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Everything is True, Nothing is Permitted

The results of the notorious "Stalinist Stanford Prison Experiment," DAU, were finally shown to the public this spring. What does this blurring of fantasy and reality achieve?

It was Christmas 2011 in Kharkiv, Eastern Ukraine, when I first heard about DAU, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s grandiose film project, which was then still being shot on a large set on the site of an old swimming pool on the outskirts of the city. DAU began life as a biopic of physicist Lev Landau before morphing into something between a living museum simulating life in a Soviet scientific institute between the years 1938 and 1968 and a lay psychological experiment. After failing to obtain the requisite permits for a scheduled opening in Berlin, DAU premiered in Paris this spring, as an elaborate multi-disciplinary affair — but DAU is still as much a mystery-shrouded process and cluster of myths as it is a finished product.

€25 million, 10,000 extras, 392,000 audition tapes, 3 years of filming, 700 hours of footage — numbers attest to the scale of DAU, but much remains unquantifiable. Rumours abound. Landau was reprimanded for setting his physicist students exams about Alexander Pushkin, but Khrzhanovsky’s eccentric working habits sound less innocuous. Analogies proliferate: from Apocalypse Now to Love Island or The Hunger Games; to Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York in which a neurotic theatre director builds a giant set in which people live for years with no audience until he eventually dies amid the ruins of his unrealisable artistic dream.

Boris Groys claimed the world-altering ambitions of Soviet Constructivist artists were ultimately realised by Stalin, that Stalinist society was a Gesamtkunstwerk and Soviet people the sculptural materials. But if Soviet artists in the aftermath of the October Revolution sought to bring art into everyday life, DAU works according to a reverse logic. Cast as DAU’s eponymous lead on account of his ‘genius’, Teodor Currentzis, artistic director of the Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre, reflected that after spending extended periods in character: ‘The real world was like a set to us.’

Shot on 35mm by one cinematographer accompanied by a small crew, the thirteen films shown in Paris are closer to cinéma vérité than Socialist Realism. Scientists work in their laboratories. Dau, whose marriage included a ‘spousal non-aggression pact’ in accordance with his rejection of long-term monogamy, reunites with a glamorous former lover before being unexpectedly interrupted by his wife. Canteen workers gossip after a long shift. These films involve unsimulated sex, sometimes following bouts of unsimulated heavy drinking. One includes graphic footage of a pig being slaughtered, another an interrogation scene in which one of the canteen workers is forced to strip, drink cognac, and push the mouth of the glass bottle into her vagina. Glaring ethical questions aside, it is unclear what these moments of violence achieve artistically.

Khrzhanovsky’s first film 4 (2004) culminates in a chaotic scene in which a group of drunken old women smear their naked bodies with pork fat. This has some of the frenetic energy that courses through the drunken party preceding the pig slaughter in DAU, but with its taut script by Vladmir Sorokin and starkly composed tableaux, 4 builds to its excessive and vulgar crescendo. In Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) images of cattle being slaughtered were cross-cut with images of workers’ suppression to highlight their inhumane treatment. In DAU, the slaughtered animal is an end in itself, lacking symbolic or narrative function.

Khrzhanovsky was fastidious about period details on set: authentic Soviet toilet flushes, authentic Soviet food, authentically scratchy Soviet underwear. The director allegedly insisted that a reconstructed section of the Berlin Wall intended to form part of the show in the formerly divided city be built with the same materials and techniques as the original. But just as depictions of unsimulated sex and blood do not automatically provide insights into either sex or violence, so the inclusion of authentic historical objects does not spontaneously call forth the experience of actually-existing socialism.

For all this attention to detail, Khrzhanovsky insisted DAU was not a commentary on the Soviet past. The historical setting allowed participants to immerse themselves in the project: ‘If something’s a fairytale, if it’s fantasy or historical, then we’re, in a way, relaxed because it’s not about us.’ But this implies the past has no bearing on the present, as if contemporary Ukrainian and Russian politics — and people — have no relation to Soviet history.

The destruction of the hammer and sickle festooned DAU set just preceded the demolition of Kharkiv’s Lenin statue by Ukrainian nationalists. For a scene replicating the Totskoye nuclear bombing tests conducted in the 1950s, shot years after the set was dismantled, the director approved a location in the ‘grey zone’ in Donbas, so the crew anxiously passed roadblocks with their military props. This anecdote — where the historical prop threatens to be mistaken for a contemporary weapon — gestures to ongoing entanglements of past and present that DAU neither confronts nor escapes.