PARIS — It began as a biopic. In 2005, Ilya Khrzhanovsky — a young Russian director — set out to tell the story of Lev Landau, the Nobel Prize-winning Soviet physicist. The effort soon ballooned into the most ambitious film project of all time. Backed by oligarch cash, Khrzhanovsky hired thousands of “participants” and built a massive set — an attempted recreation of a mid-century research facility — on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine. He called this set “the Institute.”
From 2009 to 2011, the amateur actors stayed more or less in character. They lived like full-time historical reenactors, dressing in Stalin-era clothes, earning and spending Soviet rubles, doing their jobs: as scientists, officers, cleaners, and cooks. The film set became a world of its own. In all, 700 hours of footage were shot; this was eventually cut into a series of 13 distinct features, collectively titled DAU. Khrzhanovsky’s films frame Landau’s colorful life, marked by his “Free Love” ethos, as a petri dish for communism itself: an attempt to reweave the fabric of social life.
These 13 films made their world premiere last month in a sprawling exhibit jointly hosted by Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, Théâtre de la Ville, and Centre Pompidou. To enter the exhibit, which runs through February 17th, you must apply for a “visa” through DAU’s online portal, choose a visit length (the authors of this article opted for 24 hours), and fill out a confidential questionnaire about your psychological, moral, and sexual history. Respondents answer yes or no to such statements as:
I HAVE BEEN IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH AN IMBALANCE OF POWER
IN THE RIGHT SITUATION, EVERYONE COULD HAVE THE CAPACITY TO KILL
ILLEGAL FORMS OF SEX CAN BE RIGHT FOR SOME
Downloaded onto a smartphone, this psychometric profile becomes your guide to the exhibition. In theory, your device can unlock tailored screenings, concerts, and other experiences. In reality, none of this technology has been implemented in the theaters or museum. But it does not matter. Like many parts of the DAU exhibition — the underground “sex bar” installed beneath Châtelet; a shaman stationed in Théâtre de la Ville’s garret; or lightless rooms vibrating with Brian Eno’s equally dark scores — these publicized attractions are only window-dressing for the films to come.
This project is controversial. For years, it has been shrouded in gossip, falsehoods, and claims of ongoing ethical violations. There are really three DAUs, conflated into one: the current installation in Paris, originally scheduled to premiere in Berlin; the Ukrainian social experiment that was the Institute, where, in 2011, GQ writer Michael Idov found a crazed director questing for “adulation and control”; and an immense archive of footage. Despite the hype (or because of it), the first two elements have eclipsed the third. Critics are quick to question his method, but few have engaged seriously with Khrzhanovsky’s vision. A New York Times review devotes two terse paragraphs to the 700 hours, while another piece for the same paper declares the films “an achievement,” only to get distracted by classical music.
DAU is unlike anything you have experienced: a beguiling collection of moving images that call into question our basic assumptions about film production and consumption. Khrzhanovsky follows grooves laid by Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, and John Cassavetes, filmmakers who approached the vanishing point of cinematic realism by boring into the minutiae of everyday life. The DAU films are unique, however, for combining this spontaneity with the grandeur of a studio period piece. Some of this is thanks to cinematographer Jürgin Jürges — known for his work with Michael Haneke, Alexander Kluge, and R.W. Fassbinder — whose handheld, 35mm camera roves through immaculate sets, bathed in chiaroscuro.
Walking out of our first viewing, we found DAU 7 to be humble in scope: a simple tale of domestic strife. Over the next 12 hours, it became clear that this was but one node in a vast network of narratives. Each subsequent feature revealed new subplots, connecting a seemingly infinite proliferation of characters through progressively weirder arcs. Watching just a fraction of the whole is enough to recall Bosch or Breughel, the epic tradition in poetry, or, indeed, a modernist novel à la Berlin Alexanderplatz. As these fractions accrue, however, we learn that DAU’s storylines — featuring clandestine homosexual relationships, religious persecution, state paranoia, incest, and theoretical physics — are symptomatic of the same underlying condition: life in a social experiment, whether the Institute or the Soviet Union.
All 700 hours of the neat and polished footage can be viewed in chrome kiosks, several stories below the Châtelet theatre. This is the exhibition’s highlight. Alone in a dark box, clicking through a seemingly infinite and anachronic archive, the voyeurism inherent to cinema begins to unravel.
You may encounter DAU’s infamous unsimulated sex scenes, as daring in duration as content. Much like Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious, the films are not simply pornographic. Rather, they postulate a world where the boundary between pornography and cinema is irrelevant. While we see graphic sexuality, the camera remains impassive, like a cat who has entered the room unseen. Intimate, yes, but presented at a distance: the films refuse to solicit an audience. One begins to ask questions. Who is this for? Why am I still watching? How can I not? Inevitably a stranger will peek into the booth. You suddenly become aware of your role in the Institute.
In Samuel Beckett’s 1972 play Not I, a peripheral observer watches what unfolds on stage. The observer never speaks, but seems essential, as if their awareness itself calls the play into being. DAU is not a coherent narrative, but a messy and unstable world. It requires our attention to exist. It is an exercise in collective memory, experienced individually. DAU seems impossible once you leave. Maybe it is.