A year ago – as the editor of the regime’s official magazine, DAU Bulletin – it was my job to commission writers, philosophers and scientists to visit 100 Piccadilly in London to preview the feature films which were the product of the legendarily hermetic DAU film project. We know by now how director Ilya Khrzhanovsky set out to make a conventional biopic of Nobel Prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau. And how that became a twelve-year struggle to recreate and document a Soviet experimental science institute, known ominously as the Institute, in eastern Ukraine. Contemporary scientists lived and worked on the set from 2011 to 2013, and ‘star’ in the unscripted films as Soviet versions of themselves, as do café workers, janitors and secret policemen.
Generating interest proved surprisingly difficult. One contemporary novelist, who made his name with a story about a similarly deranged attempt at staging ‘reality’, was uninterested in the offer of a private cinema and free Soviet-style banquet. Without seeing a frame, he sneered at the project’s Russian funding and dismissed the DAU films as merely a derivative of Jeremy Deller’s relatively small-scale Battle of Orgreave re-enactment (2001). Another cranky London author agreed to come into the Soviet-themed headquarters and view the mandatory six hours, but only if we projected the films onto the ceiling for him, so he could watch them lying down.
A year later, apathy and suspicion towards what GQ magazine dubbed the ‘most insane film shoot of all time’ may be melting away. The first instalment to appear in cinemas, DAU. Natasha, surprised naysayers by not only getting released at all (nearly a decade since the Landau biopic was supposed to air), but by taking home the Silver Bear and Best Cinematographer awards at Berlin’s Berlinale film festival. There are at least twelve more feature films and two mini-series to come from the sprawling, encyclopaedic DAU project. While they are only now appearing in cinemas, the DAU films are not cinema in the conventional sense. According to the director, it is an experiment in the way we perceive reality, human relationships and behaviour; the resulting films are merely well-filmed and edited footage of that experiment.
Natasha (co-directed by Yekaterina Oertel), clocking in at over two hours, is a human drama with a simple, but shocking narrative that examines human weaknesses and power. Set in the early days of the Institute – where two years of filming were speeded up to replicate two decades from the late forties to sixties – Natasha (played by Natalia Berezhnaya) is a middle-aged waitress in the Institute café. After sleeping with a visiting French scientist, she is interrogated by Azhippo in a scene that more than one journalist has complained was an abuse of power against the performer. Such objections about the limits of control and consent, and our ability to say ‘no’, are raised not only about scenes in the films, but the entire project and its methods.
Similarly, in the six-hour Degeneration (co-directed by Ilya Permyakov), the other DAU films to be screened at the Berlinale, the ‘test subjects’ are ostensibly a group of white nationalist thugs. On a set whose futuristic hues and thematic concerns resemble Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, the hooligans are put through their paces in exercise yards and observation tanks by the institute ‘director’, former KGB interrogator Vladimir Azhippo and scientists led by contemporary Russian mathematician Dmitry Kaledin, with a view to creating a ‘superhuman’. The multi-POV slow-burning epic culminates in a violent rampage involving live animal slaughter that prompted at least one scientist to flee the set in fear of his life. It is brutal and unforgettable, with eerie parallels to both the Stanford prison experiment and contemporary right-wing movements that cross the line from the Soviet period into the present day. The main antagonist, Maxim Martsinkevich, is known outside the parallel universe of DAU as a far-right vigilante vlogger, and is now imprisoned in a Russian labour camp for racially aggravated homicide. His onscreen charisma is so dangerously alluring that one liberal theologian who viewed the films in London subsequently walked away from the project. From his perspective, Maxim’s arguably heroic role glamorises white nationalist and traditionalist ideology to an irresponsible degree.
For several years after the planned 2011 release of the biopic that never came out, the DAU films were only shown in private at the lavishly decorated 100 Piccadilly in London. Then in 2019, they were part of a month-long, round-the-clock immersive installation in Paris. In both cases, viewers became, in essence, test subjects.
The Paris event required a ‘visa’ to enter the quasi-Soviet mini-state and see the films screened in a semi-derelict Theatre du Chatelet. The application involved a psychometric test that would determine what viewers saw. After screenings, viewers were frequently ‘debriefed’ by either members of the administration or ‘spiritual listeners’ – some of these debriefings were filmed, and form the basis of an unreleased documentary. During vodka-soaked debriefings with writers at 100 Piccadilly, where we were scouting for contributions to bulletins and talks in Paris, I would often joke that the taxidermy hog’s head on the banqueting table had listening devices hidden in its ears. Was it a joke, though? After what they had just seen, many viewers believed that I had spiked their drinks and they were being secretly monitored. While the beverages were uncontaminated, the test audiences were, to an extent, being tested in the same way as the ‘actors’ in the Institute. Khrzhanovsky had instructed us to show the ‘strongest’ material to wheedle out weaklings. As staff, we were frequently tested with Soviet-style bureaucracy and contradictory edicts to the extent that I began to question if the elaborate preparations were in aid of the film releases or the other way around.
Ultimately, screening the films in conventional cinemas and festivals is a decision that seems to have been made reluctantly, once the funding for spectacular happenings was withdrawn by the Russian billionaire Sergei Adoniev. This is because Khrzhanovsky, who left the cutting of the films up to other editing directors, seemed more interested in controlling people and ‘testing’ them with cinema as bait and decoy. Now the meta-theatrics are being stripped away, what are we left with? Cinema, or something else? An epic excuse for controlling people and exercising power? With Harvey Weinstein behind bars and KGB interrogators winning accolades at film festivals, there’s no need to project the films upside down. DAU turns ‘reality’ inside-out…
Lev Parker is the founder and editor of the surrealist publisher Morbid Books
First published online 11 March 2020