—has moved up in the world, having been brought up by a poor single mom (Lydia Schegoleva). Even so, Nora’s social striving and her husband’s prestige, which means they live in a vast mansion, with the help of a cook and a nanny, haven’t brought her happiness. When Nora’s mother arrives, she finds her daughter in giggles. But Nora’s bubbly persona and the bubble she’s in implode at the slightest prod. Dau’s absences are glaring (like Nora’s father, he’s a womanizer). From the strained atmosphere at dinner to the hysterical tension between mother and daughter, over Nora's subservience to her hubby and willful idealization of her own father, Nora Mother plays out like a wintry Bergmanesque drama of savage tit for tat. Its essence boils down to the two women who sit down to talk one night till they have it out.
Similarly to Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), this cameral film, relies on the stamina of its actresses. While on the surface there’s the story of an unhappy marriage—Nora’s Emma-Bovary-like discovery that not all that glitters has lasting value—the real tragedy lies in the pent-up bitterness between mother and daughter. Nora’s an egoist (she can’t decide what she wants); her mother's attacks border on abuse. One could say that men’s moral corruption—which seeps in through Dau’s aloofness and blasé magnanimity (if your wife’s unhappy, buy her a fur coat) and the Institute’s snowed-in bulwarks (a picture-postcard of Soviet gloom)—is to blame.
But that’s not always clear. The film’s direction fumbles, at times, when the actresses run with the improvised dialogue. With anger, love, despair, and helplessness seesawing at all times, can we really know these women? There are cruder notes, too. When Nora says that her mother always competes, the other calls it a “babski” trait. The English subtitles skip the word, but in Eastern Europe, “baba” and “babski” are dismissive, cruel ways to describe women. It makes them seem petty and lesser. Malice creeps in: Women’s heartaches filter through a lens that shows them as stunted (it’s almost impossible not to compare this to the more forgiving vision of tortured single motherhood in Kira Muratova’s 1971 The Long Farewell). And while the directors Khrzhanovskiy and Oetel (who is also notably responsible for the project's costumes and make-up) already delved into women's parasitic relationships in Natasha, Nora dials down the cat-fights and yet cuts deeper, portraying mothers, and by extension families, as a doomed cycle of under-nurture and slow psychological corrosion.
And yet, the Institute smothers women and men alike (though only the latter carry that enviable moniker, “genius”). Dau’s cruel not just because its world is mothered yet loveless, but also because it’s ruled by murderous ideologues on one hand, and numbed rationalists, on the other. Both fancy themselves socialists but live (or yearn to live) like aristocrats. Is there no hope for it? Nora Mother is too early to tell. Its repetitions and flat arc make it almost a subplot, albeit a rich one. Dau’s character gets discarded, and the directors hint that real action is taking place offstage (as Degeneration and Natasha demonstrate). But even such dramatic shorthand is apt: Instead of opening up, the lens closes in; the Soviet claustrophobia is complete. It trickles down, from dysfunctional politics to broken homes; it degenerates.
If anything, Nora Mother evokes admiration for how consistently the directors take what is blatantly theatrical, and could easily appear overblown, and turn it into compelling, if not always fleshed out, drama. Dau’s mansion is never fully a home (one can’t help but note its desolate kitchen, its baroque, elephantine furniture, like a salon of oddities and gaudy taste). The crude metalwork on some of the Institute's buildings screams “prop;” the more one looks the more the set seems fake. And yet, out of these shambles, Dau kindles a chemistry that moves and startles each time. Such magic can only come from the human element: as in Bergman, the film’s characters leave one with a dull ache; but it’s also hard to leave them. Their ironies and horrors percolate.