Diary

James Meek

From the outside, 100 Piccadilly is rooted in the psychic space of London, England, or at least this part of London: plastic Union Jacks, haggard tourists, sleek servants, billionaires’ children, dark, hoarded property. The golden stone of its modest neoclassical façade, designed by Robert Edis in 1883, blends into the street front overlooking Green Park. If you had to guess what lay inside you might hazard a hedge fund, or a tax avoidance consultancy, or empty space, left to fatten.

Experimental art and its practitioners, surely, left Mayfair long ago, if they were ever there. And yet 100 Piccadilly is where the Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is trying to pull together the myriad threads of an ultra-elaborate artistic experiment, the project known as Dau. Conceived in Moscow in 2005 as a film about the great Soviet physicist Lev Landau, Dau turned into something much stranger. In 2009, in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Landau worked and taught in the 1930s, Khrzhanovsky built a huge sealed set that came to be known locally as ‘the Institute’. It was a synthetic version of a closed – that is, top secret – Soviet research institute of the mid-20th century. For more than two years, between 2009 and 2011, hundreds of volunteers, few of them professional actors, were filmed living, sleeping, eating, gossiping, working, loving, betraying each other and being punished in character, in costume, with nothing by way of a script, on the Kharkiv set, their clothes and possessions altered, fake decade by fake decade, to represent the privileged, cloistered life of the Soviet scientific elite between 1938 and 1968.

Khrzhanovsky’s team has taken over 100 Piccadilly for post-production. One day the editor of the LRB and I were invited, apparently as part of a publicity initiative, to hear about Dau, to meet Khrzhanovsky, and perhaps even to see a bit of it. Inside the building, I felt I’d crossed a membrane into another medium, as if I’d entered an embassy, or stepped off the gangway into one of the planes of the state airline of a country with a didactic, whimsical regime. It’s not so much the life-sized dummies in trilbies and trenchcoats haunting the lobby – one of them stands close to the window, lifting the curtain with its index finger, looking out – as the two Russian security guards at the desk. They wear suits and ties, speak the barest English, and wanted to take our photographs before they let us in. They had a camera on a stalk on the counter, like the kind used at US immigration. When I asked why they wanted to take my picture one of them emitted a little hissing laugh to himself.

A young English assistant took us upstairs for lunch. On the way we passed a bank of slightly old-fashioned video screens with a control panel attached. I knew editing of the project was taking place in the building, but it wasn’t clear whether the screens were an editing suite, part of the building’s baroque security system, or an element of the kitschy decor, like the fake goons in the lobby. For that matter I wasn’t sure the real goons in the lobby weren’t also fake: were they actually security guards, or actors performing the role of guards with an important treasure to protect?

We ate in a huge room adorned with antiques and military surplus junk. A dummy dressed in a navy blue uniform was hanging by its neck from a noose attached to a ceiling light fitting. Lunch was lavish Russian fare, served by a Russian waitress in a prim white blouse and pencil skirt: zakuski, borsch and dumplings. Our hosts were the lawyer and writer Anthony Julius, who said enigmatically that he had ‘committed himself’ to Dau, and one of the project’s producers, Susanne Marian. Khrzhanovsky wasn’t there; and although Julius had offered to arrange viewing of footage from the work in progress, it emerged that this offer wasn’t to be realised on the day of our visit. When ten days later I asked Marian about the material, I was told my request had been ‘put on hold’.

In the absence of the project’s director, in the absence of material, in the absence of any apparent will on the part of our hosts to put forward topics of conversation, I tried delicately to ask why and how Dau’s backers were providing a five-storey office building in one of the world’s most expensive districts for the sole purpose of curating an artistic project that had yet to be put before an audience, four years after filming wrapped in Kharkiv.[*]

My curiosity chilled the atmosphere. Julius, once Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer and the courtroom nemesis of the Holocaust denier David Irving, said I hadn’t been invited to carry out an audit. He left before the soup course. Marian told us that Dau’s current backer (earlier, a string of Russian, Ukrainian and West European cultural agencies had put up millions of roubles, hryvnyas and euros) was ‘a very private person’. She preferred to talk about end results. From the seven hundred hours of footage shot in Kharkiv, she said, the editors in London are fashioning a dozen or more movies, a TV series, and a user-directed internet narrative system. I asked her for an example of the kind of scene they had in the can.

‘A man telling his wife how he cheated on her,’ she said. ‘It lasts for five hours.’ It was, she emphasised, the genuine confession of a real transgression. Institute participants lived their fantasy lives with enough intensity, she said, for 14 children to have been conceived on set.

The transformation of a biographical portrait of a physicist into what one of our hosts called a ‘staged reality experience’ came when Khrzhanovsky decided Landau’s life story was too large and potent to be confined to a conventional narrative. Large it was: Landau (‘Dau’ was his nickname) was born in Baku in 1908, began studying physics, maths and chemistry at the local university when he was only 14, moved to Leningrad, published major work on quantum theory before his 20th birthday, travelled in Europe, hung out with Einstein and Heisenberg and was taught by Niels Bohr. He was arrested and spent a year in jail at the height of the Terror for comparing Stalin to Hitler. He dodged the Gulag and was awarded the Stalin Prize for helping build the Soviet atom bomb. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for explaining the ungravitational norms of liquid helium. Still a virgin at 27, he became such a fanatical advocate of polyamory as to force his wife to serve dinner to his lovers, and to pretend, for his sake, to be having an affair. He was repeatedly admitted to psychiatric institutions. He was crippled in a car crash six years before he died, in 1968.

Khrzhanovsky’s response to the grandeur of the material was Soviet in scale, both in the expenditure and in the degree of control he exercised over individuals’ lives. The Institute was built in Kharkiv’s derelict outdoor swimming pool complex, which offered a natural courtyard surrounded by low Stalin-era buildings. The few journalists permitted to visit, and the handful of low-resolution pictures circulating, describe an establishment with 250 production staff and fifty full-time in-character residents. Passage from modernity into the reconstructed Soviet world was permitted only to those in costume; the perimeter was patrolled by guards in Soviet uniform. The period core of the Institute resounded with modernist string music broadcast from loudspeakers, even in the middle of the night, and smelled of pigs from the Institute’s own pig farm. Surreal neo-Soviet sculptural forms, such as never actually adorned Stalinist buildings, loomed over the courtyard: a version of Lenin’s mausoleum, disembodied forearms projecting from walls clasping a hammer, a sickle, a brain.

Participants were required to live in period costume (the on-set tailor updated the fashions of the moment as required), to eat period food in period packaging, paid for in Soviet roubles, and to renounce all anachronisms, physical and verbal. No mobile phones, no internet, no laptops; no mention of the state of Israel before the on-set calendar reached 1948. News was supposed to be provided exclusively by the fully staffed on-set newspaper and the on-set radio station. Women were forbidden to wear modern tampons: Soviet-model cloth versions were made available.

The set was riddled with microphones to record every conversation, and participants were bound both to allow and to ignore filming of any aspect of their lives, no matter how intimate and private. In a departure from the Big Brother style of recording ‘staged reality experiences’, the camera hardly ever was there. Like an audience member in one of Punch Drunk’s immersive theatre performances, a single cameraman roamed the six thousand square metres of the Institute, hoping to intersect with drama or at least an interesting scene in the lives of the participants, structured not by a script but by the jobs, accommodation and status they had been assigned, and by their real-life temperaments.

In fact, the obsession with authenticity was undermined in all sorts of ways. A core group of characters, centred on Landau, was cosmetically aged in the course of filming, but most participants weren’t. Participants were free to come and go from the set, provided they left modernity behind when they came back. Khrzhanovsky was ready to trade one strand of authenticity for another. The real Lev Landau was a Russian Jewish mathematical genius. The person who stands in for him in the Dau cycle, a Greek conductor called Teodor Currentzis, is not Russian, or Jewish, or a mathematician; but he is, in Khrzhanovsky’s view, a genius. Khrzhanovsky was, though, eager to have real physicists doing real work at the Institute, so he persuaded David Gross, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 2004, along with other prominent scientists like Shing-Tung Yau, Carlo Rovelli and Nikita Nekrasov, to take working residencies in Kharkiv. The science they did, while real enough, and while done in period costume, was more anachronistic than a tampon. At times – when shamans from Tuva and members of the Peruvian Shipibo people visited the Institute, for instance – the rigour of authenticity seems to have been abandoned completely.

Most mysterious was Khrzhanovsky’s treatment of a dominant feature of actual mid-century Soviet life: the pervasive, controlling alliance of the Communist Party and the state security agencies, the NKVD and its postwar successor, the KGB. To start with, the Institute had no secret police but, Marian said, a repressive apparatus gradually emerged, organically, as a response to participants’ own denunciations of their neighbours for breaking Institute rules. During his working sabbatical at the Institute, the string theorist Andrei Losev lived with his wife in a ‘Soviet apartment’ shared with another role-playing/vacationing/working physicist couple, their beds separated by a fragile screen. He later told the newspaper Kommersant what a late-night visit from the ‘secret police’ had felt like: ‘When they came into our home I still didn’t know who they were coming for. I lit a cigarette, although I hadn’t smoked for 15 years. I got up, half-dressed and prepared myself, then waited while they climbed the stairs. When I came out onto the landing and it turned out they hadn’t come for me, but for the neighbour, I looked like someone who’d just died. My face was white … I was literally in a bad way, it was terrible, I experienced emotions on a real scale.’

By the end, participants were not only being arrested in the middle of the night and interrogated, but punished by having to share a prison cell with real criminals whom Khrzhanovsky hired mid-sentence from the administration of Kharkiv’s actual prison. ‘Real murderers!’ Marian said. (Later, she mentioned that after his accident Landau had become ‘a vegetable’. The LRB’s editor leaned forward, intrigued. ‘Did you use a real vegetable?’ she asked.) We asked about the various deviations from the cult of authenticity. Dau’s, Marian responded, was a ‘non-linear reality’.

In 2011 the journalist Michael Idov spent a few days coming and going at the Institute for GQ magazine, with the status of ‘visiting foreign dignitary’, dressed in a period three-piece suit and fedora and having to spend hours making 1952-appropriate small talk. He reported that Khrzhanovsky took an interest in details as minor as the authenticity – were they the right width? – of the toilet pipes inside the apartments. ‘Taken one by one, all these details are pure delirium,’ Khrzhanovsky told Idov. ‘Taken together, however, they achieve an otherwise unachievable depth.’ Idov was allowed to see some of the footage. ‘What I watched,’ he writes, ‘was a vertiginous mix of avant-garde sensibilities, Hollywood sweep, and reality-show techniques. One sequence, a riot at a train station, looked like Michael Bay crossed with Hieronymus Bosch – a long, tightly choreographed journey through a massive crowd in tumultuous motion. Another piece was a forty-minute-long improvised squabble between Landau and his wife.’ At one point, Khrzhanovsky came up to him red with rage, screaming about the GQ photographer’s careless way with the Institute’s fourth wall. ‘He is asking people to pose,’ he shouted. ‘He is not observing life, he is staging it. And I can’t have that. My people are not puppets!’

Dau wrapped in Kharkiv definitively on a freezing night in November 2011, when Khrzhanovsky ordered the destruction of the Institute. According to a report in Kommersant, the director hired a group of real-life Russian neo-Nazis to storm the set, destroy it and performatively enact a massacre of its staff. In the evening there was a party with an open bar and performances by the Canadian electronic musician Peaches and the American DJ Spooky. The event was advertised on local social media: many of those who came apparently thought they were attending the opening of a new nightclub. Everything was filmed.

A few weeks after the visit to 100 Piccadilly, at a party elsewhere in London, I bumped into a friend with an intimate knowledge of 21st-century Moscow. Khrzhanovsky’s initial consonant cluster turned out to be, for Russians, just an incitement to create an entirely vowelless nickname. ‘Khrzh? Yeah, I know him,’ my friend said. ‘We used to drink in the same bar.’ For a time, he told me, a jaunt to Kharkiv to hang out in authentic period underwear in the Institute was a must-do for every hip young Muscovite. Our inconclusive trip to 100 Piccadilly, he suggested, might have been in the nature of an audition. But for what? A new phase of filming? The role of pre-approved critics? The kind of article about events and works I have not witnessed that I am writing now? ‘The thing about Khrzh,’ my friend said, ‘is that he believes cinema is one of those artforms that does not require an audience.’

I’d told Marian that I could easily imagine the future Dau films being remarkable, or memorable, or boring, or anything in between. I asked her whether it was theoretically possible for the final result to be an artistic failure, and she agreed that, in principle, it was, although she was sure it wouldn’t be. Afterwards I realised that it would be difficult to judge, because if the films were good, they would be good, but if they were poor, they could always be represented as the mere shadow of an extraordinary work of immersive theatre that had been experienced by a handful of lucky people in Kharkiv. I think that was why there had been so much awkwardness at the lunch: we were invited to contemplate a marvellous, yet to be completed work, but ended up feeling subject to a meticulous description of a wonderful party we hadn’t been invited to. How many film directors, I wonder, have wished that, rather than the unsatisfying hermeticism of their finished work, they could offer audiences the fabulous parties, hilarious good times, awful personal tragedies, Chekhovian let-downs and chance surrealisms the cast and crew experienced together in the course of a shoot?

Khrzhanovsky, who turned 40 this year, is the son of Andrei Khrzhanovsky, an illustrious Soviet animator. His cinematic reputation rests on the single feature he has brought to the screen, 4, which won a string of international prizes when it was released in 2004. It recounts the chance late-night meeting in a Moscow bar of three characters, a male piano tuner, a male wholesale meat dealer and a female prostitute, each of whom narrates a lie about who they are. The prostitute claims to work for a firm selling Japanese feel-good gadgets, the meat dealer says he works in the Kremlin supplying Putin’s administration with foodstuffs, and the piano tuner spins a yarn about working in a network of secret factories that has been churning out human clones in sets of four since Soviet times. They go their separate ways, each to meet an unexpected fate; the prostitute, Marina, turns out to be one of four identical quads, another of whom, a maker of lifesize dolls, has just died in their home village.

The film is good, without standing out from a family resemblance to Tarkovsky and Zvyagantsev. The screenplay by Vladimir Sorokin, however, is a dark pleasure: surreal, satirical and embedded in the specifics of Russian history and culture. Sorokin, whose portrayal of a near-future Moscow as a modern version of Ivan the Terrible’s Russia in his novel Day of the Oprichnik seems closer to realisation now than when it appeared in 2006, also wrote the screenplay for Dau when Khrzhanovsky was to have made a more conventional film. There is evidence littered over the internet of extravagant work begun on this early version of the project: major streets closed off in St Petersburg and Kharkiv, photographs of hordes of extras in 1930s costumes, period cars and trucks.

One signal of a turning point may have been Khrzhanovsky’s construction in 2008 of a full-size partial replica of а giant Soviet passenger plane, the Kalinin K-7, at Kharkiv airport. In the real world a prototype of the seven-engined, double-tailed behemoth was built in Kharkiv in 1933 and enjoyed a few test flights before a fatal crash ended the programme. Khrzhanovsky decided he wanted Landau to be filmed arriving in Kharkiv, where the physicist worked from 1932 to 1937, in a K-7, as if the aeroplane had entered service. Artyom Vasilyev, the original Russian producer of Dau, told the Ukrainian press at the time: ‘Although there are remarkable achievements in the realm of computer graphics, it was clear to us that we wanted to build this plane.’ The combination of a fanatical obsession with historical authenticity (the reconstruction of one of the largest pre-jet passenger planes out of plywood, on a scale of one to one) with disregard for authenticity (the plane never carried passengers) anticipated the creation of the Institute. It was also a sign that somebody had opened the cash spigot for Khrzhanovsky. In an interview with Seance magazine in 2009, Vasilyev spoke of the appearance in 2007 of an unnamed ‘main investor’ who had given Khrzhanovsky carte blanche.

Some have compared the pre-story of Dau to that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which began shooting in the Philippines in March 1976, ended principal photography in May of the following year, and went on general release more than two years later. Yet although Coppola faced more obstacles (a set-destroying typhoon, for instance), he took far less time than Khrzhanovsky and brought a work to screen whose cultural heft outweighs the story of, or the documentary about, its creation. Others have seen Dau as a realisation of the gargantuan theatrical folie de grandeur portrayed in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York; except that there are few professional careers at stake beyond Khrzhanovsky’s own, and thus no equivalent to the plaintive cry of the actors to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s director: ‘When are we going to get an audience in here? It’s been 17 years.’ It hasn’t been 17 years, though it has been long enough for the country where it was conceived to invade the country where it was filmed. And whatever final form Dau takes it will be hard for it to efface the legend of what has already occurred, where the significance of a representative spectacle was, perhaps, most fully realised in the emotions of those who enacted it, rather than those who will merely witness its two-dimensional, unscented, intangible afterglow on a flat screen.

[*] The building is listed on the business website of David and Simon Reuben, who made a fortune in the Russian metals business in the 1990s, as part of the brothers’ Piccadilly Estate. The Reubens have financially supported the screen arts through their charitable foundation, notably with funding for the British Film Institute library, but inquiries from the LRB to the brothers’ spokesmen as to whether they were backing Khrzhanovsky went unanswered.