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By Jordan Cronk
“The person who rejects creative power and creativity and the reproduction of oneself through the act of creation, that person rejects life itself, in all its existence.”—Anatoly Krupitsa, DAU. The Empire. Novel One: Return of the Prodigal Son
At the press conference for the premiere of DAU. Natasha at this year’s Berlinale, director Ilya Khrzhanovsky pre-empted questions regarding the controversial methods involved in the realization of his 14-year passion project—collectively known as DAU—by contrasting the experiences of his actors with the everyday lives of their Soviet-era characters. “All the feelings [depicted in the film] are real,” he said, “but the circumstances are not real in which these feelings happen. In the real world you pay the maximum price. But in this unreal world…you pay in a different way.” Just how and to what extent the 300-plus people who worked on DAU have paid has been the subject of nearly a decade’s worth of controversy and any number of articles detailing the many indiscretions and accusations of misconduct that continue to plague the now 44-year-old Russian filmmaker’s runaway production, which began in 2006 (two years after the arrival of his award-winning first feature, 4) as a fairly straightforward biopic of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Lev Landau but quickly ballooned into what’s become arguably the most ambitious and notorious film project ever mounted. Following three years of filming in Kharkov, Ukraine, in a 13,000-square-metre recreation of a Soviet physics institute, where much of the nonprofessional cast lived in character during the shoot (and, according to reports, under simulated totalitarian rule), Khrzhanovsky and his team spent a majority of the past decade editing the resulting 700 hours of footage—all of it shot on 35mm by German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges—into 14 films, variations of which were first shown in an elaborate multi-disciplinary installation in Paris in January 2019, after an earlier attempt to present it in Berlin was quashed.
By all accounts, the installation—which, alongside the films, also included components of theatre, music, dance, and performance art—was an organizational disaster. What most correspondents did positively note, however, was that the films themselves, when actually screened at their scheduled start times, were unique and involving dramatic objects—the first sign that DAU’s proper home isn’t the gallery, but the cinema. For myself and others, this impression was borne out at the Berlinale, where the project’s first two offerings, DAU. Natasha and the six-hour DAU. Degeneration, were screened in their finished form (the former in Competition and the latter in Berlinale Special). Unequivocal highlights, the films startled first and foremost as works of grand narrative storytelling, only further confirming that the project’s been done a disservice by its art-world aspirations. Opening upon a vividly imagined mid-century milieu of perpetually grey skies, cramped, harshly lit interiors, and towering concrete edifices, DAU. Natasha and DAU. Degeneration drop the viewer unawares into the strange, surreal world of “the Institute,” an enclosed cityscape modelled after a mid-century quantum physics lab in Moscow where a team of experimental scientists led by Landau lived and worked in the shadow of the communist dictatorship for over three decades. In this fictionalized account, Dau (played with quietly arresting aplomb by the Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis) forms the nexus of a closed community of scholars, physicists, technicians, day labourers, and domestic workers whose lives unfold and intersect across the films with a volatile internal logic. In an era of world-building, DAU not only builds a recognizable world, but populates it, allows it to evolve, and, ultimately, bear witness to its own destruction.
Now being released online due to the COVID-19 pandemic (original plans had the films rolling out at festivals over the next few years), DAU is in an unexpectedly fortuitous position to reintroduce itself. “The first cinematic project about isolation, filmed in isolation, for people in isolation,” Khrzhanovsky decreed upon the launch of DAU.com, an interactive streaming platform that will eventually make available all 700 hours of footage, including concert performances, a series of science and art documentaries, and a variety of other audiovisual ephemera related to the production. While the cinema no doubt remains its ideal setting, DAU’suniquely immersive, exploratory nature make it exceptionally well suited to the at-home viewing environment. (Also featured on the site: in-depth character profiles and a clickable genealogy of films and their participants built for hours of virtual engagement.) As for the films, with their decades-spanning, achronological structure, they’re largely as digestible as discrete works as they are as one gargantuan narrative. Unlike television’s episodic presentation, DAU is almost free-form, more akin to a self-sustaining universe than a series of prescribed narrative events, its activities and atrocities continuing to accumulate and sprout new story threads regardless of viewer participation. Time, in this case, is entirely relative; having seen just about half of the films, it’s clear to me that the rewards more than justify any given investment—and, in fact, offer increasing riches the deeper one delves into DAU’s labyrinthine mythology.
Each of DAU’s 14 films is credited to Khrzhanovsky and one of four co-directors. Having not yet taken in the entirety of the enterprise, it’s impossible to parse the whole of each collaborator’s contributions; nonetheless, it’s safe to say that Jekaterina Oertel, who co-directed seven of the films, is one of Khrzhanovsky’s key associates. (In addition to her co-direction credits, Oertel also headed up the make-up and hair departments and contributed to the editing.) Each of her films is centred in part on one or more female characters, including perhaps the project’s two most memorable women, Natasha and Nora. In the role of Natasha, a middle-aged canteen waitress whose affair with a visiting French scientist prompts a sickening interrogation by the head of the secret service (Vladimir Azhippo, a real-life former KGB officer who has since passed away), Natalia Berezhnaya is astonishingly raw and uninhibited; vulnerable yet tough, Natasha is the epitome of the Institute’s disparaging attitude towards not only women, but also its proletariat caste and anyone who might run afoul of state ideology. (Understandably, both the interrogation sequence, in which Berezhnaya is graphically penetrated with a glass bottle, and an earlier, unsimulated drunken sex scene, have drawn considerable criticism; Berezhnaya, for her part, has stated that everything she participated in was entirely consensual.) It’s thus that Natasha, while only appearing in this one film, sits at the uneasy heart of the DAU universe, her plight symbolic of the larger manifestations of violence transpiring both inside and outside the Institute—itself a clear, if no less troubling, microcosm of the fascist mentality that continues to reverberate in Putin’s Russia. Dau’s long-suffering wife Nora, by contrast, is a frequent presence, and an object of a more familiar form of degradation. Played by the cast’s only professional actor, Radmila Schegoleva, Nora is a figure of quiet resolve and consideration in the face of her husband’s many open infidelities, which gradually unveil a nesting doll of interpersonal histories across the narrative’s timeline.
For a project of such tremendous scale, DAU is a surprisingly intimate, even claustrophobic affair. Only occasionally do we glimpse the enormity of the Institute as a physical space, and when we do it’s usually as a coldly imposing backdrop or a dimensionless void from under cover of darkness; in daytime scenes set in the large central courtyard, Jürges tends to frame the performers in medium close-up or in handheld travelling shots that privilege the physicality and emotional language of their movements rather than the surrounding environment. Just as the nefarious machinations of the Institute and its experiments only slowly come into focus, so too does the totality of the space remain something of an abstraction for much of DAU’s runtime. To that end, the films are largely set in two time periods, roughly bifurcated by Stalin’s death in 1953 and the years of sociopolitical upheaval that followed. Prior to this, Dau’s role as the head of the Institute’s theoretical physics department, as well as his increasingly strained relationship with Nora, provide the bulk of the drama, whereas afterwards the focus shifts to the work of the experimental science department—led by real-life electronic engineer Alexey Blinov, who’s also since passed away—and its investigations into the creation of a new human life form. (In DAU. The Empire, a semi-autonomous four-part series of “film-novels,” the Institute’s early years are detailed through extended dialogues between Dau and the Institute’s first director Anatoly Krupitsa, played by Russian theatre director Anatoly Vasiliev, but they otherwise remains tangential to DAU’s central story arc.)
Remarkably rendered chamber pieces, the early-to-mid-’50s-set films evince a Fassbinderian flair for forbidden romance and deep-seated trauma—not to mention a comparably fluid sense of space and interiority—in their alternately caustic and tender depictions of love and dependency. In DAU. Three Days, this is beautifully, if painfully, felt through the unrequited romance of Dau and his former partner Maria (Maria Nafpliotou), and in the earlier DAU. Katya Tanya, through the misplaced jealousy Dau harbours over the promiscuity of yet another lover, the young librarian Katya (Ekaterina Uspina). Meanwhile, in DAU. Nora Mother, the scathingly bitter, one-night reunion of Nora and her estranged mother (Lydia Shchegoleva) is conducted like a verbal sparring match between two formidable stage actresses. In each of these films (all co-directed by Oertel), the richly orchestrated drama works to ground the project in recognizable emotions while contextualizing the personal histories that fuel its finer developments.
Compared to the soft browns and muted hues of the early films, the late films are all sharp teals and harsh fluorescents, a distinct stylistic shift that matches the surreal energy of the drama, which trades the formal fluidity of Fassbinder for something approaching the irrepressible vigour of Aleksei German or Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 films. In DAU. Degeneration and DAU. New Man (both co-directed by Ilya Permyakov), the extent of the Institute’s activities and its debilitating effect on the psyches of its members comes into frightening focus. Effectively marking the end of the DAU saga, the two films chart the arrival and unsteady integration of a group of right-wing Komsomol members whose extremist politics ultimately spell the demise of the operation. Led by the burly, bespectacled young bigot Maxim (Maxim Martsinkevich, a real-life neo-Nazi currently serving time in a Moscow prison), the group is brought in to advance the Institute’s research into eugenics and the creation of “a more perfect solider,” but while doing so forcibly add to the prevailing air of disillusion and depravity as they indulge their own base desires. In one of DAU’s most tragic storylines, Maxim becomes romantically involved with Vika (Viktoria Skitskaya), a canteen waitress not unlike Natasha,whose life on the Institute’s lower rung opens up their relationship to state scrutiny and makes her vulnerable to the violent impulses of those she loves. Once a beacon of scientific progress and ingenuity, the Institute undergoes a slow but decided devolution into what the organization’s final director (played by Vladimir Azhippo, the same KGB general who sexually assaulted Natasha a decade prior) calls, with little exaggeration, “a cesspit, a den of lust.” (And lest you assume such feral tendencies stop at mere sex, be forewarned: DAU. Degeneration features one of the most brutal animal killings I’ve ever witnessed onscreen.) In a sense, the eradication of the Institute and its community is preordained; after all, history has taught us that humanity, when left to its own devices, will invariably regress to its most primal instincts. What Khrzhanovsky dares show us is not simply the end result of this process, but how we managed to get there.
Cinema Scope: Fourteen years is a long time to work on any project in any medium. Do you remember when you realized DAU could be something more than a traditional biopic?
Ilya Khrzhanovsky: Even before the first stage of filming, which took place in St. Petersburg, I realized that everything that I had come up with was wrong. I cancelled the shooting and began to reinvent the film. But I must say that the film was never just a biopic. From the very beginning I intended this to be a film about today; we would just use a different time—in this case the past—as an opportunity to talk about the problems of the present day more freely. Thus, time became the conditional nose of a clown. When a person puts on a red nose and turns into a clown, he has other rights: its eccentric manifestations do not look like madness, but like logical behaviour in the image of a clown. I wanted to build DAU according to the principles of the quantum world, where, depending on the point of view of the observer, the world looks completely different. Already in the preparatory period, it became clear that DAU may be a different thing, which cannot be kept or controlled in the territory of one private story.
Inside the film, transformations and mutations began; new people appeared, new characters. I imagined and believed that life should appear in this new world, but I could not imagine what kind of life it would be. For example, I did not expect that there would be so many scientists. And at first I didn’t think that the direction of all the non-linear ideas about the world—connected not with science, but with the boundaries of human nature and reality—would develop as they did. I couldn’t imagine that Marina Abramović would get involved, that actual experiments would take place, or that neo-Nazis would participate in the project. One formed the other.
Scope: What initially drew you to life of Lev Landau, and what was the research process like as you began to conceive of the Institute?
Khrzhanovsky: As a child I loved Lev Landau very much as a character. He was a fearless, witty scientist; a genius; a creator of a great school; and was involved in a tragic accident. Books about him were in the homes of every intelligent Soviet family. When Kora Landau’s book Landau: How We Lived was published, it shocked everyone who read it. This book made a very strong impression on me because of the fact that it covered freedom and happiness—trying to be free and happy in an unfree country. And, in this, I was primarily interested in Landau as a completely free and curious person who devoted his life—alongside science—to an attempt to understand what happiness is and how the happiness of one person can be the unhappiness of another.
In addition to his scientific concepts, Landau believed that his main theory was his theory of happiness. According to his theory, happiness consists of four elements: love, work, friendship, and freedom. Landau was a man who had everything. From childhood he knew that he was a genius—everyone knew that he was a genius. Women loved him, people admired him. What is happiness for such a person? What is freedom for such a person? That was the starting point.
But then the story began to change. We decided to abandon the film adaptation of Landau’s biography, because it is impossible to make a historical film without inventing history, and we didn’t want to invent it—we wanted to form it. Therefore, quite quickly, nothing was left from the story of Landau except the theme of the life of Soviet scientists and Landau’s theory of happiness.
Scope: I’m curious how you conceived of the footage in its installation form versus the finished films? Are you satisfied with how the footage adapted to an installation setting?
Khrzhanovsky: For me, the main product of DAU is not so much the films but the material itself—the possibility to transform it and find more and more versions. Such an opportunity will be fully realized in the online project DAU. Digital, which will be released in the fall. The films are just trailers for the 700-hour project matrix. Nevertheless, each of them has its own value, and therefore it is good that they have a life in the conventional cinematic world. But a mobile, lively form is only possible online or in a large installation, as was done in Paris.
Scope: How did Teodor Currentzis come to the project, and what was it like collaborating with him on the character?
Khrzhanovsky: At first I thought I would cast professional actors. But after auditioning actors in 54 of the 68 regions in Russia that have theatres, I realized that I didn’t want to cast professionals, because professional actors can only play psychological patterns. If a professional actor plays the role of Don Juan, he can only play Don Juan’s desire to posses Donna Anna. He cannot act his confrontation with God. Actors can play mental desires, but they cannot play spiritual essences, existential things. In other words, genius can only be played by genius.
For Dau, I was initially looking for a Jewish person. It was important to me that the main character ethnically proceeded from pre-Christian culture, that he was connected with pre-Christian morality. If we look at biblical texts or the myths of Ancient Greece—and then from the point of view of modern morality—it raises many questions: we see that the relation of spirit and body is completely different. All the heroes of these texts are people of high spirit, in whatever immoral situations they find themselves in from the modern point of view. It so happened that I did not findthe right Jewish person to play Dau. But luckily, my casting director found Teodor Currentzis, a brilliant Greek conductor. When we met him it became clear that the hero will be Greek, a foreigner. A genius is always a foreigner, even if he speaks the same language. Teodor fearlessly embarked on this difficult adventure. It was very interesting to work with him; as with any brilliant person, it was difficult. But it seems to me that we succeeded in realizing the complex combination of real circumstances and an invented character.
Scope: Can you speak about your filming process as it relates to each performer and their individual storylines? Were these narratives mapped out as films from the beginning, or did you discover films as you accumulated footage with certain performers?
Khrzhanovsky: This is a story about modern people who are placed in circumstances of a different time. We’ve restored in detail a life that has never been. If you notice, the Institute looks quite surreal. As in any institution, there were different departments; different people work in it, not everyone lived there. For example, Natasha did not live at the Institute, she came to work there. But still, even these people spent most of their days there, and established relationships with other performers. They themselves decided whether to join the political party or not, to cooperate with the authorities or not, to write denunciations or not. They decided all this themselves, but the personalities, of course, were selected by us. It then became clear which relationships were developing, and how they could be strengthened. You cannot put people in circumstances and expect life to form. This should be their property, their necessity, their willingness to open up to this journey, to determine a further plot, to deform and at the same time create a new reality. Most of the storylines were constructed and became clear during the filming, but the final decision of which scene would be in which film was made in the editing.
Scope: Much has been made about the performers not working with scripts, and yet the films are very narrative- and dialogue-driven. Can you discuss the process of giving voice to these characters, and what the performers drew on to articulate what you needed them to do for each scene or story?
Khrzhanovsky: Some moments were discussed, some weren’t. I could coordinate and adjust, but I couldn’t insist against the will of the participants. What you see is a mixture of staged and live performance: the emotions are live, the circumstances are staged. Performers played themselves inside the proposed circumstances, as Stanislavsky said. Theoretically, Natasha, after the interrogation scene, could go to lunch with Azhippo in the studio. Or Andrey Losev: when he’s being forced to sign a consent to work with the authorities, he refuses. The way he’s going through this moment on screen is unbelievable. It’s just a gift, Andrey’s willingness to believe in what is happening to him. Of course, he knows he’s being filmed and that he can refuse at any moment, but he goes on to immerse himself in this hellish reality. He takes a huge risk. These are huge experiences because they are genuine: real life merges with the unreal, and only Andrey can draw this line. This is his personal achievement.
Scope: Can you talk about casting real-life scientists such as Andrey in many of these roles? In a film like Degeneration, for example, how closely are they involved with the ideas and philosophies put forth?
Khrzhanovsky: My friend, the entrepreneur and director Dmitry Falkovich, put me in touch with Nikita Nekrasov, the most famous physicist of our generation. Nikita brought in the scientists: Andrey Losev, Dmitry Kaledin, David Gross, and other Western scientists.
All the participants had their job or project. Physicists were engaged in physics. The dialogues that were spoken at the scientific conferences shown in the films dealt with the problems of current physics. All the physics of recent times—even string theory—is based on the discoveries of the ’30s and ’40s. So theoretically, these kinds of discoveries could have been made in a secret institute in 1952. Therefore, we allowed scientists to engage in the science that interested them, and as a result, we got a living world.
In the experimental department, which was headed by Alexey Blinov, real experiments were carried out. In his block there was a newspaper department where journalists worked. A large scientific conference was even held. There were three areas of research: space and time, weapons, and the superpowers of man and nature.
Scope: As far as immersing these performers in this very specific environment, what do you think was gained or lost through this approach? Would you change anything as it relates to the methods used to elicit such visceral performances?
Khrzhanovsky: I believe that during the production of the DAU project, a certain method was invented which in the future will be used in various forms in cinema. We are now busy describing this method. The only thing I regret is that I was not radical enough during the filming. I could have gone even further. At the time it seemed that we already went far beyond. Now I understand that this is not so.
Scope: Can you tell me a bit about your four co-directors—why they were enlisted, and what their role was in the production of each of their films? Jekaterina Oertel seems like a particularly vital partner. The fact that she co-directed a majority of the films that are centred on women seems like no coincidence.
Khrzhanovsky: For DAU, various methods of work were combined. After the filming ended, it was clear to me that in order to continue to maintain the quantum essence of the project, I had to invite other directors, other personalities, to edit different films, so that I could get a lot of different viewpoints. For the editing, I called a few people close to the project and distributed the material between them: Jekaterina Oertel made her films, Ilya Permyakov his own, and Aleksey Slusarchuk his own. All this happened after the shooting, in the edit. I chose a person, and then I worked out with him or her the method by which the film would be edited. These people are very talented, understand the film’s structure, and feel the human nature of the project.
Jekaterina, my co-director on Natasha, Nora Mother, and others, is also one of the most famous make-up artists in Europe. She’s been nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy, and so on. The make-up artist is the last person to see the actor off to the set, and the first to meet him when he leaves the set—they help the actor get ready for the scene. So Jekaterina must be very well-versed in psychology as such. For almost three-and-a-half years of filming I had a lot of discussions with Jekaterina about the characters’ behaviour, and was always amazed at the accuracy of her observations. I also knew that she was interested in editing. I suggested that she expand her duties and take up directing, and she agreed.
It was also important to me that she is a woman, and someone of European culture, so she has a different view of the world. For example, I can’t tell the story of Nora. I don’t understand it. I am not a woman. I am not 50 years old. I do not understand many aspects of female psychology. Or, for example, to create such a complex intellectual structure, which was necessary for Degeneration—Ilya Permyakov’s film—it was good to have someone with a philosophical education and the appropriate view of the world. Ilya is a Russian film director in the field of audiovisual art. He began his career as a philosopher. In 2003 he defended a thesis on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the poetry of Osip Mandelstam in translations of Paul Celan. And similarly, for Brave People, it was important for me to have someone with the life experience and knowledge of the scientific environment, which Alexey Slyusarchuk has. He also worked on the set for many years as the first assistant director.
Scope: Why was the decision made to release the films online? I know ideally they’d be premiering at festivals, but this project actually feels well-suited to the immersion offered by both the home-viewing experience and the interactive website.
Khrzhanovsky: The films were shot in the isolated grounds of the Institute, and the creation of this area implies other reactions, other laws, and other energies. The project’s release on the internet is taking place now, in the era of the pandemic, when the whole world is under house arrest, like under the Iron Curtain, but in an even smaller space, in people’s own apartments, in complete isolation, which in itself looks like a hellish, total performance. In this regard, releasing the DAU project at this moment seems to me to be honest, important, and, possibly, even necessary.