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History’s most ambitious art stunt is now ending with a series of terrible movies

After 14 years’ work with more than 10,000 participants, the Dau project is wrapping up poorly

A woman in a pink chemise, clutching a knife in one hand, opens her eyes and mouth wide in shock at something offscreen, as two men in sleeveless white T-shirts in the background also look with seeming amusement at the same thing. Image: Phenomen IP

llya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau was originally set to film for seven weeks back in 2006. The cinematic behemoth was meant to unfold in a living, breathing three-acre recreation of postwar Moscow, built in the Ukrainian town of Kharkov. Cameras would follow hundreds of non-professional actors and thousands of extras day and night, as they lived life as if under the watchful eye of the KGB, wearing era-appropriate clothing, eating from tin cans, and informing on each other to uniformed officials.

But the project sprawled out into something stunning in scope and ambition. By the time most people got word of the film — first, from the GQ article The Movie Set That Ate Itself, and later through whispers and bigger investigationsDau had been in constant production for nearly six years, with some 700 hours of footage shot, and reportedly more than 10,000 participants.

In 2017, after an additional six years in post, rumors that Dau was complete hit the internet. The film project had expanded to a dozen movies, which finally premiered as a walk-in art installation in Paris last year. Now that number seems to have expanded further, to 14 movies, with the first ones hitting streaming and bringing the project to a wide audience. The first two parts, the 137-minute Dau. Natasha and the six-hour Dau. Degeneration premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and were made available to stream as part of a “test phase” on April 15 for $3 apiece. (Degeneration is still available, while Natasha will officially be released on April 24, along with a third film, Nora Mother.)

Not to mince words: the first two available Dau films, Natasha and Degeneration, are pretty terrible. As drama, they’re unengaging. As large-scale performance art, the project is morally putrid — as several Russian critics also noted, in an open letter to Berlinale. But as movies fueled by an unhinged, perhaps even unparalleled creative ego, they’re fascinating documents of the various shady modes of production the public has begun to drag into the sunlight over the last few years. For the director, the Dau project is a work of obsession. For his actors, it appears to be a work of violent exploitation.

[Warning: The following piece includes mentions of emotional and sexual abuse.]

That critics’ open letter rightly evokes Harvey Weinstein and an era “marked by the struggle against the culture of violence,” but the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bernardo Bertolucci might be more fitting, as artists whose methods were once mythologized, but have since been re-framed as abusive toward their actresses. The letter asks: “What artistic goals … were met by the authors’ methods that could not be met in a respectful and non-abusive environment?”

By Khrzhanovsky’s own admission, Dau featured real physical and psychological violence against his non-professionals, and even unsimulated sex under the influence of alcohol. The project, and the resulting films, are aberrant forms of art. But the whole work speaks to the grand tradition of directors traumatizing their workers with full impunity — and what more potent example of this than a film whose entire production was geared toward letting Khrzhanovsky exert complete control over the participants?

In replicating the oppressive nature of the KGB (and its predecessor, the MGB), Dau is inadvertently about its own making. Its first installment, Dau. Natasha, follows middle-aged Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) and her twenty-something assistant Olya (Olya Shkabarnya), a pair of cafeteria workers at “The Institute” — a secretive government facility explored in the second film — as they interact with various scientists passing through its doors in the early 1950s. Khrzhanovsky’s apathy toward his characters becomes apparent early on, when the camera remains at arm’s length to observe and manipulate situations from afar.

With multiple 35mm cameras running around the clock, capturing highly improvised scenes, the film doesn’t feel like a crafted drama — it’s more like an episode of Big Brother, without the interview cutaways. Khrzhanovsky has little care for the internal lives of Natasha and his cast. His only interest seems to be the effects of his own gaudy experiment. As his characters work, frolic, or have sex, he leers at them from an objective vantage. The performances are no doubt naturalistic, but Khrzhanovsky captures them with the visual flair of a hastily assembled cable talk show.

In a montage image of 16 small images from the Dau project, naked bodies embrace, people dance and stand in front of fires, a girl gets her hair cut, a man sits at a piano, and more. Image: Phenomen IP

When Natasha drunkenly sleeps with a French scientist, the camera’s focus remains on her bare torso; her facial reactions to the encounter are pushed out of frame. For the most part, the camera floats in an in-between space of oddly conceived medium shots, neither close enough to reveal its subjects’ humanity, nor far enough to feel voyeuristic as they live out their lives in private. If anything, the director’s presence feels oppressively close (and even more so in Dau. Degeneration) as he silently puppeteers his cast, giving his camera crew instructions on the fly. The lens whips back and forth to capture individual reactions of people in large gatherings, but it doesn’t turn far enough. The real subject of Dau is Khrzhanovsky himself, standing just behind camera; on set, he demanded he be addressed as “the head of The Institute,” or simply “the boss.”

There are exactly two exceptions to Dau. Natasha’s aloof visual fabric, and both reveal something fundamental about Khrzhanovsky’s approach. In one instance, the camera lingers over Natasha’s shoulder, as Olya — who Natasha has manipulated into getting drunk — rushes to vomit in a nearby sink. In the other, the camera sits right by the cheek of an imposing Soviet intelligence officer, Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), as he interrogates Natasha for sleeping with the foreigner. These are only times the film feels at all subjective, like it’s exploring a narrative point of view, rather than photographing a diorama. In either case, the camera sides with characters at their most disdainful, as they coerce consent in order to dominate their inferiors.

Natasha and Olya have a strange mother-daughter relationship, in which casual conversation turns abusive and violent at the drop of a hat. The Soviet officer strips and sexually assaults Natasha, to force her to spy on the foreign scientist. Soon after, Natasha has an extended breakdown, during which she laments the pressures she’s forced to live under day and night. “I’m fucking sick of this director,” she exclaims, to no one in particular. She’s supposedly talking about the director of The Institute, a man who’s supposed to visit the next day, and who acts as an invisible presence keeping her in line.

But it doesn’t feel like she’s referring to the fiction of the film. “Fuck him,” she says, hunched over in a corner, as the cameras continue to roll. Khrzhanovsky displays the scene proudly, letting it play out for a painfully long time. The film has no real conclusion either, beyond portraying the authoritarian pressures the Dau experiment created. It’s unclear why Natasha’s traumatic tale was dramatized at all, beyond Khrzhanovsky’s desire to pummel his subjects into emotional submission.

A bespectacled, tousle-haired man in a brown suit jacket and red tie plays the piano in the foreground, as in the background, a crowd of standing people of various ages watch him. Image: Phenomen IP

Dau. Degeneration is even stranger. It’s best described as an extended mash-up of two different kinds of films. The first is a science-fiction story, where scientists and theologians attempt to experiment on human beings to create “perfect people.” The second is a more scatterbrained version of Dau. Natasha. This six-hour installment shares locations and even a few characters with its predecessor — Azhippo, who now oversees The Institute from the shadows, and a scientist named Blinov (Alexey Blinov, also the film’s technical development lead).

But it takes place more than a decade after Dau. Natasha, in 1968, without any sign of Natasha or Olya. Maybe they’ve been absorbed or destroyed by the Soviet machine. Maybe Khrzhanovsky just doesn’t care about them, beyond their function in the first film. Instead, we’re made to witness even more drunken, unsimulated sex scenes, even more sexual assault intersecting with backroom Soviet politics, and even more mental collapses that shatter the fourth wall, always with women breaking down.

It’s not only excessive, it’s artless. Khrzhanovsky has little to say with these explicit encounters, and his distant approach to his characters continues to reduce them to their roles within the state: as workers within a hierarchy, as objects of sexual manipulation, and as subjects of violent experiments. In this regard, he succeeds, but success in merely re-creating a fascist enterprise for long periods isn’t just morally repugnant. It’s also boring to watch — which tips Dau. Degeneration over from an extension of ego, into a portrait of hubris.

What, exactly, does Khrzhanovsky have to show after these initial eight hours of filmmaking? Dau. Natasha unfolds mostly in a series of three or four rooms, so the effort made to re-create an entire town feels like a pointless endeavor — unless the point is to play God. Dau. Degeneration does feature the set’s exteriors a little more; they’re suitably lavish, but “It gets mildly interesting five hours in, I swear!” is faint praise at best.

After repeatedly cutting to groups of people in meetings, and even smaller groups writing theorems and formulae on blackboards — so much of the film involves people discussing dilemmas, rather than engaging with them — Degeneration finally unleashes its experiment, in which several men have their orbital cortexes electrically zapped. The intent is to create soldiers with little to no empathy, and when these men begin interacting with (and wreaking havoc upon) the world we’ve seen, the question does occasionally rise: is their reactionary hedonism a function of the experiment, a function of cultural conditioning, or simply human nature? But the film never fully commits to engaging with these ideas. It’s too haphazardly assembled.

A seated, shirtless, shoeless, masked man in a glass box lifts weights while a uniformed woman observes and takes notes. Image: Phenomen IP

If Dau. Degeneration were about any one thing, perhaps Khrzhanovsky could’ve written, blocked, and framed it with real dramatic objectives in mind. Instead, its actors simply run amok in flatly lit spaces, engaging in a straight-faced version of bad improv comedy. The film’s drama stems not from the subjects’ lives or minds, but the things they do — and are made to do by the director’s whims. The film wants to partake in the grand traditions of Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavski, masters of naturalism, subtext, and Method acting techniques that seek to reveal the characters’ inner lives. But Khrzhanovsky is an artistic con man. He wants the mere appearance of realism; he wants to portray the self-flagellation many have come to associate with “the Method,” even if it means forcing it on his actors.

It all feels sycophantic, as if filmmaking is being used as an excuse to engage in violent fantasies. Dau’s actors aren’t really playing characters. We aren’t seeing fully formed people responding to the pressures of a real society, behaving within the confines of whatever little free will they still possess behind closed doors. Instead, we see performers under duress in every frame. Even during the characters’ private moments, the camera’s presence feels aggressive, oppressive, and invasive, in ways that allow for no contrast with how they behave to the outside world.

Dau doesn’t explore the effects of Soviet society on its people. Instead, it’s an embodiment of the power trip gained from imposing such conditions in the first place. It was conceived by creative ego, and it takes the form of artistic malfeasance. If nothing else, Dau finally puts to rest the idea of the all-powerful director, whose suffering-for-art involves making others suffer. The results simply aren’t worth it.