DAU, a controversial but long-awaited project of the Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, has been gestating for over ten years, claiming to encapsulate Soviet life with its joys, hopes, pathologies, fears and scientific experiments. The project finally premiered in Paris (with a delay) on 25th January, following 101st birthday of its main protagonist, physicist Lev Landau. Explore DAU, as seen in Paris and reported by our correspondent Irene Kukota.
If you are focussing on something, you see it everywhere. In my case, DAU started reminding of itself already in the lounge of St. Pancras Station, straight before the departure of my train. Big TV screens were flashing project ads as a must-see Parisian experience.
Having been there and seen that, I decided to offer some sort of a guide to DAU, — an interactive, immersive project that can easily overwhelm a visitor, especially if that visitor had never experienced Soviet reality face to face.
WHAT AND WHO IS DAU?
Nominally, DAU is a film. It was conceived as a biopic, exploring life of the eminent Soviet Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Lev Landau, once known as “father of the Soviet atomic bomb”. Dau was his pet name at home and among close friends. In his young days, Dau won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and as a result, had a chance to work with physicists Niels Bohr in Copenhagen (he considered himself to be Bohr’s pupil), P. Dirac in Cambridge and W. Pauli in Zurich. On his return, Landau joined forces with Soviet physicist Pyotr Kapitsa, who appointed him head of the Theoretical Division at the Institute for Physical Problems. Between 1932 and 1937 Landau lead the Department of Theoretical Physics at the National Scientific Centre in Kharkov (now Ukraine) but was arrested by NKVD in 1938, on charges of espionage and for comparing Stalinism to Nazism. He escaped GULAG only thanks to Kapitsa’s letter to Stalin, where the former personally vouched for Landau’s behaviour – the act of exceptional personal courage. Nevertheless, throughout his life, Landau remained a person of immense inner freedom and honesty, a free spirit and independent thinker, always ready to criticise the Soviet system.
Being an exponent of free love, he scandalised his contemporaries with unconventional approach to family life, as recounted in “The Way We Lived” – the memoir of his long-suffering wife Kora Drobantseva-Landau. There, she shared that Landau made her sign a “spousal non-aggression pact”, preventing her from interfering into his extramarital affairs. Jealousy and “sour looks” were strictly penalised and meant withholding of Kora’s monthly allowance.This has been hushed down in Soviet times as compromising material. Kora’s memoirs circulated in underground Samizdat publications and were openly published only after the perestroika. Even then, a first timid attempt to produce their screen version, known as “My husband is a genius” (2008) met with a universal disapproval in Russia.
So, Ilya Khrzhanovsky was consciously making a bold move with his Landau biopic based on Kora’s memoir and scripted by Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin. Khrzhanovsky managed to obtain Russian State funding and began filming in Kharkov only to discover that Drobantseva’s memoir was not a reliable source. He decided to change the plotline: it was still loosely based on the life of Landau (played by the Greek-Russian conductor Theodor Currentzis) but the names of protagonists were altered (Kora transformed into Nora, Prof. Kapitsa into Prof. Krupitsa). Moreover, Khrzhanovsky set himself an ambitious task to recreate Soviet life spanning between 1938 and 1968, or rather the life of the USSR top-secret scientific research institute. Typically, such research institutes were remote settlements outside big cities, with no access to outsiders. Even the relatives were not allowed, if they were not granted an official permission to enter.
Eventually, this idea expanded into the project of epic proportions. Between 2009 and 2011 more than 700 hours of footage were shot. The filmmakers’ own audit of their production reads as: “392,000 auditions, 40,000 costumes. 12,000 square metre set, 10,000 extras, 400 principal roles, 8,000 hours of recorded dialogue, 37 million words transcribed, 4,200 concept tags and 500,000 set photographs”. Generally, the project was in gestation since 2005 and is still not completed 10 years after the filming had started. Many Russian critics even stopped waiting for its release, dubbing the project “never-ending”. The shooting took place within the most ambitious and controversial set in filming history. The film set in Kharkov meant to recreate a Soviet-era research institute. All participants had to live on the premises (sometimes, for several years), wear painstakingly recreated fashions of the period, including the underwear. Cutlery, sanitary products, medicines, glasses, cigarettes and cigar holders were also authentic, to say nothing of food and packaging. Participants were even paid in Soviet roubles which could be spent on set. It was an alternative universe, where historical authenticity was paramount, down to the language the actors spoke, carefully avoiding the words and phrases that appeared Russian after 1970. Even the jokes are of that era (for instance, “The caviar is black, the wine is old, and the cheese is with mould – miserable life”, meaning to emphasise that the protagonists are wallowing in Soviet-standards luxury, while mock-complaining)! The actors had no scripts and lived their roles 24 hours a day, monitored 24/7 by surveillance cameras. This was done to achieve the verisimilitude unconstrained by the script or thorough set preparations. This method relied on momentum and the atmosphere present on the set, thus, bypassing traditional film-making practices. Some even believe that this may revolutionise contemporary cinema world. The scenes were filmed uninterrupted in one take. This may explain why they sometimes seem protracted: a catfight between waitresses may take as long as 40 minutes, Nora’s conversation with her rather toxic manipulative mother may last over an hour and other activities also seem to be happening in real time, just in front of our eyes.
Interestingly enough, the film features only one professional actor (the Ukrainian actress Radmila Shchyogoleva cast as Nora). Khrzhanovsky consciously chose non-professionals, as he was searching for certain physiognomy types, in order to make the visual narrative look authentic. Instead of professional actors Khrhanovsky invited real-life scientists, musicians, cleaners, waitresses, artists, composers, religious leaders, philosophers police officers, military men and even real-life Neo-Nazis. All of them were doing “real” work at the research Institute impersonating themselves. At various stages, the Institute was visited by the Nobel-prize-winning physicist David Gross, physicist Carlo Rovelli, neuroscientist James Fallon and Harvard maths professor Shing-Tung Yau. Famous performance artist Marina Abramovic played a visiting professor of anatomy, and the theatre director Romeo Castellucci reprised a visiting anthropologist. Musicians Brian Eno and Robert del Naja, as well as stage director Peter Sellars also made their appearances. By the way, Brian Eno composed the music for DAU.
Mental breakdowns, fights and arguments, sex, brutally degrading KGB interrogations, punches to the face and beatings, even vomiting and destruction of the set were not staged buthappened in real time. Although any participant could leave or withhold permission for their footage to be released, the fact provoked torrents of comments, inviting comparisons with Stanford prison experiment, TV reality shows and totalitarian religious cults.
IF THIS IS NOT A FILM, THEN WHAT IS IT?
According to the press-release, the project is a “protean” crossover between cinema, theatre, science, performance art, religion, philosophy, literature and architecture. It is a social and artistic experiment — in the same vein as the Soviet experiment. I believe, it is something that could be called a territory of memory — individual, collective, historical and artistic. And the experiment is still ongoing, although the guinea pigs are now me and you. In other words, the visitors’ emotional reactions, perceptions and responses are DAU’s main goal.
These responses are provoked by 13 edited features (still, more are rumoured to be in the making). Each of these films are dubbed as DAU1, DAU2 etc. and sometimes run over 2 hours each. Every feature deals with routine, traumatic or transgressive situations, which amuse, intrigue, perplex, shock and outrage. Some respond with nostalgia, some with traumatic recollections. It is up to you to choose how far you would like to get involved into this experiment, if at all. As the series progress, they grow more disturbing. And they are demonstrated out of sequence: you may get DAU 13 after DAU7 – this is completely normal there. DAU films don’t have subtitles. They run (mostly) in Russian and are simultaneously translated into a European language of your choice on an earplug, attached to your DAUphone. The voiceovers are robotically impassionate, sometimes making it difficult to follow the development of the events.
After watching, visitors are invited to silvery booths, imitating confessionals, in order to discuss their experiences. If you would like to give it a try, do not forget that your live conversation may be recorded. Alas, the wait can be quite long. If you do not feel like relating your experience to a listener in French, you may wait even longer – there seems to be a shortage of English-speaking listeners.
The viewing takes place in two buildings: Théâtre de la Ville and from 4th February onwards – Théâtre du Châtelet. The premises are open and accessible 24 hours a day, however, one has to get an entry visa first. And like in the Soviet times, before obtaining it, you have to fill in a rather obnoxious questionnaire with a string of intrusively personal questions. Prepare that some of them will be probing your moral core by asking: “Do you think everyone can kill in the right situation?”, or “Have you felt used in your relationships”? etc. The visa is handed over personally at Place du Châtelet, after some moderate queueing. As you enter one of the buildings, you have to give away all personal electronic devices, such as mobile phones or iPads, completely losing any connection to the outside world.
The DAU site is a weird spectacle. First of all, you enter the buildings stripped bare of their interiors – only grey concrete walls. Perhaps, it is an appropriate reminder of Soviet never-ending construction projects. You are greeted by the guards and people in grey jump-suits, reminiscent of those worn by Soviet factory-workers in 1920s or protagonists of Soviet sci-fi movies. They instantly explain that there is no schedule: nobody knows what is going to happen for the next 3 or 4 hours, only what is going to happen within the span of an hour. So, live in the moment, relying on your intuitive sense of time – there is no clock inside either. In a way, DAU imitates a multiverse where the experience received depends on bystander’s point of view and expectations. The space is full of life-sized waxworks, bearing uncanny resemblance to the characters in the film. Mirrors and mannequins – like some of these replicants in Blade Runner – will accompany you throughout your wanderings up and down the DAU site, searching for a screen room. The reality will be testing and deceiving you, by producing mirror reflections and making it difficult to discern between the boundaries of real objects and figments of your imagination.
However, what is more bizarre, are the sections of the building. You do not get to the first or the second floor, you move from “History” to “Betrayal”, to the “Revolution”. The underground section is named “Motherhood”. Performances, rehearsals, film screenings are shown in the “Future”– a vast cinema/ theatre space, reminiscent of an Ancient Greco-Roman amphitheatre. There is no stage there but a huge triangle-or pyramid-shaped mirror instead, reflecting performers or musicians sitting downstairs. The impression is somewhat magical and reminiscent of a Plato’s cave.
The very top section under the roof of Théâtre de la Ville – I could not visit Théâtre du Châtelet, as it had not been open to the public then – is named “Animal Communism”. This is the place of “Gods” and shamans. The most fascinating and very worth your visit is the “Communal Flat with Shamans” (yes, you can have a conversation with a real shaman, once you have survived a two hour-long queue).
The space in Théâtre du Châtelet has an even more perplexing arrangement, being split into sections, such as “Utopia”, “Deprivation”, “Anxiety”, “Addiction”, “Power”, “Compliance”. I leave it to you to explore what they may mean.
While being there, I thought it was rather ironic that the project had chosen to glamorise and export something that gave Russia its reputation as “the axis of evil”. Perhaps, this model appears increasingly attractive, as society seems to be moving towards some version of a totalitarian capitalism. After all, no matter how faithful or immersive the replica, one can never escape one’s present.
WHO SUPPORTS THIS PROJECT?
Initially, the project was financed by the Russian Ministry of Culture. However, several years into the project, it decided to revoke its funds (some $ 350, 000), citing director’s failure to complete the film as the main reason. The requested sum was returned to the Ministry of Culture. By that time, the entire project was financed by the Russian telecoms and tech investor Sergey Adoniev, who had previously funded theatres, documentary film projects and a design university in Moscow. The budget of the project still remains secret but is rumoured to be well in excess of the princely sum of $100 million. Only the editing of the footage alone took six years, and was done by Khrzhanovsky at 100, Piccadilly St. in London, very near the Ritz hotel. Apparently, the whole building was leased by Khrzhanovsky and his team, and transformed into a ‘DAU space”. Currently, DAU is produced by Phenomen Films, a branch of Phenomenon Trust run by lawyer Anthony Julius and founded by Khrzhanovsky.
According to other sources, the project was also supported by various European organisations and funding bodies, such as Le Fonds Culturel du Conseil de l’Europe, German Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg film commission, Svenska Film Instituet (Sweden), Arte Cinema and Societe Parisienne (France) etc. It is not only a grandiose undertaking on but the project truly international in scope.
DO NOT MISS.
As you navigate the space, do not just concentrate on screenings. Make sure that you also experience other things.
- COMMUNAL FLAT WITH SHAMANS
A MUST. It is an idealised version of the Soviet communal flat inhabited by artists, musicians, or philosophers, and sprawled under the roof of Théâtre de la Ville. There you can play chess, delve into your own childhood memories or have a conversation with a friendly elderly couple about first communist congresses and revolutionary ideals. Be their guest, ensconce on their bed or rest in some of their rickety chairs. You may also spot old pre-Revolutionary porcelain, photos or toys – all accurately displayed on crocheted napkins or table-cloths in these Russian babushka-style rooms. The communal space will delight you with mementos of the bygone era, old furniture, old radios and old stories! As you move down the endless corridor, pay attention to old skis, skates, teddy-bears, an eggs net and an iron. The space is surreal, warm and cosy. However, the most surreal part of your experience will be this presumably Soviet communal flat overlooking la Tour d’Eiffel. At the very end of the long corridor is the room of the shaman: you will instantly recognise his dwelling by the queue outside. It seems that it would have been more apposite to name this area “Communist Animism”, not “Animal Communism”.
- CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN ART
It is a shame that no DAU reviews mentioned contemporary Russian art on the project. It is quite daunting that it still remains invisible to the Western visitor, blending in with the surroundings from which it had once emerged. Therefore, in Théâtre de la Ville do not miss installations by Grisha Bruskin (in the topmost screen room, over the Communal Flat with Shamans). Bruskin’s white figurines contrast with Boris Orlov’s black Bust in the Style of Rastrelli, (1996), and stand opposite Andrey Filippov’s installation Supper(1989/2004) made of plates, sickles and hammers set on the table covered with red tablecloth. While exploring the communal flat, you may also embark on a quest for paintings by Mikhail Roginsky, Oscar Rabin or a huge John Cage banner by Sergei Bugaev-Afrika – all recent donations to the Centre Pompidou contemporary art collection.
The presence of unofficial Soviet art is even stronger at Théâtre du Châtelet. Watch out for works by Russian underground artists, such as Eric Bulatov, Francisco Infante-Arana (4 works!), Yuri Avvakumov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Boris Turetsky and Yuri Zlotnikov. Try to familiarise yourself with Pompidou contemporary Russian art collection in advance. There is a very slim chance that the staff will explain to you the meaning of artworks, name their titles or know the authors. Contemporary Russian art seems to play the role of a silent witness in a complete Ding-an-Sich manner.
- LIVE PERFORMANCES
As there is no schedule available, keep on checking for spontaneous performances that take place all over the premises. These can be folk songs beautifully performed in mini-concerts, or spontaneous improvised performances. Relax, stay alert and take life as it happens.
No matter how hard your inner aesthete will be resisting these grey aluminium bowls and cups, it is still quite an adventure to have tea with honey cake (medovik) for the socialist price of 2 euros, or to gulp your borsch and boiled sausages for the fraction of “normal, outside” price. Meditate, as you are eating, try to make out this long socialist French inscription stretching from one corner of the bar-stand to the other. All in all, you will have the immediate experience of a Soviet meal in a Soviet-like canteen but served by very affable French team. Soviet Revolution has always tended to be more enjoyable in its exported versions.
Surprisingly, I set on a nostalgia trip the moment I entered the space. It was so reminiscent of Soviet village shops, with their unprepossessing arrays of fish cans, clothing elastic bands, petroleum lamps, sweets, cigarette packets and sink plungers. Childhood memory is a strange thing.
Overall, this was an interesting, even if psychologically exhausting experience. I would not mind revisiting it again. Perhaps, next time in London.