Khrzhanovsky, My Car! – The Story of Dau
Late last month, a streaming platform named Dau Cinema appeared online rather innocuously and with little media fanfare. The site currently contains 7 films, priced at $3 each, with another 7 still to arrive at a rate of one per week. This is the remarkable story of how they got there, although I can’t guarantee that it’s the truth.
Our tale begins over a decade ago, when Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky started work on a biopic of renowned physicist Lev Landau. Khrzhanovsky, the son a famous animator and a member of Russian high society, had previously made just one film – the rather low-key 4. Five years into production on what had become known as Dau, we were forced to reconsider our impressions of his ambition. An article was published in GQ magazine, describing a film set that had evolved (or devolved) into something very strange indeed – something that defied the very notion of ‘film set’ in the first place.
An aura of myth and legend had developed around the small Ukrainian town of Kharkov, where the ostensible Landau film had been replaced by an immaculate replica of a Soviet scientific ‘institute’ housed within an abandoned swimming pool. At twelve thousand square meters, it was easily the largest film set in Europe.
Actors were not only cast but apparently lived and worked on this set for years at a time, in character as members of the institute. One article claims fifty actors were involved; another claims ‘hundreds of thousands’; the director himself has said he cast 390,000. There was no script – everything was improvised or ‘real’. Everything was said to be historically accurate – soviet food, soviet drink, soviet clothes, soviet wages, soviet attitudes. It was alleged on occasion that participants were not paid, or that they were woefully mistreated – a string of articles and rumours from the disgruntled made their way online. People claimed a cult of admiration coalesced around Khrzhanovsky, who ruled his subjects with an iron fist. There was no longer a film; there was only an outlet for an influential member of the Russian intelligentsia’s masochistic fantasies.
The press, especially the Western press with whom Khrzhanovsky feigned indifference, were enraptured. That GQ article I mentioned, by Michael Idov, only served to clad the project in yet more mystery with its descriptions of whole cities hidden within wooden boxes. In one particularly memorable episode, it alleged that toilet pipes had been custom designed to make the flush sound more soviet. Idov clearly wanted to demysticise Khrzhanovsky, but in the process ended up cloaking him further still. This was, of course, exactly what the director had wanted from the start, and when the world’s film press came knocking all were ignored.
Behind closed doors, then, rumours allowed to fester. It was said by several sources that filming took place in secret – that cameras and microphones were hidden behind two-way mirrors and that participants were filmed without them knowing. In fact, the norm was for there to be no filming at all. There was to be sex, there was to be violence – there was certainly to be both at once – and all of this was to be real. Khrzhanovsky introduced secret police elements into the project and started arresting and ‘torturing’ its occupants. The secret police were played by real-life former KGB agents. 14 children were allegedly conceived on set. To say ‘ethics’ were pushed to the boundaries would be to vastly understate the matter – we’ve barely started.
Even the more admiring articles tended to note Khrzhanovsky’s past as a pick-up artist and his alleged habit of creating endless ‘assistant director’ roles for young women. His alleged habit of firing those who rejected his advances was also called into question, as was his alleged habit of specifying that female actors allow all their clothes to be removed during filming and agree to a ‘no rules’ policy. That GQ article suggests that an attempt was made to have the writer have sex with a cast member. Khrzhanovsky even cast murderous neo-Nazis as themselves, and a genuine beating they undertook is featured in the work – the American actor attacked has said he is “traumatised”. Allegedly – although by this point you’re hopefully aware of the omnipresence of the ‘alleged’ – prisoners (including murderers) were ‘hired’ mid-sentence from Kharkov prison, and institute residents could be made to spend time in cells with said prisoners if they were arrested. A desperate plea by an imprisoned actor son and his mother – to be set free and allowed to leave – were ignored by the director.
This whole process went on for some three years. 700 hours of footage was collected, all in 35mm, by live-in cinematographer Jürgen Jürges.
Dau undoubtedly, perhaps inevitably, consumed itself in its own ridiculous ambition. Such unflinching commitment to authenticity conveyed in the sound of a toilet flush does not lend itself to the modern scientific research undertaken in the institute by the real scientists Khrzhanovsky had researching onsite; the incorrect race and age profiles of the cast; the inclusion of shamans and tribespeople which seems to have involved the taking of ayahuasca. Modern musicians, artists and thinkers were invited to the set to give talks and to participate and even to feature in the films which resulted. The only thread joining these people is Khrzhanovsky’s admiration for their work. Even stranger, those same neo-Nazis were eventually asked to ceremonially destroy the institute. The staged massacre of staff and the afterparty, with famous Western DJs and open bar, were all filmed and feature in the final of the 14 films on offer. Suffice to say, this wasn’t an accurate depiction of the USSR.
It has been suggested that Dau remains a biopic of Landau in some post-modern sense. A quantum physicist who possessed radical views on sexual politics, was committed to multiple psychiatric institutes and died in a gruesome car crash, it’s hard to disagree that this sort of madness is fitting. That said, it is also hard to suggest, with a straight face, that Dau is a biopic. It has been suggested that the 14 films are ‘about’ the Soviet Union and its peculiar regimentation – but the surreal brutalist abstraction of its set and its obsession with the nexus between quantum physics and hardcore psychedelics clearly puts that to rest. It has been suggested, finally, that Dau is about institutionalisation in general – and, although this seems the more likely of the three, doesn’t it seem more likely still that Dau has become a project about Dau itself?
The most obvious problem with Dau, aside from the ethical dilemmas, was finding a way to turn this lived-in experience into something coherent. Largely funded by telecommunications billionaire Serguei Adoniev, practical concerns had been minimal for Khrzhanovsky – and when the time came to show his project to the world, this became painfully obvious.
There were to be exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and London (with more to follow) – an epic, unprecedented showcase of whatever it was that Dau was. But the Paris iteration was cloaked in ambiguity and confusion until its (delayed and diminished) opening, whereupon confused reporters commented on a general lack of coherence, the unfinished nature of much of the exhibition, its failure to live up to its own expectations, its cumbersome and invasive entry process, and its prohibitively high pricing. It was a week into its month-long run before the films were even viewable. A record-breaking ‘triangle of light’ linking the exhibition sites was never seen, and an envisioned bridge between the two theatres was denied by Parisian authorities.
Celebrities and art figures from across the world were said to have practically lived in the exhibition for its whole run, whilst continuously exclaiming to passing reporters that they thought the whole thing was a stupid, meaningless exercise in vanity. A large part of the exhibition consisted of a recreation of Dau – as if Dau was really a conceptual art installation and not a film at all. Overall, a survey of the journalism from Paris shows the cultural press were rather uniformly scathing of whatever it was they encountered.
Perhaps the key marker of Dau’s failure in Paris, one of the cultural capitals of the world, is thus: for all its pomp and circumstance and blind ambition, the huge event hasn’t even left so much as a skidmark on popular culture. You likely hadn’t heard of it, for one, and a year later I think it’s safe to say those that had have largely forgotten. The Berlin and London exhibits never materialised; the former just days from being opened when it was cancelled by city authorities outraged by the proposed construction of a replica Berlin wall. Khrzhanovsky claims these events put the production massively in debt, and that there was no money to go to London in the end. Likewise, the several promised and widely-reported theatrical releases of Dau films – including the conventional biopic – now seem unlikely to say the least.
Then came the accusations. There are so many accusations that you need to divide them into categories; that it would bore you for me to attempt a forensic listing of them – consider this a selection. There were the people that alleged Khrzhanovsky as the perpetrator, or as complicit, in physical, sexual, and emotional abuse – although those people were scarcely identified by the media, who seemed to work several of these rumours up all by themselves. The Ukrainian government has also, it’s worth noting, begun an investigation into ‘child torture’ on the set.
Then there were the people who argued that in an environment such as the institute, nothing that was done for Dau could be seen as truly consensual – the vicious sexual violence in DAU. Natasha could not be seen as staged if the actors’ lives had become the material. Likewise, the production’s insistence on the reality of several of its scenes – i.e. a multiple-hour ‘genuine’ marital fallout – not to mention talk of real sex and violence, lies deeply at odds with its insistence that anything that looks shocking is ‘staged’.
The eponymous Natasha, for her part, confirmed that everything was done with free will and consent – although her director was quick to say that it is for the audience “to decide whether it’s fiction or real”. This raises another question, of course: to what extent is the outrage actually manufactured by the creator as a publicity stunt? One is reminded of Jodorowsky’s ill-fated attempt to drag people to El Topo by claiming he had raped its lead actress and featured the scene in the film. The ethical questions Dau raises undoubtedly cloud the material – one might go so far as to say they are the material. This is especially so in the post-Weinstein age, where the myth of the lone male genius who is allowed to abuse for art has been roundly rejected.
In light of incoherencies, people began to doubt the authenticity of the process. If Dau was unscripted, a moderator at the Berlinale asked, then how come the plots and dialogue of these films turned out so well? Although the response came in a characteristically evasive and dismissive tone from the director, it was asserted once more that this was truly ‘life’ – that for months at a time no filming occurred, and that when the cameras were finally turned on this is where these people were and these are the things they were saying and doing. This was backed up by cinematographer Jürgen Jürges who stated that when cameras broke, they simply weren’t able to use the footage as ‘retakes’ were meaningless.
If this is true, which it almost certainly is not, then it suggests that the sexual and violent aspects of Dau were continuing, naturally, in the institute and not being filmed. When pressed on some of the more hardcore and disturbing elements of his films, Khrzhanovsky claimed that these, on the other hand, were”of course” not real. He made the reasonable defence that even though extreme things can happen, everyone was consenting to this peculiar project and everyone knew the other consented. People could not be killed; could not be genuinely tortured. Crazy things could happen, but unlike a real KGB interrogation there was no real danger. The moderator, at this point, astutely noted that there was a massive contradiction between the statements “it is real” and “of course, it is not real” to which the typical reply landed: “there is no contradiction”. Later he said “when he [the guard torturing Natasha] hit her, he hit her for real”.
When asked whether people might have felt pressured by alcohol into doing things they might regret, Khrzhanovsky responded “alcohol is a tool”. When an audience member and former psychologist asked if professionals were available on-set to deal with traumatic experiences, the response was “it depends on how you define ‘psychologist’”. It was the very end of the interview before Oertel thought to mention that Natasha (and by extension most of the cast) didn’t even live at the institute – that she went home every night. The confusion this caused was evident: with the amount of conflicting news reports floating around about Dau, many assumed that all the actors took up permanent residence. The palpable language barrier between the English-speaking press and the Russian creative team could be responsible for much of the nausea surrounding the project.
All the same, no matter how we spin it this is still a project that paid Neo-Nazis (one of whom is now spending a ten-year stretch in prison) to – amongst other things – paint a star of David on a real live pig before dragging it in front of a group of unsuspecting people and hacking it to death with a kitchen knife whilst it screams and thrashes about on the rug. Ethically ‘problematic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it (I suspect the film where this takes place, DAU. Degeneration, would be refused BBFC classification for this scene).
Adding fuel to the accusation fire, the Russian ministry of culture has further classified Dau as ‘pornographic propaganda’ – something that opens Khrzhanovsky up to prosecution in his home country, although the likelihood of that actually occurring seems minimal; perhaps just another outlet for the director to play the press.
Controversy has thus been present throughout this project’s long and chaotic life, but controversy sells – especially in the film business. Dau’s chief commercial enemy rather seems to have been time itself. Khrzhanovsky was able to build hype in 2011 – even if only in the outer limits of film circles. But by the time footage was being shown to journalists in 2015, that hype had died out and needed to be resurrected. By the time Paris came together in 2019, the hype had died out and needed to be resurrected again. And then, as we saw, Paris basically killed itself – the confusion surrounding Berlin and London further torpedoed things. Enigma and exclusivity are powerful marketing tools, but if you remain silent for years, people will begin to ignore you no matter how spectacular your story.
Earlier this year, at the Berlinale, the world finally received Dau as it would look like for most people: the two films, Natasha and Degeneration. Even then, there were some uncertainties: at 6 hours, Degeneration was often called a TV series and not a movie, plus there was a general presumption Natasha was to go on to a theatrical release. Both films, however, found their way – unadorned by any fanfare – to Dau Cinema last month, although due to undisclosed legal issues (‘we’re trying to remedy the situation’ I was told) Natasha is still only available to stream in certain territories.
Dau is here, and it’s here in the form of 14 films of varying lengths, streaming on Dau Cinema for the price of $3 each. Still the question remains: is this ‘genius’ or ‘folly’?
One recalls that Ilya Khrzhanovsky is the artistic director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center – another grand endeavor which has cost millions but has not yet proceeded past planning – and allegedly is creating a ‘Holocaust Disneyland’ complete with visitor role-play as Nazis, victims, and prisoners made to burn corpses. The pattern is not so much indicative of genius as an over-excited child with too many historically-volatile toys to play with – toys he perhaps does not understand the significance of. If this project comes to light, he will have transformed both the holocaust and the worst excesses of the USSR into live-action theme parks within the same decade.
And, indeed, I can’t help but think there’s a sense of bathos that accompanies the conversion of this ludicrous tale into a vaguely amateurish streaming platform. Bathos because this was the way things were always going to be – Dau is unprecedented, and yet its outcome must necessarily fit precedent. Even some vast multi-media installation is by no means ‘unprecedented’.
Bathos, too, because secrecy was such an important part of Dau. As we have seen, visits to the set were few and far between and always conducted so as to be an enigma. When the footage sat complete in London, reporters were permitted brief glimpses – under heavy security and aggressive staff – and nothing more. The Paris exhibition was, and still is, drenched in ambiguity. And yet, a year later it’s all just.. there. Just sitting on Dau.com. Khrzhanovsky now calls his work “The first cinematic project about isolation, filmed in isolation, for people in isolation”. A monkey could see that none of these descriptors seem true; just another ‘idea’ to add to the growing pile along with the various novels and symposiums and concerts and immersive art exhibitions Dau has been. Far too many things to fit into this already bloated article.
Still, you wouldn’t catch any sane person slamming out 3000 words on Tenet – in that respect, Ilya Khrzhanovsky has got exactly what he wanted. And, for my money, this is the most ambitious film shoot – practically and ethically – in the last one hundred years of cinema. Regardless of the quality of the outcome, there are things worth discussing about Dau for years to come: the mythology of male genius, the ethical limits of art, the role of consent in negating troubling boundaries, the effectiveness of method acting, the purpose of realism. All these things are super interesting, and whilst you might say “but James, these things only serve to distract from the Dau films themselves”, doesn’t it make more sense to argue that they are, in some way, one and the same? Whatever the answer to that question, we can now, after ten years, make our own minds up.
Come and see (and disagree).
The Dau films are now streaming on Dau.com