Issue 64 (2019)

Ilya Khrzhanovsky: DAU (2019)

visited by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2019

M1: unlimited visa

I have visited DAU more than nine times over the course of three weeks. The first visit was quite underwhelming: first of all, because the installation part of the project was not very interesting or original—it is mostly composed of rooms with partly Soviet furniture and some sots-art oeuvres mixed up amongst the rest. People are supposedly authorized to stay there and mingle with some of the project participants who come to Paris, but in fact people mostly pass through the suite of rooms and don’t stop. There is also a café / sex shop in the Châtelet Theatre that one can visit only by night. A classical museum shop and cafeterias can be found inside the Theatre de la Ville, and later during the run of the project also in the Châtelet Theatre, even though the food served is rather exotic for France: a Russian vinaigrette, rye bread, herring, and such. One of the most effective parts of the installation per se is the initial search of the visitors’ bags at the entrance to both theatres, since phones are not allowed inside; this gives an unpleasant but funny reminder of the Soviet regime. As a matter of fact, Khrzhanovsky interprets the Soviet past as a kind of prison-camp experience: there is a continuous, unpleasant sound in the theatres as you walk from one space to another; the cafeteria serves food and drink in aluminium cups and bowls that are reminiscent more of a prison than of Soviet everyday life. Most of the windows are sealed and after having stayed inside the project for six hours or more, the world outside that had faded away suddenly seems to reappear, revitalized.

dauTo this first underwhelming impression came, at least at the beginning, the overall disorganization of the event: nobody knew what film would be playing in which room and when, and visitors were left wandering in and out of screenings, without really knowing what they were watching.

However, I kept coming back, and little by little my impressions changed. In the last two weeks, screens with schedules, the duration and even film titles appeared in the theatres, so that it became possible to organize a visit while inside the project and choose what to watch.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky is a film director. Everyone knows his first and much talked-about feature film, 4 (Chetyre, 2004). So it comes as no surprise that the most interesting part of the project are the films. As I understood the entirety of the project, there are four formats of films that can be seen inside the DAU project:

—First come feature films, numbered from #2 to #13.2. Dau 1 does not exist yet, as it is still being edited; it is the initial film Khrzhanovsky was supposed to make in 2008 and for which he had to reimburse 30 million rubles to the Ministry of Culture, because he had not completed the film on time after receiving state subsidies (Kornatski 2015). There are 14 films in this category (Dau 9 and Dau 13 are divided into two parts), each of them with a length between 90 and 180 minutes and bearing two titles: the number (Dau X) and a more specific title, indicating its main character or theme. I managed to watch all of them.
—Series: the series concentrate on several characters (for instance, a whole season is about the bufetchitsy, the waitresses who work in the cafeteria of the institute. I watched just one episode of one season (season 3, episode 2).
—Science films: sometimes there would be a film focused on one of the experiments set up inside the DAU institute. They would rather last for 30-60 minutes. I watched two of them. They are presented either as a poetic experiment (for instance, a professional female dancer imitating every movement of a monkey, while both of them are placed in two similar glass cubes with identical objects), or as a simple science lecture (we know that real scientists participated in the project).
—Finally, the spectator can go downstairs to the archive, where s/he can watch, in an individual booth, bits of the Dau footage, edited into more or less long sequences. The spectator can only choose at any moment between approximately ten sequences, but cannot navigate within them (no fast forward or rewind are available, which makes complete sense, since the DAU time experience is an essential part of the whole project). During any of these sequences, the user can quit the sequence and look up additional information for everyone who appears in the video s/he is watching, learning their names, status and official story. I visited the archive twice.

dauThe first thing to observe is the multiplicity of the formats, which stems from the decision to resort to different editors throughout the project. Thus, we find the same images edited in different ways in different Dau films and videos. For instance, I watched a sequence of a drunken party where the scientist Blinov and his assistant make out, and the American visiting professor discusses moral issues with other institute colleagues, which was edited differently in the Archives (a one-hour edit) and in Dau 13.1 (Degeneration 1) where the whole sequence takes less than half an hour. The episode of the series I watched is a different edit of almost completely the same material as Dau 12 (Natasha). In Dau 10 (Vika and Maksim) we see the moment before and after the killing of the pig which Russian critics have dwelt upon in their accounts, but the killing of the pig itself takes place in Dau 13.2 (Degeneration 2) . We find different edits of the final destruction of the institute in both films. The archives also reveal that filming was often made with two cameras, since a split screen regularly appears and we can see two points of view on the same event.

The main narration of Dau can be found in the films mentioned above, which are quite surprising. Often very classically fictional, they reveal Khrzhanovsky’s desire to reconstruct classical fiction on the basis of an almost un-edited reality. The films have even different stylistic signatures, which seems to have been a conscious and wanted choice in the process of editing: for instance, Dau 3 (Nora and her mother) gives off an Antonioni-like “vibe” with long shots, elegant women in furs and veiled cruelty—Dmitrii Renanskii (2019) has, for his part, compared the film to Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), while Dau 5 (Katia and Tania) works a lot with blurred images, transforming frames into impressionistic canvasses.

dauKhrzhanovsky has declared that he did not (or minimally) influence the events inside the institute, and that he filmed pure, unmediated reality. But of course this is much more complicated and ambiguous, and the director does not really try to conceal it once you watch the films. For instance, in Dau 4 (Explosion), edited by the theatre director Anatoly Vassiliev who also appears in the role of Krupitsa, some sequences clearly come from the filming of Dau 1 (of which we can see a breathtaking trailer), an assertively fictional film with incredible sets. During the dialogue where Dau asks Krupitsa’s forgiveness for having betrayed him during his arrest by the KGB, they find themselves in a muddy ground that is filmed so that it seems horizontal, with streetlights and the huge foot of a monumental statue. But in reality all of these scenes were filmed on a very steep hill, so while on camera the set appears horizontal, people who pass through it are almost “lying” on the ground, because they are going up and down a hill.

In other films we can also observe obvious traces of acting direction and rehearsed framing: at the end of Dau 7 (Dau, Nora and Maria), Dau is quite upset, because he has just been involved in a fight with his wife Nora and then with his lover Maria. He goes out of the house to return to his office by night. When he steps out of the house, the door stays open (which seems quite unnatural), while the camera follows Nora doing minor domestic tasks. When she goes back to the door (supposedly to close it behind Dau, who has left several minutes ago), we see Dau in the distance, in the depth of the frame, as he finally turns away and starts walking, after clearly checking that the camera has returned to film him, and making a step to the left to ensure that he is captured by the camera and nicely placed in the frame.

dauIn the sequences where we are told about the destruction of the institute, this contradiction becomes quite clear: the performative violence of the destruction of the set is there to translate the idea and sensation of destruction, because other things are less possible to be shown here, as opposed to an overtly fictional project: the neo-Nazis drag around “corpses” of institute workers drenched in blood, but of course, if it was possible to ask the participants to “play dead” for this sequence, it was not possible to go as far as staging a massacre. The killing of the pig also works as a metaphor in this respect, even though Khrzhanovsky said that it was improvised by the neo-Nazis themselves and draws on classical references of Soviet cinema. Just as in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (Stachka, 1924), where slashing the cow’s throat in a slaughterhouse stood for the massacre of the striking workers, the pig is killed before our eyes: the institute’s intellectuals cannot be killed, but the director needs for us to experience the dreadfulness that the final massacre is supposed to provoke.[1]

The same is true for the epochs when the action is supposed to take place: from the 1930s and through to the 1960s. If the spectator who is well acquainted with Soviet history can recognize something of the atmosphere of these times, many critics and journalists have also pointed out the numerous anachronisms such as the food, the state of science and others (Timofeevskii and Tolstaia 2019; Iampol’skii 2019). Indeed, the secretary to the institute’s director has breast implants and an artificial tan when she starts undressing, while we are supposed to be in the beginning of 1968. Since the participants of the project did not have any written dialogues, Khrzhanovsky could not prevent them from talking as usual, using contemporary phrases, but also mentioning openly that the institute is in Kharkiv, Ukraine, when it is supposed to be on the outskirts of Moscow: in Dau 8 (Sasha and Valera), one participant mentions that another “went to Russia” and is not here any more. Moreover, when shortly before the demise of the institute a group arrives that is destined to destroy it, it is composed of neo-Nazis, an ideology not at all common in Soviet times but quite widespread in contemporary Russia. When they start questioning an American psychologist performed by the American artist Andrew Ondrejcak about the black population in USA, it is clear that such a conversation would have been completely impossible in the USSR of 1968. It is about our times. Or, as the film critic Aleksandr Timofeevskii accurately puts it: “The generic hero throughout these films is our contemporary in an epoch costume” (Timofeevskii and Tolstaia 2019).

dauIn the Archive, personal files on every character mix the real persona and real names for many of them (for instance the famous scientist Nikita Nekrasov, but also the Russian neo-Nazi activist Maksim Matsinkevich) with partially invented biographies situated in the past. This gives maybe the clearest information on the real purpose of the project: to mix the contemporary era with an idea of the past in an experience of shared time and collective isolation from the “normal” world, that is supposed to test our moral values and landmarks. In this respect the project is often, if not always, a success. On the one hand, the spectator is forced never to forget and always to question the framework and the principles of the project. The participants never really forget about the presence of the camera, and many of the developments in the narration are a consequence of that awareness of the medium: a character commits suicide because she wants to get out the project in this way; another resists having sex with his lover because he is being filmed; all of them drink a lot, as alcohol is certainly not rationed inside the institute, since it removes inhibitions and because people must have been bored, living for almost two years in the closed space of the institute. On the other hand, in some moments of grace, the films allow us to access authentic and moving relationships, such as in Dau 9.1 (Tania and Nikita), where the scientist tests the tolerance of his wife (inside the project) regarding his infidelity, but also in one of the most funny and charming films, Dau 8 (Sasha and Valera), the story of two homosexual cleaners who, despite horrid and violent quarrels, dearly and tenderly love each other. The spectator never stops questioning the degree of reality and/or fiction that s/he is watching. On one hand we have non-simulated sex scenes, on the other hand, when Khrzhanovsky—keen to accentuate the murky aspects of humanity—tries to show incest (in Dau 11 also called Nora and her son / Oedipus) and fails to convince: it is clearer here than in any classical fiction on this subject that mother and son are actors and unrelated (Nora is played by Radmila Shchegoleva, the only professional actress in the project, and the son by Nikolai Voronov, a pop singer who gained popularity on YouTube).

The films are a more general comment on Soviet and Russian history, but they are also about the unending conflict between (oppressive) power and the spirit of freedom, the craving for discovery, here personified by the scientists of the project. Here comes maybe the last distinction between films: some of them are almost uniquely focused on individual love stories. This is the case for Tania and Nikita and Sasha and Valera, but also for Dau, Nora and Maria. Other films mix personal trajectories with political drama; this is true for Dau 10, one of the best films of the project, but also of the six-hour finale (Dau 13.1 and Dau 13.2 or Degeneration 1 and Degeneration 2). Here we can see the DAU experiment for what it really is, when Khrzhanovsky introduces the neo-Nazis into the “family” of the institute inhabitants, who are already used and attached to each other, even if they often conflict. He then observes how the quite unpredictable and violently minded group disrupts their homely life, and how people react in a situation where they are not entirely sure whether someone will intervene to stop the violent outburst. This clearly works much more as a comment on contemporary Russia than an attempt to dwell on the past.

dauIn Dau 13.2 a hilarious sequence shows one of the permanent participants in the project, Dmitrii Kaledin, who presents a scientific exposé for the new head of the institute, the terrifying Azhippo. In it, he tries to foresee the evolution of knowledge, which leads to a funny summary of Soviet and Russian history: he pleads for opening up information and the closed institute, saying that if they start immediately (in 1968), one can foresee that around 1985 there will be “a liberation of information,” by 1990 a “federal political division,” and by 2000 the start for “a backward movement.”

This comment on our contemporaries also indicates how the Soviet, repressive experience has crawled under our skin, and how quickly and viscerally we recognize, and slip in the mould of a repressive society as soon as we are threatened, even in fiction.[2] Or, as Azhippo, the former prison warden and last head of the institute, puts it quite clearly in Dau 13.2: “The institute is a model of society.”

All images courtesy of Phenomen IP


1] More generally, Mikhail Iampol’skii (2019) compares Khrzhanovsky’s method to Sergei Eisenstein’s “montage of attraction.”

2] In this aspect, it is quite striking to read the account of a visitor, who during the first “interrogation” upon entry in the institute, describes that he discovers in himself “the presence of a dormant and suddenly awoken intuition" of the historical past. (Snegirev 2019)

Eugénie Zvonkine
University of Paris 8, Saint Denis

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Works Cited

Iampol’skii, Mikhail. 2019. “Ekstsess, isteriia, razrushenie.” Seance 23 January

Kornatski, Nikolai. 2015. “Minkultury cherez sud otozvalo 30 mln gospodderzhki fil’ma Dau.” Izvestiia 10 November,

Renanskii, Dmitrii. 2019. “Apokalipsis Dau”, Kommersant, 18 February,

Snegirev, Aleksander. 2019. “Kak ia pobyval na s”emkakh Dau.” Facebook 28 January,

Timofeevskii, Aleksandr and Tat’iana Tolstaia. 2019. “DAU. Ia cherv’—ia bog.” Seance, 25 January

Dau, 2019
Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet and Théâtre de la Ville; Centre Pompidou
24 January (press). 26 January– 17 February 2019
Maria: Greek actress Maria Nafpliotou
Dau [Lev Landau]: conductor Teodor Currentzis
Nora [Kora Drobanzeva]: Ukrainian actress Radmila Shchegoleva
Nora’s son: pop singer Nikolai Voronov

Visiting Artists: Marina Abramović (as Visiting Professor of Anatomy); Carsten Höller (as visiting biologist); Boris Mikhailov (as photo journalist); Philippe Parreno; designer Rei Kawakubo; Aleksei Blinov; Andrew Ondrejcak; theatre directors Peter Sellars (as Visiting Professor of Physics); Romeo Castellucci (as professor of anthropology); Anatoly Vassiliev (as Krupitsa, based on physicist Pyotr Kapitsa, 1894–1984)
Music: Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack; Brian Eno
Musicians: Leonid Fedorov (Auktyon); composer Fedor Sofronov; Tatiana Grindenko

Voice-overs: Isabelle Huppert, Willem Dafoe, Monica Bellucci, Hannah Schygulla, Isabelle Adjani, Iris Berben, Gérard Depardieu, Lars Eidinger, Fanny Ardant, Barbara Sukowa and others

Scientists: physicist Carlo Rovelli; physicist Andrei Losev (b. 1963); Nobel-Prize winner David Gross (b. 1941); neuroscientist Jim (James) Fallon (b. 1947); Humboldt-Prize winning physicist Costas Bachas; Italian physicist and politicaian Sergio Cecotti; Chinese mathematician Shing-Tung Yau; physicist Nikita Nekrasov (b. 1973), who worked with Gross; Moscow-based mathematician Andrei Losev; mathematician Dmitry Kaledin (b. 1969); mathematician Samson Shatashvili; physicist Igor Klebanov (b. 1962), Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde; James Stevens; US-based physicist Alexander Vilenkin (b. 1949); and the ufologist Vadim Chernobrov (1965-2017) as Head of Nonlinear Time Lab

Religions: shamans Vyacheslav Cheltuev, Ai Churek, Stepan Urchimaev, Guillermo Valera, Arzhan Kerezkov; rabbi Adin Steinzalts; Russian-Orthodox hegumen Father Daniil

Public figures: political activist Maksim Martsinkevich; librarian Ekaterina Uspina; ex-KGB officer Vladimir Azhippo

Waitresses: Olga Shkabarnya; Viktoria Skitskaya

Ilya Khrzhanovsky: DAU (2019)

visited by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2019

Updated: 2019