Visiting the Set of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau

Michael Idov’s article about his visit to the set of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau, a film about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Lev Landau, has to be one of the more interesting film-related articles I’ve read in awhile. The film, which began shooting in 2006 and is expected to finish around 2012, has generated a massive set that contains a completely realistic replica of Stalin-era Moscow in which a cast of non-actors — culled from a database of 210,000 candidates — live and are monitored at all times.

A few moments later we reach a passageway between worlds: the door connecting the film’s modern production offices, where people are free to eat junk food and peck at laptops, with the time warp of the Institute. A silent guard observes my typewritten pass bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle and date-stamped April 28, 1952. Another frisks Khrzhanovsky, without betraying any deference or even recognition. After a security wand roughly passes over my back — a cell phone; sorry, can’t have that inside — I finally step through the door and onto the set. I’ve heard the tales and seen some pictures. I still gasp.
Before me is an entire city, built to scale, open to the elements, and — at 1 a.m. and with no camera in sight — fully populated. Two guards walk the perimeter, gravel crunching under their boots. Down the fake street, a female janitor in a vintage head scarf sweeps a porch.
The set is roughly the size of two football fields, surrounded by a five-story fantasia of oppressive architecture. One edifice, a woozy take on Lenin’s tomb, has an irregular ziggurat leading up to it. A coliseum-like stadium looms over two drab residential buildings. Atonal cello music squalls across the city, issuing from pole-mounted loudspeakers. The sole purpose of it seems to be to make one tense, uncomfortable, on edge.
Khrzhanovsky throws open the front door of one of the residential buildings, and here I gasp again. The guts of the set are as elaborate as the set itself. There are hallways that lead to apartments, and in the apartments there are kitchens, and in the iceboxes food, fresh and perfectly edible but with 1952 expiration dates. Again and again, Khrzhanovsky opens cupboards, drawers, closets, showing me matchboxes, candles, loofahs, books, salami, handkerchiefs, soap bars, cotton balls, condensed milk, pâté. He proudly flushes at least three toilets. “The toilet pipe is custom width,” he says, “because it makes a difference in the volume and the tenor of the flushing sound.” He looks completely, utterly delighted.

The goal, as the article states, is to create a space where Khrzhanovsky “could elicit the needed emotions from his cast in controlled conditions, twenty-four hours a day.” However, the massive set is as much a vehicle for Khrzhanovsky’s lust and arrogance as it is an attempt to capture truly authentic performances.

For someone so clearly questing after control and adulation, Dau was the best thing that could possibly happen. Building the Institute gave Khrzhanovsky more than a film to shoot. It made him king, with all the kingly prerogatives – like picking his court. A typical case is Yulia, a wispy, beautiful graduate of a prestigious directing workshop who was brought to Kharkov to interview for one of Khrzhanovsky’s seemingly limitless “assistant director” jobs. What her duties would be remained unclear. Once at the compound, Yulia waited for over six hours; finally the director showed up. “Hi,” said Yulia, “I’ve been waiting for you the whole day.” “Thank you,” answered Khrzhanovsky, “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.”
The director wouldn’t make an actual move — that wasn’t his style — but clearly expected her to throw herself at him. “When I got out,” remembers Yulia, “everyone was like, Did he ask you about sleeping with other women?’ That seemed to be an important part of his interview process.” In the morning, when she saw Khrzhanovsky, she started uncontrollably shaking with disgust. Soon after, an assistant curtly told her to leave: “You and Ilya have very differing outlooks on life.”
People like Yulia number in the many dozens. Some lasted a day, others a month. Some say they’d happily work with Khrzhanovsky again, others claim something akin to PTSD. “It’s almost slavery,” writes one former crew member in a blog. “But Ilya managed to make everyone think they were part of something truly great.” “Working here,” notes another, “is like being that guy who wanted to be killed and eaten, and finding a maniac who wants to kill and eat you. Perfect reciprocity.”

What emerges from the article is a fascinating picture of both artistic conviction (and maybe even genius) and depraved boorishness.

Related: The Cannes Festival website has some more info on Dau, including an artistic statement and descriptions of the film’s aesthetic approaches. For example, regarding the film’s use of sound:

Radio, car horns, policemen’s whistles, rattle of rails and bells of trams, clatter of women’s heels and rumble of soldiers’ boots, and, finally, street orchestras — at that time, there were very many of them and very often they stood right next to each other, playing absolutely different music. All of these will go to create the real, sometimes beautifully harmonious, and sometimes, turning into hellish cacophony, the monstrous and physiologically frightening, world of sounds of that time.
It is well known that Landau didn’t like music, and that he was irritated in general by any outside sounds. This is why, when the action takes place in Landau’s apartment, the phonogram will be based on macro-sounds: rustling, breathing, love-making, the whisper of sheets of paper and book pages, food digesting inside the stomach, belching, farting, the wheezing of the respiratory machine in the hospital when Landau is sick, etc.
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