There’s a moving moment in String Theory, one of the new installment-films in the ongoing Russian cinematic project Dau: Scientists at the Dau nuclear institute, in Soviet Russia, are discussing string theory. As usual, the exclusively male posse sits in a sumptuous room over a smorgasbord of canapés, while young women serve chilled wine. The setup says a lot about the status these scientists occupied in the Soviet society (at least for a time), and also signals at the underlying crème-de-la-crème hierarchy and petty rivalries. In this genteel, competitive inner-circle, which liberally includes western and Chinese guests, caviar comes on tap and bubblies flow ad nauseam. And even though the scientists’ living quarters are communal and cramped, mink coats and cigars appear de rigueur.
In the other Dau films, such scenes instill at times a certain postmodern #MeToo disgruntlement from the audience, myself included. Why must Dau ooze unceasing male-fueled smugness, which, while it does come under direct scrutiny in certain scenes, particularly those that channel female protagonists' profound disillusionment, in many other parts passes rather casually, reinforcing the status quo? Why can’t Dau indulge in more consistent subterfuge? Perhaps in a project whose soul is so materialist (attentive to the physical detail), to do so would be too dialectical; still, at times, this constant pendulum-swing, between critique and immersive presence, induces its own schizophrenia. Perhaps this too is part of the Dau effect.
All things considered, Dau is an ambitious, thorny, sometimes sly, oftentimes sublime project, and if you stick with it, its twistedness, for lack of a better word, slowly infiltrates you. In the above-mentioned scene, while men ruminate on how they got into science—often when young, influenced by complex patriarchal figures, from misunderstood geniuses to pathological murderers with a knack for math—the Dau cycle's secret heart is laid bare. One of the scientists asks Nikita Nekrasov (Nikita Nekrasov), the brilliant, restless, womanizing physicist, if he hopes to find answers to string theory’s thorny questions. Nikita’s timeline is optimistic: Maybe in thirty, forty years, he says. The conflation of the imaginary Soviet scientist Nekrasov with the non-professional actor Nekrasov’s real-life work as a scientist at Stony Brook is wonderful; decades later, string theory still boggles the mind. But that’s not the main point. Even without immediate hope, String Theory’s Nikita, like today’s Nikitas, I presume, keeps plucking at theory, because he finds it beautiful.
Beauty is what animates Dau's entire universe. It isn’t an uncommon sentiment; mathematicians often speak of “elegant” solutions. A similar sense permeates the film: the Dau project is a manifesto on what science can achieve, but its devotees yearn to find in it the sublimity they find in art.
The chief scientist Lindau, as played by the real-life Greek composer, Theodor Currentzis, is a testament to this desire: Dau’s actual science research is depicted vaguely, perhaps because in the improvised dialogues Currentzis can’t contribute as much theory as the nonprofessional actors who work in the field. But the real-life Lindau was an ardent admirer of literature (though apparently not of painting or music), and Currentzis’s performance, here and in the other parts, is peppered with literary quotations. In a sense, life at Dau is pierced by a distinct desire: to be useful, for sure, to bring glory to the Soviet Union, why not, perhaps even to be good, if possible, but above all, to discover and be touched by beauty.
Life that isn’t aestheticized is somehow not worth living. It’s a heady idea that Dau carries in its molecular structure; and it’s also a potentially nurturing thought for many viewers today, as we experience sensory deprivation and spleen in our socially distanced homes. It’s also a poignant thread throughout Dau, because the Institute is plush in certain creature comforts, and yet aesthetically drab and depressing. If you love beauty, you can’t fail to notice the deliberate horridness of its mise-en-scène: the grim military-complex corridors, the somber gracelessness of its monolithic architecture. Dau is then a utopia, first and foremost, and as such, it lives entirely inside men’s heads; reality can’t but disappoint.
Love, not politics, is perhaps the greatest source of disappointment at Dau. Women fit into this world not only as servants, ad-hoc cooks, and secretaries, but also as disgruntled muses. String Theory complicates the tales in such previous films as Katya: Tanya, Nora Mother, or Three Days. In String Theory, Nikita hardly gets anywhere with his advances (perhaps because he lacks Dau’s stormy looks). He courts the swan-like Katya (Ekaterina Uspina); he courts the brainier Zoya (Zoya Popova); he courts the flirtatious Svetlana (Svetlana Dragaeva). Like Dau, Nikita is a committed polygamist, keen on the idea that men must not be tethered, lest their creative strength wane. Lindau, a.k.a. Dau, says so in Nora: Mother and in Three Days; Nikita also does in the new sideline film, Nikita Tanya, in which Nikita tries to badger his wife, Tanya, into accepting his sexual reawakening, while trying to keep his parental and spousal privileges. Tanya adapts a dignified stance; though it’s clear that the effect on their marriage is irrevocable, and disastrous, Tanya leaves most agency to Nikita.
In String Theory, however, against Nikita’s soliloquies mansplaining his complex psyche, there runs a tenacious counter-current: The young women are skeptical; they are also, in turns, restless, bored, incredulous, irritated. They tolerate Nikita but don’t care to be patronized. Or as Zoya puts it: The Institute is her ticket too; for the first time, she doesn’t need anyone. Socialism has given these women something, and though it isn’t yet feminism, it’s a glimpse of economic, and with it personal, autonomy.
In this sense, String Theory, like the rest of the Dau project, is a motley of competing narratives, some obvious, others subaltern but equally compelling, and it’s a pity that we don’t move further beyond the hetero-couple scheme, to explore how this world’s fringes opened opportunities as it also stymied (though deeply flawed, Katya: Tanya, with its lesbian romance, is an attempt at such an opening).
Stylistically speaking, String Theory is a run-on sentence. It’s nervy indie cinema, without the wrecking-ball urgency of a director like Cassavetes, but with dogged appeal of Dogme 95. The actors bandy back and forth, their moods seesawing; the camera gets cozy, tight. Dau harnesses a sense that you can reduce an event to a single action and space, subtract plot and turn it into a rambling happening. Drawn out, off-paced, and yet it touches a nerve. It’s in such moments, when Dau pushes slightly past weariness, that I appreciate it most. It’s also then that it becomes clear just how generous all of Dau’s actors are. It’s not every director-team that can solicit such commitment, spontaneity and intimacy, but Ilya Khrzhanovsky and his collaborator, Aleksey Slusarchuk, succeed.
Some films within Dau retain stronger semblance of plot. A New Man, which runs on closest parallel track to Dau: Degeneration, is certainly the case. It reintroduces the muscled, brute cadets, led by Maxim (Maxim Martsinkevich), who are the core guinea-pigs in Dau’s experiments on physical resistance and sensory deprivation. Though it’s a bit of a curio that the scientists involved, like Blinov (Alexey Blinov), don’t grapple with their dire research. The film also revolves around Maxim’s love-affair with a waitress, Vika (Viktoria Skitskaya), who hopes to soften him—a subplot introduced in Degeneration that now becomes the core story. The evil mastermind behind Dau’s destruction (played brilliantly by Vladimir Azhippo) is also back: Dau’s director entrusts the youths with a special top-secret mission, which will soon unleash hatred ostensibly against “degenerates,” but in practice, against anyone privy to their brutal social-cleansing. Since this thread is also in Degeneration, A New Man can be seen as a deeper dive into the delusions that fuel the romance, and into fascist minds.
A New Man is grim and its message is clear: Authoritarian regimes leave no room for dissent. In stylistic terms, it’s tight, fluid, visceral filmmaking, devoid of any sentimentality, as it pulls us into the slippery desire that Vika feels for her "lost malchik," who ruthlessly conspires to murder her and her colleagues. In this sense, it’s also a film about willful blindness, misguided civility and dallying, while tragedy creeps near. To put a current spin on Dau, in our own dangerously careening times, I would add that, as an opus, it examines the fragility of reason against rogue agents.