Scenes from 'DAU. Degeneration' (DAU. Degeneratsia), and 'DAU. Natasha.' Phenomen Film

Neo-Nazis, Rabbis and Humiliation: The Russian Art Project That Got Out of Hand

A former KGB officer, real-life neo-Nazis and a slaughtered pig are all taking part in DAU, an extreme art experiment which is raising concerns of abuse



BERLIN – The timing of the small demonstration in a square off Potsdamer Platz on Saturday night corresponded with the 70th Berlin International Film Festival awards ceremony taking place nearby. The protesters bore signs with slogans such as “The Berlinale supports violence and exploitation in the film industry” and “The Berlinale is choosing rape and humiliation.”

Earlier, five Russian journalists who were covering the festival published an open letter to its management, in which they expressed “deep concern” over the inclusion of the film “DAU. Natasha” in the festival’s main competition.

The DAU project was filmed from 2008 to 2011 in a vast artistic installation in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Dozens of people – the vast majority of them not professional actors – lived in the building, which simulated a research institution in the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century.

They lived as if under a totalitarian regime, with clothing and accessories suitable to the period, and were filmed in the style of a never-ending reality show. All the participants were assigned “roles” – scientists, students, cooks or janitors – and they occupied those roles, without a script and without any direction in the conventional sense of the word.

The project was supposed to be opened to the general public in Berlin in 2018 as a giant exhibit that would include rebuilding part of the Berlin Wall, with many extras simulating the totalitarian world of the DAU and film clips of what had happened inside the building. But it was halted by German authorities.

It ultimately opened in Paris in 2019 as an exhibition featured in a museum and two theaters. It included extras who recreated the experience of a Soviet research institution and films from footage shot during the project. Visitors were asked to obtain an “entry visa” instead of a ticket and to equip themselves with a special navigation device that piloted them through this state within a state.

Thibault Camus / AP

Thirteen DAU films were shot at the Ukrainian facility, and two of them shown at the Berlin festival, which closed on Sunday – “DAU. Natasha,” directed by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel, and “DAU. Degeneratsia,” directed by Khrzhanovskiy and Ilya Permyakov. They were re-edited especially for the festivals, and the screenings attracted a lot of media attention.

The New York Times described “Natasha” as “excellent” and “Degeneratsia” as “fluid, furious and, despite its 355-minute running time, constantly absorbing.” In contrast, Der Spiegel published a devastating review which advised Khrzhanovskiy to study “the techniques of filmmaking rather than human nature.”

“DAU. Natasha,” which earned cinematographer Jürgen Jürges a Silver Bear award at the festival for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, is about two hours long and takes place in the early 1950s. It includes a scene in which the heroine, a cafeteria worker, has drunken sex with a visiting French scientist at the institute, as well as a scene of a fight between the heroine and one of her subordinates.

But the most controversial scene is when the heroine is interrogated/recruited as an informant by a KBG officer. The latter is played by a real former KGB officer, who in the past conducted many interrogations of this kind at a Kharkiv prison. The officer, Vladimir Azhippo, abuses Natasha, slaps her, violently strips her, pushes her head into the toilet and finally forces her to insert a bottle into her vagina.

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“Degeneratsia,” which is six hours long, also includes scenes of drunkenness and sexual violence. The institute’s director forces his secretary to have sex with him, while another cafeteria worker gets so drunk that she suffers a nervous breakdown.

The climax arrives when a gang of racist nationalists – real-life neo-Nazis whose leader, who Khrzhanovskiy invited to participate in the production, is now serving a lengthy prison term for assault – begins abusing the inhabitants. Gang members attack them, try to stage the rape of an American psychologist and slaughter a pig on the living room carpet. Eventually, they murder all the institute’s employees and visitors and destroy the building.

The mass murder obviously didn’t really take place on the set, but the slaughter of the pig did, in gruesome detail, as did the vast majority of the violence and humiliation we see on the screen.

At a press conference in honor of the festival’s first screening of “Natasha,” Khrzhanovskiy said that all the emotions seen on screen are realistic, but the circumstances which provoked them weren’t real: “When you arrived, you had your clothes completely changed, even the undergarments. Your life shifted 50-60 years into the past – this is how it came to pass that it was you inside this world, but at the same time it wasn’t exactly you. It was someone free of social accountability. And accordingly, your steps and your actions in this somewhat skewed reality became absolute reality at a certain point.”

In the question and answer session after “Degeneratsia” was screened, Khrzhanovskiy told Haaretz that there were no real rape scenes on the set of “DAU.” And in an interview with the Russian television station Kino TV, he stressed that the bottle wasn’t actually inserted into actress Natalia Berezhnaya’s vagina.

REUTERS/Annegret Hilse and AFP

In response to the Russian journalists’ open letter, the festival’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian said in a statement to Variety, “I still believe that the question with concrete allegations should actually be addressed to the production company. We inquired as to the production and were told that the allegations were not justified. The actresses confirmed this at the press conference. We are sure that both directors and the actresses will be willing to say more about this.”

At the press conference he referred to, Berezhnaya said, “There was no script; we were living our lives.” She added that those lives were “intimidating and oppressive. There was fear, [but also] love and relationships.”

‘He knew’

The French paper Le Monde reported last year that American actor Andrew Ondrejcak, who played a psychologist visiting the institute to conduct experiments, was abused by the neo-Nazis. Ondrejcak told the paper he was severely traumatized and didn’t want to talk about the experience. He also declined comment to Haaretz.

“Andrew, he’s a nice guy,” Khrzhanovskiy said in the Q&A session. “I didn’t invite him. He came because he wanted to come. Before him Marina Abramovic visited the Institute. I think he was her assistant or student, probably a student of hers. ... He came. And I explained to him the rules. … We told him that these guys [the neo-Nazis] were there. He’s a performer. ... He knew very clearly who’s there, what will happen there. I mean, we never know what can happen, but he knew what kind of a situation was there. He came, he decided to make the experiment, and then he knew it will be [answered] with another experiment and he knew that nothing can happen with him. Because you can hear all the dialogues ... But at some point he just changed [his] decision. And he got… I think he got real fear, because this sparkling effect of reality and non-reality, which was more complicated than a performance. Because in fact, he tortured the guys, you can see it in the movie.”

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When Khrzhanovskiy talks about the “torture,” he is referring to the bizarre “experiments” in which Ondrejcak asked the neo-Nazis to spend a great deal of time ripping up large sheets of paper – one of many eccentric moments in the film, which also included lectures by Hasidic Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and an Orthodox priest as well as shamanistic rituals.

Haaretz asked two of the actors in “Degeneratsia” – Viktoria Skitskaya, who plays a cafeteria worker who has sex with the neo-Nazi leader, and Dmitry Kaledin, a professor and scholar in real life who in the film was witness to the neo-Nazis’ assaults and abuse, as well as the slaughter of the pig – whether they experienced fear and humiliation and if they sought psychological treatment after participating in the project.

Kaledin’s response may well encapsulate the spirit that prevailed on the set of “DAU.” “What really humiliates and insults me is human stupidity. Look, I’m a grown adult man, I don’t seek psychological help. I’m OK. Psychologists are generally crooks, we don’t use them. We are not victims of anything. Just lay off, if I may be subtle.”

Skitskaya’s response was different. “I didn’t go to a psychologist,” she said. “I don’t think I needed help, but I realized perhaps two years ago that part of me had remained in the role throughout the seven years that have passed since the filming. It lives inside me. Perhaps about two years ago, I began to separate from it.”

“There was no harassment there,” she continued. “Yes, there was fear, but it was my choice to come to the institute. I tried to understand what had happened to me. This was solely my choice. When I joined the project, it was a reflection of my internal condition. I realized that I needed everything that happened to me at the institute to see myself from the outside.”

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One of the organizers of the demonstration against the “DAU” films, Berlin author and psychologist Nune Barsegian, wrote on her Facebook page that the Berlinale’s decision to screen the films at a time when people from the film world are standing trial for sexual harassment shows that Russians are viewed as primitives “who are permitted to do what cultured people stand trial for.”

Regardless of whether there’s any truth to this speculation, the screening of these films shows that the European film world is ambivalent toward the #MeToo movement and moral boundaries in art in general. In the ongoing debate over whether artists are allowed to victimize others, the Berlinale’s management sided with the position that making a contemporary artistic statement justifies human suffering.

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