The more I watch Dau—the ambitious multi-film project spearheaded by Ilya Khrzhanovsky—the more it becomes clear that there’s little in the history of cinema to compare it to. To give Dau its due, it’s more useful to think of not just film, or theater, but also of site-specific improvisational performances, such as Sleep No More. Performed by the British theater group Punchdrunk, Sleep No More was staged at a sprawling New York City warehouse, rebranded as McKittrick Hotel, where you walked through darkly lit rooms to watch vignettes loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Similarly to that macabre British show, which the New York Times called a “voyeur’s delight,” Dau can make you feel alternatively like you’re in a musty hall of curiosities, or can seriously mess with your head.
To recap, Dau was shot mostly in Ukraine on a sprawling set, which reconstructs a Soviet scientific institute, from the years between 1938 and 1968, led by an über-scientist, Lev Landau (played by the composer Theodor Currentzis). When the six-hour Dau. Degeneration—currently streaming on the Dau website—opened at Berlinale, it introduced Dau as a revered old man. Now new parts, Brave People, Katya Tanya, Three Days, and Nora. Mother, fill in gaps in Dau’s biography (I reviewed Nora. Mother earlier).
Dau not only has a large cast and an army of extras, but, according to various accounts, also had frequent visitors on the set. Artists, scientists, journalists and the like stayed at Dau, for days, weeks, or even months, apparently regardless of whether they appeared in the film. These visitors lived on-site, wore period clothes, and used period currency. They checked their cellphones and laptops at the door. Dau then functioned as a quasi-historical-theme-park or a happening, built to recreate an authentic aura.
It’s important to know this when watching, for example, Dau. Brave People, which Khrzhanovsky co-directed with the theater director Alexey Slyusarchuk. Set in 1953, the film tells the story of Andrei Losev, a dopey-faced scientist and Head of the Theoretical Department. Losev (played by the real-life physics professor Andrei Losev) is Jewish, so his position is precarious within the Soviet world. Losev’s challenges are numerous: on one hand, the suffocating political atmosphere, with the secret service rounding up Losev’s comrades, on drummed up charges, and on the other, the fact that Losev is living in the shadow of younger, more popular scientists.
As Dau often does, this installment radiates out from the Institute to the boarding house. At the latter, the domestic drama between Losev and his young wife, Dasha (Darya Berzhitskaya), boils down to the endless inequities of living in tight multi-family units, where everyone’s in each other’s business. After Dasha is told off by the senior scientist Blinov (the real-life engineer Alexei Blinov, who’s one of Dau’s grittiest performers), she has a nervous breakdown, which requires an intervention from the other women and forces a reckoning on the pussy-footed Lesnov.
Brave People is on some level a scrappy melodrama that, with its haphazard interventions, also smacks of reality shows. But at 2.5 hours, commune-bickering is but one element. The film’s opening takes us through passing Dau’s security and inside the Institute’s newspaper. Another motif emerges from numerous scenes in which scientists are forced by the NKVD to sign cooperation agreements. None of these moments have the crushing, persuasive force of the interrogation scene in Dau. Degeneration. Most feel prosaic and even didactic; their value isn’t so much dramatic as experiential—a quest for context and for a certain “being there” texture, symptomatic of all of the parts in the Dau cannon that supplement the main film.
To what extent is then Dau a bit like going to the Colonial Williamsburg? The performers at the Virginia historical park wear colonial garb. Would the experience and reenactments be more "authentic" if the visitors did too? Would you feel more “in” if you were to cast weapons or got thrown into a colonial jail? What if you spent a month there? A year? What about being filmed while in the stocks, as a bonus?
This sounds facetious but it isn’t (not entirely): Dau, in fact, does raise valuable questions about the merits and limitations of experiential performance, and of theatrical, cinematic value of such an experience. Questions that we may not be able to answer until the cycle comes full-term. There is something to be said about the Benjaminian aura that Dau has set out to install, with the sheer accumulation and temporal permanence of period costume, architecture and artifacts. No doubt this aura has a double-edge: as nostalgia, but also as a philosophical reckoning with Soviet Russia.
One thing is sure about Dau so far: Like most cinema, it lives and dies by its actors. It’s billed as a project of mostly non-professionals, but in Dau. Three Days, for example, co-directed by Jekaterina Oertel (who also co-directed Dau. Natasha, Dau. Nora Mother and Dau. Katya Tanya), it’s the trained actor, Maria Nafpliotou, who makes the whole stick. Nafpliotou plays Maria, Dau’s flame from his youth in Greece, who visits him at the Institute, when he’s already married to Nora (Radmila Schegoleva). Sustained in the same cameral tone as the other films co-directed with Oertel, Three Days is a peek inside Dau’s domestic purgatory: the infamously womanizing Dau is in his prime, busy selecting a new maid, who’ll read him poetry (presumably in the nude, given Dau’s preference for figure over diction). These scenes are in turn tedious and uncanny, as young women are patronized and groomed to dubious ends at Dau’s mansion. But with Maria, Dau’s drive is then dissected: When she can’t stomach Dau’s posing, his ego suffers. After Nora arrives, her bitterness seals Dau’s failed experiment in free-love.
Nafpliotou is beautiful, strong, incandescent; like the many women of Dau, she is extremely watchable and gives a delicate performance. And if it doesn’t entirely save Three Days, it’s because the improvisational method that Khrzhanovsky and Oertel deploy is both,Dau’s trump card and its greatest vulnerability. It can elevate a scene to something like Cassavetes’ cauldron of polar emotions (as Olga Shkbarnaya and Natasha Berezhnaya amply demonstrate in Dau. Natasha), but it can also sink it.
Nowhere is this weakness as manifest as in Dau. Katya Tanya, in which Dau romances the young librarian Katya (Ekaterina Uspina), who loses her love in World War II. Fast forward to 1952 when the main action takes place: Currentzis as Dau seduces Katya with ear-splitting platitudes and lackluster pickup lines (one asserts that knickers are “less intimate than the soul,” which presumably should make Katya drop the former). It’s a disheartening improvisational bid, which fails to fill by now a yawning gap in Dau’s life: Mainly, what does he actually do, besides eat caviar, recite Pushkin, and chase women? The film suffers from Currentzis’ lassitude and tepid stage presence. It also takes the experiential angle to sinister lows, in what appears to be an unsimulated sex between Katya and the Institute’s other womanizer, cum serial rapist, of the General Department (Alexey Trifonov).
The ingenue regains some upper hand by staying away from the inner circle of Dau, who briefly inducts her into his bedroom, alongside his wife Nora. Katya then turns to an equally waifish sensitive young woman, Tanya (Tatiana Polozhy), but their affair is instantly crushed by NKVD commissars.
It’s a pity that this heartfelt thread of two lonely young women, hounded down by promiscuous men, and who then try to rekindle some sense of hope in the ruins and to create a domestic normalcy, comes too late in the film to be anything but a half-baked after-thought. It could have given Dau more zest and provided a welcome respite from its relentless-machismo spin. As it is, with various performers popping in from the other Dau films, and at times appearing slack and accommodated, Dau hits cruise-control.