The Metamorphosis of Totalitarism

in 70th Berlinale Berlin International Film Festival

by Anjelika Artyukh

The film Natasha — part of the 700-hour, megalomaniacal project DAU by Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky —became the most scandalous and controversial event upon its screening at the Belin International Film Festival.  The Berlinale was an ideal place to screen this complex film, as a global public space with its diversity, conflicts, encounters and differing opinions circulated by the media. Carlo Chatrian, who chose both Natasha and Degeneration, another part of the DAU project, for the main competition deserves respect for risking criticism for including these radical works in the festival’s always provocative program. Chatrian’s selections for the program illustrate a general tendency at Berlinale to embrace radical experiments in visual art that demolish the border between film as industrial product and film as a life experience. An open letter to Chatrian from five members of the Russian-accredited press raised ethical objections to the screening of DAU. Natasha in Berlinale’s competition, pointing out abusive and violent scenes and thereby echoing global discussions and cultural wars surrounding modern cinema. Today, Western cinema seems to exist between two main poles: the trend of post-Weinstein Hollywood, which fights against rape culture and abuse and attempts to make the film industry a ‘safe space’ for shooting sex scenes, a kind of comfortable, restricted field where managers, agents and lawyers have more power than directors; and the opposite spectre of French tolerance for controversial artists like Roman Polanski—who recently was awarded the prestigious Cesar prizes for Best Director and Best Screenplay—choosing to treat art and an artist’s biography as separate categories.

It is no coincidence that the premiere of the DAU project was in Paris. The Berlinale took the next step, promoting this powerful radical art and asserting the importance of art as provocation. This was confirmed by the jury, which awarded Jürgen Jürges the prize for artistic achievement for DAU. Natasha. The decision to honor the film breaks with the new American puritanism and supports the trend of radical cinema. 

Khrzhanovsky, a Russian director living in London, shot his project in Ukraine with a German cameraman, Ukrainian non-professional actors, and financial backing of a Russian oligarch — providing a complex trans-national viewpoint, though one heavily influenced by the Russian perspective. The Russian Ministry of Culture did not support the film, deeming it ‘pornography’ and denying it a distribution license. It would be naïve to assume this was only due only to the film’s sex scenes. Rather, the film starkly depicts the taboo Stalinist period, in which the KGB controlled all aspects of Russian life, including the workings of institutions.  

Khrzhanovsky and his co-director Ekaterina Oertel shows the oppressed relationships through the story of  bar girl Natasha, who meets a foreign scholar from the Research Institute, sleeps with him, only to be subsequently tortured by a KGB agent who demands that she sign a document to become an informant. One scene of the agent raping Natasha with a cognac bottle provoked particular indignation and scandal at the festival.

Khrzhanovsky does not reconstruct the historical texture of the period in such painstaking detail as Yury German did in his films, instead placing non-professional actors in repressed conditions and improvised situations for a few years in the “Institute” he created in the Ukraine. Actors play themselves, but in constructed conditions. Recalling the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, Khrzhanovsky performed the experiment on people through manipulation and control, showing how they oppress one another, sacrificing honor, honesty and humanity in order to survive in the institute. Natasha dreams about love, but she can feel love only through an alcoholic haze. She fights with her younger colleague in the dining room and oppresses her, and this is only one of many forms of oppression  and torture in the film.  Khrzhanovsky’s brutally realist vision is totalitarian in nature, with little dialog but with a perpetual fight for power and control. It is as though this nightmarish scene violates the view through its total absence of humor or humanity between people, where only sex and alcohol creates any connection between people.

Khrzhanovsky forces us to see and feel what totalitarianism does to man, but at the same time raises questions among viewers about his own seemingly totalitarian filming method.  He shows how Natasha’s love of a foreigner in a xenophobic country is reduced to an animal instinct, and her fear of the KGB agent makes her a prostitute who attracts violent men in order to survive. The director banned mobile phones and computers during the shooting process, which went on for several years. In collaboration with cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, Khrzhanovsky created a mirror reflecting how a totalitarian regime deforms people, depriving them of spirituality, decency and making them aggressive. It is a document of human transformation that does not bring catharsis, showing totalitarianism’s ‘banality of evil.’ We see the horrible metamorphosis of totalitarianism through the frame of the present, allowing interpretations about FSB torture in Putin’s Russia.

Anjelika Artyukh
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Karsten Kastelan