“I would like to build a film on Rashomon’s principle — a look at one person from different points of view” – Ilya Khrzhanovsky (bbcrussian.com, 2005)
“The heart of DAU lies in the 700 hours of 35mm film shots at the Institute, which document this immense social and artistic experiment. From this raw material, Ilya Khrzhanovsky and his team of editing directors have made 13 feature films — temporarily identified with numbers — as well as several series and documentaries, with more to come out of the editing room.” – DAU’s press kit, 2019
With a family name like mine, one that sounds trivial in Eastern Europe but rather exotic everywhere else, I got used to three different reactions ever since I moved abroad: “Oh, like the dancer!” “Oh, like the dessert!” “Oh, like the dog!” The dog version is rather rare in France, but it is precisely what I get, as I queue to enter DAU on a Friday evening. After having shown my personal ID plus my special 24-hour DAU visa at the entrance, after having deposited my cell phone in a safety box, the third and last challenge is the security check, where an actual Homo sovieticus diligently writes down my name in a messy notebook. “Like Pavlov’s dog?” he repeats. I smile back.
There is nothing personal about this type of Cold War humor, and I am used to that. As a matter of fact, nothing about the pre-1989 existence on the other side of the Iron Curtain was personal. Clothes, chairs, apartments — everything was standardized, often uncomfortable and unfitting. Same with jokes, as most of them were about The Russian, The American and The French or The German plus their impossible interactions, only not as individuals but as stereotypes. Once you set foot into DAU, it is easy to spot this playful attitude to the scenography, as well as to the people it was designed for. From the tin pannikins and the penis-shaped furniture to the overall chaos with masses being ushered from one side to the other, it seems like everything inside is to be taken with a grain of salt, and plenty of vodka.
Still, what is DAU? As Paris is the city of Guy Debord and psychogeography, we better start with the map. Both Théâtre du Châtelet and Théâtre de la Ville were built in the second half of the XIX century, in the era of baron Haussmann’s grand reconstructions. Facing each other across Place du Châtelet, in the middle between these two imposing cultural institutions stands an Ancient-Egypt-themed fountain commemorating Emperor Napoleon’s victories abroad. At first, both theaters centered their repertoire around opera, yet later specialized in music and dance, respectively. Fast-forward to the beginning of the XX century — you can easily imagine Anna Pavlova (that dancer) performing on the stage of Théâtre du Châtelet and Sarah Bernhardt forging the new canon of French drama in Théâtre de la Ville all at the same time. Outside, the world was breathing avant-garde.
Back to the present day, on this location in the heart of Paris saturated with signs and significance, one steps into a chronotope anomaly. Shortly after touring the world festivals with his debut feature 4 (2004), Ilya Khrzhanovsky started developing a biopic on Lev Landau – one of the most celebrated Soviet scientists, known for his work in the field of theoretical physics. Khrzhanovsky’s project soon spilled over the brims of traditional filmmaking, as he re-built Moscow’s Institute for Physical Problems in Kharkov / Ukraine and invited hundreds of real-life scientists, artists, celebrities, spiritual leaders, common people to inhabit the Institute from 2009 to 2011, thus literally re-living DAU’s timeline from 1938 to 1968. Then, Théâtre du Châtelet and Théâtre de la Ville were redecorated to accommodate all the Sovietness you can imagine (including works of art from Centre Pompidou’s vault), not only to screen the many films born out of this adventure but also putting up canteens, a sex bar, a kommunalka, confession booths, video library with DAU’s rushes and making-of snippets, various venues for concerts, performances, and conferences, a gift shop packed with fish cans… all the while DAU’s actors stroll among Paris visitors — watching films in the crowd, sometimes casually chatting, or performing live on a surprise schedule. “The experiment is ongoing,” as per DAU’s tagline, and this circumvents Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” on a number of levels, even dimensions.
DAU does not strive to be just an exhibition space, or experience — its storyline is open to the past and also to the future, which is the topic of the Paris premiere. It takes a lot of belief that this future can be fortunate only if shared in order to invite to the French capital clerics of various confessions, shamans and scientists to discuss on metaphysics. Carried by the flow of entropy, I end up at a lecture on quantum mechanics, black holes and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Will the people seated around me be able to solve the mysteries of the universe? Even if we are within an installation, all of us momentarily forget that we take part in a more or less scripted reality, and our imagination takes off; the young and wide-eyed ones, just as the bored and the posh ones, even that tiny aging lady who keeps asking the lecturer to talk louder until everyone decides she is an agent-provocateur.
Despite these hallowed intentions, however, most of DAU’s English or French reviews are rather negative. It looks like what the Berlin Wall used to separate before 1989, and still does to a certain degree, are two different cultures: “Time is money!” and “What time is it now?” While inside all of us wear our visa as a festival badge, only a few can really navigate the tricky soil of constant technical problems, communication mix-ups, lack of visible information and planning. As a fan of gaming, I joyfully dive into the haze, moreover I happen to speak all the languages of DAU. And if Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale has taught me anything, it is that one can only advance into the story with magical agents or helpers. So I keep asking questions, and likewise people ask me questions — no one is an NPC here. In this sense, DAU disrupts not only the classic narrative conventions, but also the (Western) understanding of immersive art as a standardized experience. A ticket-paying audience wants to be sure that whatever they go through will be relatable and shareable. Well, DAU is pretty much like real life — there are no rules and nothing is fair.
And then there are the films. Similarly to cave dwelling, it is difficult to calculate how much time I spend watching inside DAU, but somewhere close to the half of all features, which means between 12 and 15 hours. Yes, there is a lot of unsimulated sex like advertised, and I believe I catch the only two queer stories (totalitarianism is terribly hetero, I have to warn you). What strikes me, though, is not the mechanization of copulation as a form of communal control, but the fact that for so many hours of various intercourses, I spot just one condom — gritty socialist realism to the last detail. Apart from the central character with his entangled romantic and scientific life, guests also get to spend plenty of time with waiters, janitors, librarians, KGB agents — all of them eating, drinking, chatting about the meaning of life, when they are not having sex, of course. There is something inherently nocturnal, nostalgic in the films’ visuals, yet it is not a regret for an era long gone. I would go so far as to say that despite the unorthodox filming techniques, in-between reality show and psychodrama, DAU has its roots in Russian cinema, with this particular yearning for a meaningful human contact and the sober realization of its impossibility. It is also precisely what incites the viewers to submerge into DAU’s intricate history and what keeps them glued — the feeling that they slowly get to know this universe so well, along with the frustration that they are always kept at arm’s length.
At this point, rumor has it that Khrzhanovsky is re-cutting a feature version of DAU for traditional distribution. Nevertheless, if these 1,400 words have not convinced you so far, let me tell you that nothing compares to experiencing DAU in situ. The USSR is no more, the Institute set in Kharkov was demolished, but the work is here –– ready for its next location. It is unfortunate that the Paris premiere has been pigeonholed through the political implications of Khrzhanovsky’s laissez-faire methods. Film critics missing the total theater clues, visual art specialists misinterpreting the ludic, performing arts connoisseurs not quite appreciating the moving image… the term Gesamtkunstwerk has been tossed around, yet its XIX-century allure hints for a different dispositif — the art work as a black monolith, with critics circling around and attempting to translate its message for the unlettered. As much as DAU requires certain knowledge of XX-century history and arts, its key element is the subjective, the emotional, even the intrusion. And this can be the game changer the future needs.
Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.