DAU: Outside and Beyond History

Author
Philip Cavendish
Abstract
This editorial introduces the special issue of Apparatus under the title Soviet Playtime. Architectures of Power and Profligacy in DAU. It traces the history of the DAU project from its initial conceptualisation as a biographical film dedicated to the Soviet quantum physicist Lev Landau through to the complex multi-media offering which received its international press launch in Paris in January 2019. The critical reception of the project is summarised in broad outline. The editorial explains the origins of the special issue in a panel discussion hosted by the UCL SSEES Russian Cinema Research Group in December 2020. It outlines the structure of the issue and identifies the new angles of vision and conceptual recalibrations which emerge as a result of the materials that have been included, in particular the interviews with participants. The significance of DAU in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in particular the bombing of Kharkiv, where the project was filmed, is assessed. The sceptical response to DAU on the part of Ukrainian cultural commentators is highlighted. The editorial considers DAU as a postmodernist simulacrum. It explains the title of the special issue and its allusive potential, firstly in terms of postmodern playfulness, and secondly in terms of the title of French director Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a film which dates from 1967.
Keywords
Jacques Tati, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, DAU, conceptualisation, immersive experience, multi-media project, critical reception, UCL SSEES Russian Cinema Research Group, oligarch, colonialism, postmodernism, Russian military invasion of Ukraine.

Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s DAU project, named after the Soviet quantum physicist Lev Landau (1908-68) and initially envisaged as a biographical film that would draw upon the memoirs of his widow, Kora Landau-Drobantseva, burst on an unsuspecting public on 25 January 2019. This date marked the project’s international press launch in Paris. The next twenty-four days witnessed screenings of thirteen feature-length films in two Parisian venues, the Théâtre du Châtelet and Théâtre de la Ville, as well as the opening of a small number of exhibitions and art installations in the Centre Pompidou. The event had been curated with a view to creating a uniquely immersive experience ostensibly rooted in the Soviet past: visitors were issued with time-limited visas and forced to stand in queues before they were permitted entry; mobile phones were either confiscated or requested to be locked; the exhibition spaces were decorated with furniture from the film-set and a variety of Soviet-era memorabilia and art works; and in one of the theatres visitors were treated to a canteen serving Soviet-era food in aluminium cups and bowls.

This emphasis on total immersion reflected the shifting priorities of the DAU project itself: this had moved away from its initial (relatively modest) ambition towards the creation of an experimental ‘laboratory’ which would recreate with reportedly meticulous precision the material environments of the various historical mini-epochs evoked in Landau-Drobantseva’s memoirs. This act of simulation, described by British film critic Geoffrey Macnab as an “epic shoot in a Stalinist time-capsule” (Macnab 2019), involved the design and construction of a grandiose quasi-Stalinist complex loosely modelled on the Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow (where Landau had been employed for much of this life), and situated on the site of the former Dynamo swimming pool, not far from the centre of Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was followed by the auditioning of hundreds of thousands of prospective participants, among them scientists conducting genuine research and celebrities from the international art scene (the latter are designated cultural “ambassadors” in the project’s publicity materials). With their legal consent, the successful candidates were notionally incarcerated within the complex for lengthy periods of time while their interactions with one other were observed and filmed. They consented to be governed by rules and regulations designed to restrict or severely limit their contact with the outside world. Their activities were monitored by an administrative and security apparatus that was designed to replicate as accurately as possible the repressive mechanisms characteristic of the Soviet system as a whole. The participants were encouraged to adopt the linguistic norms and behavioural codes pertinent to the periods of Soviet history in which their interactions were purportedly taking place. They also agreed to the compulsory wearing of overgarments, underwear, and make-up pertinent to these same periods. As far as the cinematic outcomes of this experiment are concerned, it has been claimed that none of the resulting films were scripted in the conventional sense (i.e., there were no lines of dialogue to learn); that no rehearsals or choreographed movements took place; and that no re-takes of the filmed interactions were permitted.

The production cycle for the project in its entirety was lengthy. The filming process itself (one hundred days of shooting on designated days, giving rise to around 700 hours of recorded footage in total) lasted three years, from 2008 to 2011. Editing and post-production, undertaken in specially decorated suites at 100 Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair district (these suites were also organised according to the immersive principle and subsequently opened to visitors) took a further five-to-six years. In February 2020, exactly one year after the international press launch, two films – DAU. Natasha (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Jekaterina Oertel, 2020, Germany, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Russia) and DAU. Degeneratsiia / DAU. Degeneration (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya Permyakov, 2020, Germany, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Russia) – were screened at the 70th Berlinale. Two months later, a dedicated website was created which offered fifteen full-length feature-films with English or French subtitles on a pay-per-view basis (not all the films have necessarily been available at the same time). A “mother film” drawing together the different strands of Landau’s life (the physicist is played by the Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis) is apparently planned for release in 2023. A digital platform featuring behind-the-scenes interviews with project participants, and offering different pathways through the filmic materials, is also apparently in the pipeline.

The critical reception of the films released so far has been varied. Several commentators with impeccable critical or academic credentials have saluted the aesthetic ambitions of the project and positively endorsed its outcomes, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. For such observers, the strength of the project lies primarily in its generic elusiveness and fruitful exploration of the aesthetic fault-lines that nominally separate fiction-film, documentary, reality tv show, and the video game. Anton Dolin, at the time editor-in-chief of Iskusstvo kino [The Art of Cinema], one of Russia’s leading film journals, has argued that DAU constitutes “the most extraordinary alliance of the invented and the authentic in the history of cinema” (Dolin 2019). Academic Robert Bird has suggested that DAU “proposes a root-and-branch remake of the cinema medium as at once a digital archive and experiential architecture” (Bird 2019). DAU’s conceptual roots in the New Processuality advanced and practised by Russian theatre directors Anatoly Vasilyev and Boris Iukhananov from the late 1980s onwards have been emphasised. So too has the project’s debt to Philip Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, a social-psychology study conducted in August 1971 and set in a prison (this experiment was recreated on screen in the 2015 docu-drama of the same title directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez). The “hysteria, excess, and destruction” of DAU, to borrow the title of an essay by academic Mikhail Iampol’skii (2019), has invited comparisons with a number of precursors in the realms of international cinema. In the words of Vasilii Koretskii, DAU is “120 days of Sodom [a reference to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma / Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (Italy, 1975)], but with real shit and real sodomy” (Koretskii 2019).

Not all commentators have been so generous in their evaluation of the project’s methodology and artistic outcomes. The recording of sexually explicit material, in particular the visual choreographing of scenes according to archetypal male-gaze scenarios, and the impression on occasion that persuasive psychological or emotional motivation is lacking, has given rise to accusations of pornographic intent. Scenes which involve participants performing under the excessive influence of alcohol have triggered protests on ethical grounds. As far as critical evaluations of the individual films are concerned, some of them have been dismissed as banal, superficial, and boring. Bird (2019), for example, refers to the experience of “watching mediocre, self-important movies in a kitschy Soviet theme park”. Furthermore, interviews with participants have inadvertently revealed that the strict conditions which reportedly pertained in the Institute were in reality less than rigorous: some participants lived within the complex for only short periods of time; others continued their working lives outside the complex for the duration of their contract; and others left the project prematurely because they were unhappy about the direction their lives were taking in the Institute. This has prompted reservations in relation to the clinical rigour of the project as socio-psychological experiment.

The current issue of Apparatus is envisaged as a further contribution to the debates which have been provoked by DAU. The idea for a dedicated issue arose in embryonic form after a panel discussion of the project that took place online on 7 December 2020. This had been organised by the Russian Cinema Research Group, which is based at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and is chaired by the author of this introduction and Dr Rachel Morley. The podcast of this discussion is available via the RCRG website.1 One of the invited participants, Dr Natascha Drubek, a specialist on Central and East European literature, film, and media, and the editor-in-chief of Apparatus, had proposed a “Voices” section within the Autumn 2020 issue (Nr. 10) of the journal that would feature a number of short essays by a range of academics, researchers, and cultural commentators. The enthusiastic response, and the commissioning of lengthy and detailed interviews with people involved in the filming and production process, gave rise to the decision to dedicate an entire issue of the journal to the project. Beyond this editorial introduction, the materials in question have been organised into four discrete sections: 1) an introductory essay by Ivan Kozlenko, formerly director of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Archive in Kyiv, which is a revised version of an article which was first published in three parts in April 2020 on the Ukrainian website LB.ua (this article investigates the genesis and conceptual evolution of DAU, considers its critical reception internationally and, most importantly, within Ukraine, and argues that the methodology of the project is characterised by the very totalitarian mentalities it seeks to deconstruct); 2) peer-reviewed articles (it should be noted that the Ukrainian film specialist Olga Bryukhovetska has been commissioned to write an article for inclusion in this section, but her forced evacuation from Kyiv due to the invasion has made this impossible for the time being, although its eventual publication is envisaged as part of the issue); 3) short essays (“Voices II: Essays on DAU”); and 4) interviews with DAU participants (this section includes the transcript of a conversation with Khrzhanovskiy (entitled “DAU is a Process”) that took place in Paris in October 2021).2

Apparatus14_Cavendish_Editorial.docx.tmp/word/media/image1.png
The issue’s cover designed by Alexandre Zaezjev.

In their totality, these materials do not aspire to the status of a ‘second wave’ of criticism; such an aspiration, with the attendant implications of distance and objectivity, would be challenging in view of the project’s ostensible lack of completion. Nevertheless, the articles, essays, and interviews offer new perspectives on the films and explore aspects of DAU’s production history that have received relatively superficial attention hitherto. Three aspects tend to dominate: the material environment of the project and the impact of this environment on the psychology of the participants; the role of women in shaping the project’s development (their roles as executive producers, co-directors, assistant directors, editors, participants, make-up artists, and costume designers); and the intertextual dimension of the films as cinematic texts. The interviews with participants reveal the history of the DAU project and its methodology with much greater transparency than before (during the lengthy production period, participants and members of the production teams were prevented from discussing their experiences by non-disclosure agreements). They confirm the speculations of some commentators even as early as the international press launch in Paris that the precise simulation of Soviet experience was never part of the project’s original conceptualisation. The intrusion of the present-day, signalled in a multiplicity of different ways, not least by depilation, language, the positions adopted during sexual intercourse, and the expressions and gestures which betray traces of contemporary modes of behaviour, must therefore be regarded as a deliberate strategy, not an accidental oversight. According to the film critic Aleksandr Timofeevskii, in correspondence with the prose writer Tat’iana Tolstaia, the twenty-first century is the “full-blooded hero” of DAU (Tolstaia and Timofeevskii 2019).

The fluid interaction between past and present, albeit at some junctures self-evidently staged and fabricated, may well prove to be the most enduring legacy of DAU, although the barbaric and criminal events currently taking place in Ukraine, as well as their medium-to-long term ramifications, will doubtless cast a shadow over its conceptual strategies. Khrzhanovskiy has expressed on numerous occasions his antipathy towards the Soviet system; indeed, in one of his more recent statements, delivered only five months before the invasion as part of a seminar (“Filming Sensation”) organised by Dominique Chateau, José Moure, Eugénie Zvonkine, and Anatoli Vlassov in Paris (the transcript of this discussion is included in the current issue), he reflected on the persistence of Soviet-era psychological reflexes in modern-day Russia and the “mental violence” perpetrated by the Putin regime since its inception. The irony of Russian planes and long-range artillery bombarding the centre of Kharkiv, striking targets not far from the site of filming, and the shells aimed at the TV tower in central Kyiv, which reportedly damaged graves in the Jewish cemetery close to the planned Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, of which Khrzhanovskiy is now (albeit controversially) artistic director, will not have been lost on him. In this context, it is important to place on record his early opposition to the invasion: this was publicly revealed on 24 February when, along with other important cultural figures, he signed a declaration that was posted on the Facebook page of the journalist Mikhail Zygar.3

It must be acknowledged, nevertheless, that for some Ukrainian cultural commentators the Russo-centric focus of DAU, despite being modelled on the life of a research scientist who spent at least ten years (1928-38) in the Kharkiv-based Ukrainian Physical and Technology Institute (UFTI) before his transfer to Moscow, and the partner of whom was born in Kharkiv, was always problematic. The absence of spoken Ukrainian or identifiably Ukrainian signs is partly explained by the fact that Landau-Drobantseva’s memoirs were written in Russian and largely concerned themselves with the period in her life which dates from 1938 onwards. Furthermore, the DAU institute itself is modelled for the most part on the Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow, rather than UFTI, and therefore Russian speaking was the norm. Khrzhanovskiy’s use of a quasi-transliterated Ukrainian spelling of his name may be speculated to constitute a symbolic gesture in support of the country where he has spent much of his professional life since 2008, but it does not alter his weak cultural connections to Ukraine or the fact that DAU fits a pattern which political scientist Yuri Shevchuk (2021) has defined as “cinematic depopulation as a variety of cultural imperialism”.4 Kozlenko, moreover, in his essay on DAU, draws attention to the unhealthy influence of Russian (oligarch) finance both for the funding of the DAU project and Khrzhanovskiy’s recent proposals for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre. He argues that the “postcolonial consciousness” of the Ukrainian political elite has not only furnished these oligarchs with an opportunity to enhance their reputation and legitimise the sources of their wealth by means of investment in prestigious cultural projects, but also by means of this investment to ensure that their voices are heard, if not dominate, in the discussions that the determine the fate of such projects. (Apparatus is publishing an updated version of this article in Ukrainian, Russian, and English).

How DAU will be viewed post-invasion is something of an abstraction at the time of writing. From one angle of vision, bearing in mind the glaring disparity between the attempt to resurrect the ghosts of Soviet psychological reflexes in a faux-cinematic ‘laboratory’ and the brutal reality of these same reflexes as currently and ruthlessly applied in Ukraine by occupying Russian forces, Khrzhanovskiy’s grand vision might well come to be regarded as something akin to a fairground attraction, perhaps even an eccentric peep-show or cabinet of curiosities. Nothing is real or serious in the world of DAU: it is a simulacrum, a postmodern ‘horror-show’. Even the destruction of the set by genuine neo-Nazis imported ​​from Russia, shown graphically in DAU. Degeneration and marking the deliberately engineered death-knell of the project (they had been invited to join the project by Khrzhanovskiy himself), is an act of faux-desecration: the murdered bodies are not real; and the material environment is not a genuinely inhabited living space that can claim anything in the way of psychological or emotional attachment apart from its status as a film-set.

The title for this special issue of Apparatus has been deliberately chosen to highlight this artifice. The idea of “playtime” in this sense belongs to the sphere of postmodern jouissance. The ‘restaging’ of the Soviet past in DAU belongs to this category because the experiment lies outside history: while undeniably appealing to an imagined (but potentially contestable) historical discourse, it does not embody the memory of any actual individual, group, or collective. This is reflected in the building complex designed by Denis Shibanov, which is richly citational in the sense that it borrows from different architectural traditions at different stages in the historical and recent past. The conceit of postmodern playfulness also underpins the immersive experience of the exhibitions and installations associated with the international press launch: as several visitors have pointed out, noone with actual experience of the Soviet Union could possibly be deceived by the items on display because they have been removed from their usual quotidian context (in other words, they give the impression of being exhibits in a museum or, as formulated by Bird, a Soviet theme park). According to Vladimir Sorokin, the prose-writer invited to produce the screenplay for DAU when it was first envisaged as a biopic, the films released within the framework of the project merely show “post-Sovs (post-sovki) playing at being Sovs (sovki)” (Sorokin, 2019). For him, this is theatrical performance rather than authentically lived experience.

The choice of Paris as the location for the press launch inspires the second allusion of the title. Fifty-five years ago the French capital served as the location for a similar monument to cinematic folly, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967, France, Italy), which was filmed on a futuristic set of massive proportions (known as “Tativille”) that had been designed by architect Eugène Roman. The concept of playfulness here references an interruption in the routine of mundane daily reality, the eruption of anarchic, spontaneous, and irreverent forces in a mechanistic, repetitive, and existential void. Undeniably, Playtime and DAU are different in several major respects. The former was not conceived as an experimental ‘laboratory’ in which actors were voluntarily incarcerated; it was not improvised, but carefully scripted, and for the most part engaged the services of professional actors; and its comic vision, a combination of dystopian fantasy and the poetics of the Absurd, required the meticulous choreographing of movement and gesture. In aesthetic terms, moreover, the material environments of the two films are rooted in different traditions. Constructed predominantly from glass and steel, Playtime is futuristic and quasi-Constructivist in orientation; DAU, by contrast, built using concrete, brick, and stone, and offering a curious blend of neo-classicism and minimalism, is primarily retrospective in orientation. Playtime is flooded with light and, at least until the evening and night-time sequences, relentlessly high-key in terms of its lighting strategies; whereas DAU, due to the relatively few light-portals in the apartments, and the fact that the research laboratories are located underground, is relentlessly low-key and for the most part submerged in an all-pervasive gloom.

Despite these differences, however, the films share a great deal in common. They are founded conceptually on the notion that architecture shapes human behaviour and experience. The material environments in both films are presented in stylised form as indicators of artifice; in both the interactions between human subjects are at the same time real and unreal; and in both the colour palette tends towards the monotonous. The sunlight in Playtime is essentially ironic: bright and unvarying in terms of its intensity, and coupled with artificial illumination within the living and work-spaces that renders nebulous the difference between interior and exterior location, it gives the impression of a slightly uncanny and formulaic repetition. The optimism of such illumination is deceptive. The arrangements of the lights in DAU – another indication, incidentally, of the intrinsic artifice of the set (modern ‘cool daylight’ bulbs, rather than Stalin-era tungsten-filament lamps, have clearly been employed) – are equally repetitive in terms of their positioning and luminosity. By the same token, even allowing for the fact that they are ostensibly state-owned property, the apartments lack individual adornment: little or nothing of personal value has been hung or positioned in order to humanise the living spaces. The ‘period costumes’, for want of a better expression, function more as uniforms, almost historical lab-coats, than personal accessories. Subsidiary characters, even if they appear in more than one film, and depending on the order in which the films are watched, are difficult to recognise as distinct individuals, even with the help of credits. The fake IDs given as part of these credits, along with the longer faux-biographies of the characters posted on the DAU website, tend to prevent rather than facilitate identification. It is symptomatic of the overall sense of anonymity that even the character of Landau, the original inspiration for the project, is encountered relatively rarely in the films that have been released so far. Few of the other protagonists appear to have much of a past (even a fictitious past) within the framework of their individual narratives; neither do they appear to evolve very much as characters, despite the films purportedly moving through several decades of their lives together (the one exception is DAU. Imperiia / DAU. Empire (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Anatoly Vasiliev, 2020, Germany, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Russia), in which Landau (played by Currentzis) and scientist Petr Kapitsa (played by Vasiliev) are shown at different stages of their lives together at the Institute between 1938 and 1952). It is not clear whether the futures of the protagonists in the individual DAU films matter very much within the conceptual framework of the whole. To some extent, they appear imprisoned within an eternally perpetual present – until, of course, they are ‘murdered’.

Does DAU as a project itself have any future as a mythopoeic act? Is it the kind of laboratory experiment that can be replicated in different societies and cultures, and in different historical conditions, in order to produce comparable or analogous sets of results? The production costs incurred in its realisation would appear to suggest otherwise. From the commercial point of view, the future of DAU is uncertain: unless television rights are sold across the world, or unless merchandise becomes available, it is difficult to imagine how the costs can be fully recouped (the production company involved, Phenomen Berlin, has not released precise figures). The example of Playtime, a commercial failure that temporarily bankrupted Tati but is now regarded as one of the most important European films of the twentieth century, serves as illustration of the fact that power of artistic vision can sometimes triumph over poor box-office statistics. Only time will tell whether a similar fate awaits DAU. It would certainly be ironic, bearing in mind the conceptual roots of the project in the possibility of historical re-staging or reimagining, if it fell victim to the phenomenon of historical amnesia.

Philip Cavendish
UCL SSEES, London
p.cavendish@ucl.ac.uk

Notes

1 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8Zlm4by3q0 (December 7, 2020) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeNFXeugTEY (January 26, 2021).

2 The editors wish to make clear that, apart from kind permission to reproduce certain images and production stills for the purposes of illustration, this special issue of Apparatus has received no financial support from Phenomen Berlin, the film company responsible for the production of DAU films and other related materials.

3 Cf. also ​​Anton Dolin's video “‘Ne dadim strakhu sozhrat’ nashu dushu’. Kinematografisty protiv voiny” with the anti-war statements of Russian cinematographers aired on February 26, 2022 (timecode: 32:38).

4 It is the policy of Apparatus in relation to Russian and Ukrainian proper nouns and place-names to follow the American Library of Congress system of transliteration (without diacritics) except in those cases where anglicised spellings are either commonly used or preferred. In relation to the members of the DAU production team and participants, the journal has adopted the spellings given on the Dau.com website. For articles published in Russian, Russian spellings of non-Russian names have been retained throughout.

Bio

Philip Cavendish is a Reader in Russian and Soviet Film Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His main research interests lie in the relationship between film technology and visual aesthetics. He has published on the poetics of the camera in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, the visual aesthetics of Soviet avant-garde and mainstream cinema in the 1920s and ‘30s, the archival history and reconstructions of Sergei Eisenstein’s first film (Glumov’s Diary), the genre of the photo-film in contemporary Russian cinema, and experiments in Soviet colour film and animation during the 1930s and 1940s. Along with Dr Rachel Morley, he is co-Chair of the Russian Cinema Research Group at UCL SSEES.

Bibliography

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Filmography

Alvarez, Kyle Patrick. 2015. The Stanford Prison Experiment. Coup d’Etat Films, Sandbar Pictures, Abandon Pictures, Priority Pictures.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Oertel, Jekaterina. 2020. DAU. Natasha. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Ilya Permyakov. 2020. DAU. Degeneratsiia / DAU. Degeneration. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Anatoly Vasiliev. 2020. DAU. Imperium / DAU: The Empire. Phenomen Films.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. 1975. Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma / Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. Produzioni Europee Associati, Les Productions Artistes Associés.

Tati, Jacques. 1967. Playtime. Specta Films, Jolly Film.

Suggested Citation

Cavendish, Philip. 2022. “DAU: Outside and Beyond History”. Soviet Playtime. Architectures of Power and Profligacy in DAU (ed. by Philip Cavendish, Natascha Drubek, and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 14. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2022.00014.304

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms