A scene from inside DAU's Institute (Olympia Orlova / Phenomen)

A Mind-Boggling Soviet Nostalgia Project

A confounding exhibition from the Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky poses as an exploration of artistic control and authoritarianism. But it might just be plain exploitation.

PARIS—It’s the most bananas artistic undertaking of this century. DAU, as the project is known, is a Soviet thought experiment that brings together A-list artists, world-class scientists, a handful of famous actors, Cambridge Analytica (almost), and a lot of Russian money to create 13 feature-length films, as well as an online experience and a rich auxiliary cultural program. The Guardian called it a “Stalinist Truman Show.” And so when DAU had its world premiere here in Paris last month after more than a decade in the works and years of ambient avant-garde buzz, I figured I had to go.

The DAU films are on view until February 17 inside two of Paris’s main public theaters, the Théâtre de la Ville and the Théâtre du Châtelet, which are open 24 hours a day for the event. If you show up as the pale winter sun is rising, you’re likely to bump into people just leaving after a night of carousing. The event features pop-up concerts (Robert del Naja from Massive Attack, Brian Eno), seminars (the writer Jonathan Littell, French academics), drinks (wine, vodka, Cognac, kvass), and food (borscht, gloppy Russian salads).

Some rooms in one theater are decorated like Soviet communal apartments, and visitors can hang out there, occasionally with members of the DAU cast. Another theater has a room set up like a Berlin sex club. As part of the project, priests, rabbis, imams, shamans, and psychologists are on call to discuss people’s experiences of DAU and to film their responses, which visitors can opt to archive or delete. Centre Pompidou, Paris’s preeminent modern-art museum, has also joined the DAU bandwagon. Inside the Russian-art section is an enclosure furnished like a Soviet apartment, where two people posing as DAU scientists live around the clock. Visitors can watch them read or pace around, like animals at the zoo.

To DAU’s producers and editors, and some of its celebrity-artist guests, the project has become a vibrant creative and intellectual community, even a way of life. To anyone outside it, the project can seem unwelcoming. I’ve spent many long hours visiting DAU since it opened here on January 24, and I’ve found the films at turns maddening, boring, and pornographic. I’ve never encountered a project whose monumental, megalomaniacal ambitions are so dramatically at odds with the uneven final product. Although maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s all a big metaphor for the Soviet Union.

A scene inside DAU’s Institute (Olympia Orlova / Phenomen)

DAU began rather modestly around 2005 when the Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who is now 43, set out to make his second feature, a biopic about the Russian theoretical physicist Lev Landau—hence DAU—who won a Nobel Prize in 1962, and whose open marriage made for rich material. Somewhere along the line, after the cameras had already begun rolling in St. Petersburg, “I understood that everything I created was bullshit, and I immediately had to stop and change everything,” Khrzhanovsky told me when I spoke to him recently in Paris. “It was a Dostoevskian moment.”

He veered away from the biopic, for which the dystopian Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin had written the screenplay, got what seems like a blank check from Sergei Adoniev, a Russian businessman who’s made a fortune in telecommunications and is still the project’s main backer, and began to dream big. So big that Khrzhanovsky moved to Kharkov, Ukraine, built a replica of a top-secret Soviet research facility, and commissioned about 400 people to live and work there for two years and reenact 30 years of Soviet history, from 1938 to 1968. The participants had to wear their period costumes even when the cameras weren’t rolling. More than 350,000 people auditioned. From 2009 to 2011, the director shot more than 700 hours of raw footage.

It became a crazy game, in which Khrzhanovsky made the rules. But the set began to take on a life of its own, one that seemed to echo the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were told to act as prison guards and got overzealous about the job. The DAU films had no script, only guided improvisation. The line between reality and fiction began dissolving. Offscreen and on, the participants fell in love, and more than a dozen babies were born. They also all signed nondisclosure agreements, Khrzhanovsky told me.

Teodor Currentzis, a Greek Russian conductor, plays the Landau-inspired character, Dau, in the films. The director cast Radmila Shchegoleva, the only professional actor in the core group, to play Dau’s wife, Kora. Before filming began, Khrzhanovsky had Shchegoleva spend a year preparing for the role, working in a chocolate factory and living in a communal apartment as Kora had done. The artists Marina Abramovic and Carsten Höller and the theater director Peter Sellars made cameos (Abramovic played a visiting anatomy professor in the year 1956). James Fallon, a neuroscientist who specializes in psychopaths and the nature of aggression, made repeat visits playing the part of an academic. In one film, he has a gripping discussion about the gulag with Vladimir Azhippo, a former KGB officer who also played one in DAU.

In their meticulous period reconstructions, the films operate as a critique of the Soviet regime, but also exude a genuine nostalgia for it. It was hard to pin down Khrzhanovsky about his aims, but Ilya Permyakov, one of three editors for the films, who also organizes conferences central to the project’s afterlife, spoke of DAU as a spiritual exploration, one that asks: “What is a human being? What elements of the infernal do I contain in me?” He called the project “not a historical reconstruction but a parallel multiverse,” and referred to it as “a place of self-rebirth” and a “confessional experience” where you can ask, “What is my alter ego? What did I hide from myself?”

From the outset, there have been complaints about the project’s working conditions. The writer Michael Idov visited the set in 2011 after hearing stories about the “survivalist camps” environment, and wrote a vivid, unsettling account in GQ. Some participants told Idov they thought their apartments had hidden cameras filming them at all times. Khrzhanovsky told me he’d installed the hidden cameras but never activated them and never forced anyone to do anything against his or her will. It was all a game, he said.

Last month, a former casting assistant for the DAU films, Albina Kovalyova, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that she’d had a mental breakdown on the set and thought Kyrzhanovsky had crossed a line “from fictional abuse to the real thing.” She was afraid babies had been tortured during the shoot. Kyrzhanovsky assured me no babies had been harmed. He made it seem as if the controversy was part of the project.

A scene inside DAU’s Institute (Olympia Orlova / Phenomen)

Filming ended in late 2011, when some neo-Nazis whom Khrzhanovsky invited from Moscow to spice up the narrative destroyed the film set, which the director had everyone refer to as “the Institute.” It was all captured in a DAU film that I’ve heard is engrossing. How could it not be? A Jewish director engaging with neo-Nazis. An artist turning the destruction of his own work into art, a not-so-subtle nod to Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century godfather of Russian anarchist thought. Perhaps it was the only way to end a film shoot that could have lasted forever.

None of DAU’s Paris venues have a schedule for the 13 films or any of the other events. If you showed up when Currentzis was in town and conducted his MusicAeterna ensemble in a breathless performance of Tchaikovsky, great. If you didn’t, tough luck. “It’s like a safari,” Ruth Mackenzie, a co-director of the Théâtre du Châtelet, which co-produced the event, told me. “You don’t buy a ticket to a safari and then complain if you didn’t see an elephant.”

Before entering the theaters you have to check your cellphone at the door. Instead of tickets, visitors are granted “visas” for six hours, 24 hours, or multiple-entry across the length of the run. I got an unlimited visa, which meant answering a psychometric questionnaire. (I was told the results would be fed into a program that would create a personalized itinerary through the narratives based on my answers, although this system wasn’t yet working when I visited.) I was asked to respond to statements including: “I have engaged in deliberately self-destructive behaviors and not cared about the consequences,” “I have been in a relationship with an imbalance of power,” and “In the right situation, everyone could have the capacity to kill.” I rated each on a scale of seven, from “completely unrelated” to “completely related” or “completely disagree” to “completely agree.”

To help design a program that would create viewing itineraries based on people’s answers to the questionnaire, DAU’s producers spoke with Cambridge Analytica, the now-infamous British political-data firm that was hired by Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and which Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating for alleged misuse of the private data of Facebook’s 50 million users. But DAU’s executive producer, Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon, told me they never hired the company. “They were just not very good,” she said. Instead, they hired Truth, a London-based agency that specializes in psychometric profiling.

I sat in a single-viewer booth in front of a screen divided into 16 windows, exploring different plotlines and finding more information about the central characters—a project called DAU Digital that will soon go live online. The images ranged from zany science experiments to tender love stories. In one window, scientists put men in a metal pyramid and shot invisible rays at the pyramid, then recorded the men’s responses. One compared the sensation to “a warm bath.” In another screen, a woman in a glass box mimicked a monkey in an adjoining box. There was a sex scene. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, playing himself, talked about Marxism as a kind of religion.

In the film I liked best, because it had true emotional depth, Dau receives a visit from a friend of his youth, Maria, played by the Greek actress Maria Nafpliotou, and they talk about what might have been. Others are terminally boring, with little character development. In a film set in 1968, Kora washes her now-infirm husband in the tub, then makes dinner, pounding chicken cutlets for what seems like ages before frying them. Later, she lies in bed with the couple’s teenage son and kisses him on the lips. In this work at least, Kyrzhanovsky makes even incest seem dull.

A scene inside DAU’s Institute (Olympia Orlova / Phenomen)

The films that troubled me most were ones that I felt crossed a line. One featured two men who came across as mentally challenged and who spent much of the time fondling each other, naked. Who were these men, I wondered, and did they know what they were getting themselves into? (That piece has voice-overs in French and English by the actors Gérard Depardieu and Willem Dafoe, respectively; none of the movies has subtitles or background music.)

Another film featured a waitress named Natasha who drinks to excess with a bunch of scientists and winds up having what looked to me like actual, penetrative sex with the French scientist Luc Bigé. Because she’s slept with a foreigner, which is against the Institute’s rules, she’s called in for questioning by Azhippo, the real KGB agent. He then forces Natasha to strip naked, drink the better part of a bottle of Cognac, and perform graphic sexual acts on herself with the empty bottle, before making her sign a pledge to inform on the scientists. “Remember,” he tells her, “we’re going to be friends, and you’re signing this confession of your own free will.” Afterwards, Natasha flirts with the agent and says she only signed because he had nice eyes. The French voice-over is by the actress Charlotte Rampling.

The sex and manipulation didn’t seem to serve any greater artistic purpose, even if the participants had joined the project of their own free will. Also, if DAU isn’t scripted, were we seeing real drinking, real puking, and real sex?, I asked Khrzhanovsky. “Yes,” he said, they were having actual sex. So what kind of direction had he given the characters? What’s the difference between art and pornography? “You should answer me,” he said. I told him I wasn’t the creator. We went around in circles a bit. “It is sex, but I think it doesn’t matter if it’s with penetration or without penetration. What matters is what happens between people,” he said.

Well, here I disagree. If there’s one line between art and pornography, it’s the line between simulated sex and real sex. Before filming, had he asked Natasha if she was comfortable having sex on camera? “When you invite people to this kind of project, generally you have all possible forces there and of course you discuss about sex, about arrest, about words you cannot pronounce,” Khrzhanovsky said. He said Natasha was Ukrainian, and not a sex worker, and that she and Bigé, her onscreen lover, continue to be part of the project. “Why do people try to be more moral than the people who participate? It’s a question about the question,” he told me.

As we spoke, I could hear in the background the slightly menacing thrum of an industrial soundscape composed by Brian Eno, who said at the press preview that DAU was “the most insanely ambitious project” he’d ever been involved in. At times during our conversation, Khrzhanovsky would occasionally open a black book that he’d placed on the table, its spine facing me. I could see that it had been hollowed out and that he kept his cellphone inside. I found this nod to the old KGB tactic of hiding recording devices in books amusing—and emblematic of the multiple levels of irony in Khrzhanovsky’s project. He was self-consciously making fun of his Soviet affectations, while also embracing them. He was pretending to be a sadist, but also just might be a sadist. He certainly seemed like a man with teenage fantasies about sex and control and way too big a budget.

A scene inside DAU’s Institute (Olympia Orlova / Phenomen)

When I asked Mackenzie, the co-director of the Théâtre du Châtelet, if she’d seen anything in the DAU films that made her reconsider showing them, she said no. Some were “disturbing,” she said, but she stood by Khrzhanovsky’s vision and thought he had his “finger on the zeitgeist.” How?, I asked. She mentioned the #MeToo movement. “The boundaries of acceptable behavior are changing by the year in a way that I think is healthy,” Mackenzie said. “As a feminist, I absolutely applaud the chance to debate and discuss these things and confront them. And in my view, Ilya gives us this chance through his art.”

Ah, the stories we tell ourselves. I don’t think the DAU films start the slightest serious debate about #MeToo or anything related to it, except a debate about the director’s own attitudes toward women on and off the set. I kept thinking back to the Cognac-bottle scene. The only thing that seemed to distinguish that movie from pornography was the involvement of serious artists and scientists in other aspects of the project. Their reputations gave cover to something quite creepy. DAU is a cagey project that largely gets a pass because it poses as an artistic exploration of control, authoritarianism, and the exploitation of women, when what’s going on here might just be plain exploitation.

The more time I spent in the hermetic universe of DAU, the more I began to think that, for all the hoopla, on some level Khrzhanovsky didn’t actually want to show it to the public. He had spent years editing the material from DAU’s headquarters in Central London. Now that he put it before an audience, it felt as if we were an inconvenience, treated with contempt. When I asked him where he thought the audience fit in, he told me, “This project exists only through the public.” People’s reactions “become a part of the project,” he said, citing how a DAU premiere planned in Berlin last fall was called off because the city wouldn’t let him build a replica of the Berlin Wall. Khrzhanovsky seemed to enjoy the negative reactions. He’s been getting plenty in Paris, too.

In the end, DAU in Paris is a massive Gesamtkunstwerk without much Kunst. It’s a nightclub disguised as an art installation. It’s a party—and it makes you feel as if you’re not invited. DAU is a case study in how word of mouth spreads among artists, and how the Paris cultural establishment will seemingly embrace any project that affirms its commitment to the avant-garde, no matter how grotesque or banal. The true work of art here may be that Khrzhanovsky managed to pull it off at all.

Before he glided out into the night, I asked Khrzhanovsky what he wanted visitors to take away from the project. “That they can feel something about themselves, and I don’t know what, because people are so different,” he said. I did feel something. That I have a high tolerance for art, a low tolerance for physical discomfort, and an even lower tolerance for bullshit.