DAU: Art Imitating Life On An Unprecedented Scale

After 12 years, the living cinematic behemoth is complete.

Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.

“A day into my stay at the Institute, I begin to feel its pull. The repeating rituals of dressing up and passing the checkpoint lose their absurdity and become something like a fact of life.”

Have you seen Synecdoche, New York? You should. It’s great. That’s not where the above quote originates, though. It’s not even what I’m really here to talk about. The reason I ask is because Charlie Kauffman’s bizarre directorial debut, a tale of obsessive detail and the re-staging of life itself, is the only jumping-off point I can think of to even begin explaining Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau.

In Synecdoche, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard constructs a massive theatrical stage within a warehouse, on which actors and costumers obsessively prepare and ponder over the minutiae of his experiences, rehearsing their re-enactments (and re-enactments of re-enactments) for an audience that may never come. Dau is… well, it’s kind of like that. Big whoop, right? Another Kauffman-imitating Kafka Lite™ with sprinklings megalomania and surrealism as mere artistic affect? Perhaps it would be, were I talking about the story that Dau tells, but I’m afraid it’s not why I bring up the comparison. I mention it because that’s the story of the making of Dau itself, and then some. And then a lot, actually.

What is Dau? Well, Dau is a movie. Or ten movies. Or perhaps twelve. I wish I had all the answers – the production company, Phenomen Films, is notoriously tight-lipped – but despite cameras rolling on this mega-production back in 2006, with the shoot lasting almost a full six goddamn years, there’s been very little press coverage because of just how secretive and quite frankly dumbfounding the whole affair is. Imagine yourself in an average modern production office on the outskirts of Kharkov, a Ukrainian town of about a million and a half. Now imagine being re-dressed and entirely remade whether you’re an actor or an assistant, from hair to socks to underwear, in Soviet garb circa 1952 before being led to the connected set. Only it isn’t a “set” so much as it is a fully functioning city housed within an enormous brick building; a built-to-scale section of Stalin’s Moscow spanning 130,000 square feet.

Every lodging populated, every “extra” a working part of a time-displaced totalitarian society, exchanging period-appropriate Rubles for tins of Soviet food marked with 1950s expiration dates and living in fear of local security. Fully-stocked refrigerators, or as stocked as they would have been at the time. Working toilets with pipes measured to the exact dimensions of the era so as to make a specific flushing sound. Grandiose music blaring from mounted loudspeakers to set you on edge, if the gargantuan statues of arms and sickles don’t do the trick, and a ban on modern technology and words like “set” and “lighting,” or any anachronism that didn’t line up with the given decade being filmed, like if Westworld had a wing for the misery of post-war Russia.

This is not a set. This is “The Institute,” as director Ilya Khrzhanovsky would have you call it. Only a couple of journalists have ever visited, and no more ever shall. It was completely destroyed in November of 2011 by hired Russian neo-Nazis enacting a massacre of the staff on order from the director, followed by a massive nightclub wrap party – which was also filmed – but its locale is merely the beginning of why Dau deserves attention as an unprecedented work of creative obsession, despite being one most of us may never lay eyes on. The production, which I’ve been following ever since Michael Idov’s fascinating GQ article in 2011 “The Movie Set That Ate Itself” (the origin of the opening quote, and the only constant cultural presence the film has really seen), will now receive some sort of release this October according to Idov himself. What will that release entail? Per Idov:

The "release," as long rumored, will somehow tie together numerous separate movies (as many as 10) with theatrical and modern-art components

That’s not all. Per Phenomen, via the only on-record statement of theirs I’ve found, they also intend for Dau to include multiple TV series (as many as 18, as one journalist was told), “science and art documentaries,” and even a “trans-media project,” rumoured to involve an app that lets you edit the footage to create your own movie. There’s a whole lot of potential fact in there mixed with potential fiction, as well as the potential for Phenomen’s plans to change in any number of directions, but the only thing anyone can be certain of at this point is that Dau is… something. Something that exists, or something that will exist in the near future, depending on how you look at it.

I’m not sure I can fully express my excitement at Dau finally coming into the world and yet, I harbour a parallel disappointment at the fact that it’ll soon exist, in whatever form(s) it takes. This work of harrowed genius (and calculated cruelty?) may never see the light of day the same way as your average wide-release, and in two months time, we’ll be living a post-Dau world. It will no longer be something to look forward to. No longer a mysterious thing of the future.

No longer a cinematic myth of madness.

Over the years, there’s been a near-total drought of coverage on the film, one you’d think would garner constant attention and scrutiny. Type “Dau” and “Khrzhanovsky” into Google News and you get a mere 22 non-duplicate results, only 6 few of which fall under “recent.” What you’re reading now will likely end up the 23rd this decade. That’s a bizarre statistic to think about. Whatever this ends up being, whether in celluloid or digital form, or some ungodly hybrid with cross-media connections the Marvel Cinematic Universe can only pay lip service to, it continues to be both the most consuming cinematic production in recent memory (perhaps in all of movie history), as well as the most fascinating statement about the relationship between art and audience precisely because no one has seen it.

The film was never meant to be what it’s become. Conceived in Russia shortly after Khrzhanovsky’s debut 4, production in Ukraine was only set to last seven weeks in 2006, a little longer than your average American indie. By the time it wrapped in November of 2011, the 35mm on which it was shot had begun to be phased out as a medium of projection and capture. Scarcity of entertainment and info due to lack of access will have been all but eliminated by the digital era, making Dau even more of a rarity than it would’ve been had its Cannes deadlines been met in 2011 and the following year (and the year after that). The Russian Ministry of Culture even demanded its budget be returned, and by the time the Russian-Ukranian co-investment finally comes out, Russia’s military incursion into Ukrane will have lasted over three and a half years. What little contemporary real-world connections this closed-off endeavor once had have since morphed and mutated along with the film itself – a chronicle of the life of Nobel-winning phycisit Lev Landau – but what has not changed thus far is the fact that it remains unseen.

Many would argue that art remains incomplete without some form of receipient, a philosophical debate that’s been going on for as long as we’ve been thinking critically about art. Art is arguably a conversation between artist and audience, and it’s the experiencing and interpreting of a tangible work – the simple act of processing it mentally and emotionally, even in the most visceral sense – that turns something into art in a cultural context. However James Meek, one of the few outsiders to visit the film’s second “institute” (its post-production office in Piccadilly, London, which may have even been some surreal second-layer to the film) recalls speaking to a mutual friend about the director’s take on the matter:

Our inconclusive trip to 100 Piccadilly, he suggested, might have been in the nature of an audition. But for what? A new phase of filming? The role of pre-approved critics? The kind of article about events and works I have not witnessed that I am writing now? ‘The thing about Khrzh,’ my friend said, ‘is that he believes cinema is one of those artforms that does not require an audience.’

Perhaps Khrzhanovsky is right, in that cinema doesn’t require an audience in the traditional sense – would a museum installation, which Dau has begun to resemble, demand the presence of eyes to be considered “art”? – but thus far, Dau has very much had an audience, and an active one at that, hanging on every bit of information that sporadically hits the internet once every few years, dropping its collective jaw at every new whisper. Which raises the question: what part of Dau is the art? Or rather, what part of Dau’s creation thus far has been experienced and interpreted as if it were art itself?

When writing about his visit for GQ, Michael Idov recalls entering the set at 1:00 in the morning, as life in this alternate Moscow continued as usual, despite there being no cameras in sight. The director, who had just instructed the makeup department to tear the eyelashes off an extra, lest she look “like an intellectual whore,” went on to explain the self-aware method to his madness:

"Taken one by one, all these details are pure delirium," he told me on my first night, fanning out a stack of crisp prop rubles with Lenin portraits, each note individually numbered. "Taken together, however, they create an otherwise unachievable depth. When you get paid in this money, and you know it has buying power and an exchange rate, you start treating it differently when the cameras are on. When the cleaning lady had to mop the same toilet floor every day for two years, she will do it differently when she's doing it on-camera."

Cinema culture has a collective fascination with stories of methodical and torturous prep, but no tale of Daniel Day-Lewis or Iñárritu’s The Revenant can even begin to compare to an entire production where not only are the extras amateurs picked off the street, made to live out their characters’ lives for years on end, but where the majority of the roles are played by actual physicists and former KGB operatives. Each lead actor was assigned a “personal director” whose sole function was to follow them everywhere at all times in order to stress them out. The character of Landau, embodied by a man who barely speaks Russian – Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis – was chosen by Khrzhanovsky because he admires his specific kind of genius. “I will save classical music,” Currentzis was once reported to have said.

The Institute was rife with Stalin-era hidden microphones, which the production used as actual recording devices, along with surveillance cameras meant for the express purpose of forcing paranoid honesty upon every single one of the regime’s residents. In the midst of all this, a solitary 35mm camera wandered the town in the hopes of stumbling across some unstructured conflict brought on by the stresses of the environment. More reality show than scripted drama, but taking place in a simulated Soviet Union and shot by a who’s who of renowned international cinematographers like Manuel Alberto Claro of Melancholia and Lol Crawley of 45 Years, among several others. Khrzhanovsky is the “actor’s director” pushed to its uncouth extremity, or at least an extreme we’re finally capable of perceiving, and he built this authoritarian artifice in order to mold people into a lived reality wherein the era’s social and emotional outcomes could be reached organically. Like the tendency to snitch under totalitarianism for self-preservation, which Idov mentions in the context of people being fined for anachronisms like “Google” or “Facebook”:

The fine system has also fostered a robust culture of snitching. "In a totalitarian regime, mechanisms of suppression trigger mechanisms of betrayal," the director explains. "I am very interested in that."

That could very easily sound like a pile of holier-than-thou horseshit, were it not for the fact that Idov’s article closes with an account of the method actually working… on Idov himself. After having spent a few days in The Institute, Idov was confronted about GQ photographer Sergey Maximishin breaking protocol and asking one of the actresses (Olya, a woman who tried to seduce Idov – under instruction? Of her own volition? Is there a difference under these circumstances?) to pose for a picture rather than letting her live out her routine:

By my third day on the set, the dress-up no longer feels like dress-up. I expertly tug on my suspenders, work the cuff links into place, and head in: I have signed up for a massage at the barbershop. This, of course, is the most seductive part of totalitarian living: Once choice has been taken away, you quickly readjust to be grateful for the little things on offer. Mmm, cheese! Classic prison mentality, and I've developed it after all of forty-eight hours. Khrzhanovsky stops me just as I'm about to dive into the tunnel separating the wardrobe from the set. His face is deep red, with a violet tint. He is midscream.

"I don't give a shit about GQ, I don't give a shit about America," Khrzhanovsky yells. "He is asking people to pose. He is not observing life, he is staging it. And I can't have that. My people are not puppets!" It seems that Sergey has asked to shoot Olya taking a bath. That was apparently fine. But Sergey asked her to take a bath wearing a towel as a turban. Khrzhanovsky throws himself down onto a chair and slams his fist against a lace-covered tabletop. Various underlings look on from the corners, a silent chorus.

"Olya," he says emphatically, "does not bathe in a turban." Khrzhanovsky takes a breath and switches to a polite half whisper. "We are ending our collaboration," he informs me. "Let me finish, and then you can riposte in any way you see fit, not that it matters, because it's my decision. You are, after all, on my territory. In short, please leave."

And this is when it happens. My brain turns off with a dry click. I am halfway through my answer before I realize what I'm saying.

"I understand," I answer calmly. "I agree completely. I am not this man's colleague. I don't know him. I've only met him yesterday. If you feel that you need him out of here, I have no objections. All I care about is the article. If you have some file photos of the set we can use, then there is no need for the photographer." Yes, I have been reduced—in all of two days—to a sniveling Soviet stukach, a snitch. It was the suit. The bor shorts, they did it to me. The cafeteria food. Something.

Suddenly, Khrzhanovsky grins. So do I. This is an extremely strange moment. We both know what happened. He gave me a carefully crafted self-portrait of a tyrannical genius. I gave him the satisfaction of seeing my total self-abasement. We're even.

The full article is a rabbit-hole worth tumbling through. I’ve revisited it several times over the years given that there’s not much else on the subject, and I’ve often wondered what if anything would become of Dau. As fascinating as the production is on its own, so too are the seeming reasons for its existence. Khrzhanovsky’s obsession with Landau is seemingly connected to the Nobel Prize-winner’s sexual conquests, involving an open marriage with his wife Kora, played by Radmila Shchegoleva. Shchegoleva is the only professional actor in the entire film, but even she was put to work in a hospital and a chocolate factory for a full year before filming, per Khrzhanovsky’s instructions. Khrzhanovsky, a notoriously skeevy womanizer who exerted a God-like control over his creation, was known for hiring young, attractive women and giving them important titles within the production, while firing on a whim those who weren’t interested in his advances. His megalomania is seemingly not limited to the four vast walls of his fiction.

By proxy of all Khrzhanovsky’s endeavours, be they sexual or cinematic or some nexus of the two, the allure surrounding the film extends beyond the speculation of what kind of Lev Landau story it’ll be. Nobody expects it to be a standard biopic by any stretch – a five hour scene of a man telling his wife he cheated on her was part of the edit back in 2015 – and the potentially double-digit number of films carved from the production’s mammoth 700 hours of footage (that’s almost 400 Dunkirks, to put things in context) hints at some sort of experimental observation of life itself across multiple platforms, chronicling the extraneous historical circumstances mirrored by its making. But that’s only once an audience steps in front of the first 24 of its multiple million frames. In the meantime, journalists like Michael Idov and James Meek have been the audience for the experiment, or have perhaps been unwitting parts of the experiment itself. Like Khrzhanovsky’s scolding of Idov, Meek’s account of his trip to 100 Piccadilly notes the showy security setup as having the feel of an elaborate performance. We the prospective audience of the film(s), who the director openly rejects, have thus far been a secondary audience to the various journalistic accounts. And whether or not this layer-upon-layer experimental setup was ever the intent (or whether Khrzhanovsky even sees it as such), it’s precisely the form in which Dau has existed for the last six years, and will continue to exist in until the coming October.

Khrzhanovsky’s view on the role of the audience is his own, but there’s a certain irony to it. Whether or not an audience has yet sat down to experience Dau’s compressed time and space, the domino effect of rumours reaching journalists, and journalists in turn chronicling their experiences interacting with the film have become their own form of speculative storytelling; some kind of modern mythology. There are things we know for sure about Dau – that it’s been in the works since 2005, that the extensive regime the director had in place for his “actors” approaches a level of directorial lunacy previously unseen, and that 210,000 extras passed through the doors of The Institute after receiving Stalin-era makeovers – but the remaining details, both factual and emotional, are still speculation that falls in the realm of audience interpretation. Be it readers, Idov, Meek, or even the production managers who moved to Kharkov and became a living part of the set, starting families and getting married and breaking up along the way, no one can truly surmise the tangents along which Khrzhanovsky’s intentions have diverged, or if he even wanted to make the film beyond a certain point. Something so vast, that will likely never be seen by general audiences, can only exist as oral myth unless all its components are written about extensively or it somehow becomes widely available. In the age of streaming and Wikipedia, that’s an absolute diamond.

While the likes of Hamilton may not be experienced on stage by the majority of its fans, its complete audio narrative is still available in digital form to anyone who wants it. I’m far from claiming scarcity as something of inherent value (I am, after all, an impatient child of the internet), but the absence of anything resembling an accurate narrative on the ins and outs of Dau is, in effect, its own form of narrative. It’s almost pre-Google in nature, along the lines of rumours of Marilyn Manson’s ribs that somehow traversed entire continents in the 1990s, only here the broadest factual details of its parameters have been made available. The skeleton set of a larger story. Colouring within those lines is left up to our own projections of megalomania and the limits of artistic obsession, or the lack thereof, as we obsessively fill in the details of what could possibly constitute, well, obsessive details, a process likely to continue as we watch the actual film unfold should we ever get the opportunity.

How does this differ from any other work still in production? Perhaps it doesn’t. The line between constructing a work of cinema and enacting performance art is blurry to begin with, given that the former is both the preparation of the latter’s circumstances and the manipulation of its after-image. But that blur is so alluring in this case that even Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović was drawn to it. She’s said to have infiltrated the set for a Garage Magazine photo shoot in 2011, and she even became a temporary part of the production in the process.

Abramović is perhaps best known for The Artist is Present, which I had the privilege of visiting at the MoMA in New York back in 2010. Much of her decades-spanning body of work raises questions about the distinction between art and artist, and The Artist is Present is the simplest distillation of that idea. She sits in a chair in a cordoned off space. A viewer or audience member sits opposite her. They stare at each other for a couple of minutes, before another audience member takes their place. Abramović does this for days on end. That’s the entirety of the experience, and while it seems relatively simple at its outset (“So she just sits there?” Yeah, pretty much), being in its presence long enough brings to mind some vital queries. What part of the exhibit is the art, if any? Why is it art, or not art? Most importantly, when do we consider something “art” in the first place?

Those are the kind of questions one could ask of a lot modern and/or performance pieces, and in some cases, the accompanying eye-rolls may even be warranted. But be it the emotional intimacy by simple virtue of artist-audience interaction, or the role of a present artist as the art, or the role of present audience in completing the art (if not being the art itself; Jay-Z and Mark Romanek’s Picasso Baby remixes this very concept), the thoughts Abramović’s work forces into our frontbrains, often through mere absence of what we traditionally consider art, are relevant to contextualizing this conversation.

Which brings us back to our original starting point: What is Dau?

Well, Dau is a movie. Or ten movies. Or perhaps twelve. Maybe it’s an app. Maybe something you’ll binge on Netflix someday, should hell finally freeze over. But the end-result on celluloid and its accompanying live and digital components, if they’re ever widely seen, are not the only art in question. In addition to those tangible facets of popular entertainment, Dau is and has been an artistic experiment regardless of intent, wherein the process of making the art is the art, wherein the witnessing of the process is the art, wherein the relaying of the process is the art, and wherein “the audience” as we understand it is in a simultaneous state of total absence and constant, ever-present fixation depending on how one defines the art in the first place. Like some avant-garde version of our modern superhero news cycle, it makes art an anticipatory process, acting as a crossroads between cinema – arguably the most complex, all-encompassing art form and one of our most recent – and the oral tradition of fire-side stories, whispered and passed down; one of our earliest. In between the extremes of this artistic spectrum lie the perils of the individual talent: acting and set design pushed to their nightmarish limits, journalists struggling to put their experiences into words, secondary chroniclers like myself attempting to further re-contextualize these mountains of madness, not to mention the undoubtedly arduous editing process of selecting what the shape the final products will even take. All this and more, amidst the ever-increasing possibility that the very process of creating art is a form of performance art to begin with.

Dau will release in October 2017. It’s been on display since 2006.

Sources/further reading: GQ, Michael Idov, Public Radio International, The Moscow Times, Screen Daily, Politico, Telegraph UK, London Review of Books