The DAU project was originally going to be a film about 1962 Nobel Prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau (nicknamed Dau) but ended up becoming an experimental art project of unprecedented size and ambition about the horrors of communism that resembles the 1996 film, The Truman Show.
DAU began to take shape in 2006, and was to be an ordinary “biopic” film, financed by various private companies, as well as by public funds from European countries such as Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands. But in 2007, Russian billionaire and philanthropist Serguei Adoniev gave the project such support – not only financially, but also ideologically – that the film became a multimedia project – multidisciplinary and experimental – mixing cinema, art and anthropology.
As if it were a kind of real-life Truman Show, the world’s largest film set was built in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine – over 12,000 m2 – which functioned as an exact replica of a Soviet city from the 1950s and 1960s.
Over several years, more than 700 hours of footage were shot in this studio, which is gradually being released in different formats, all part of the DAU Project, which so far includes 14 feature films, 3 series, conferences, photography exhibitions, and art fairs in Paris, Berlin, and London.
Not only some professional actors have participated in this project, but also scientists, artists, musicians, philosophers, religious and mystical figures, as well as cooks, cleaners, toilets, hairdressers, former KGB agents and even leaders of neo-Nazi movements have collaborated and acted.
The really mind-blowing thing about this project is that during the period when the actors were inside the studio that functioned as a Soviet city, their immersion was total and there were hidden cameras recording them at all times, so what we can see in the films are the natural and improvised reactions of the characters in circumstances orchestrated by the director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky.
The director’s obsession with recreating the Soviet atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s was such that the film set was totally isolated from the outside world, with a kind of border customs where anyone who was to enter – whether an actor or crew member, or a visitor from the press – had to leave any object that was not consistent with the Soviet society of those decades. They were even given period clothing and underwear, and forced to cut their hair as it was worn at the time.
Some of the participants quit due to these demands, but others not only spent several years working there, but moved in with their entire families – others even left their partners fascinated by this work – so that the film set became a functional city disconnected from the real world for several years.
The director of the films established strict and crazy rules for the actors and crew members to follow, such as not stepping out of character at any time, or not using words or expressions that were out of character for the time. With a hidden camera surveillance system, and informants telling the director about those who did not follow these rules, the film set itself became a recreation of the oppressive Soviet atmosphere.
As if it were an anthropological or psychological experiment, there are testimonies of some participants who acknowledged that they even stopped talking to colleagues who did not follow the rules, or even betrayed them and reported them so that they could be fired. We can say that this ambitious project, bordering on insanity, managed not only to film the horrors of the communist system on film, but first reproduced them on a small scale, and then filmed them in such a realistic way that it is frightening.
Although the project is still in post-production and new pieces come out from time to time, on his website and various streaming platforms we can see some of the main final products of this megalomaniacal production.
DAU. Natasha and DAU.Degeneration
DAU. Natasha is perhaps the most “normal” film of the whole bunch. At 2.5 hours long, it could be considered a run-of-the-mill film about the canteen staff of a Soviet scientific institute, with people who drink too much and talk too much, and the problems they have to face when state security forces step in to bring order to that out-of-control, in a brutal and terrifying way.
When we say that it is the closest thing to a regular movie, we are referring to its appearance, because knowing what is behind its production and taking into account that, for example, the sex scenes are real, or that the actors are really drunk and improvising, the movie is not at all normal.
DAU. Degeneration is a 6-hour film divided into a series of 9 chapters of about 40 minutes each. While DAU. Natasha is about the early years of the Dau Institute, this series is about the final years of the institute, when it becomes run by a KGB agent who imposes a martial regime.
Some of the characters are played by former KGB members, by former real prison guards, and even by leaders of real neo-Nazi movements. And you get the feeling that those who play such unsavory people don’t seem to be faking it.
At the institute, all kinds of experiments are carried out on chimpanzees, pigs and even human babies in order to create the “new Soviet man,” the ideal archetype of a person with socialist and altruistic qualities that they claim will replace the individualistic and free human being.
DAU. Degeneration is an x-ray of how Marxist ideology crystallizes into atrocities, and its anti-communist message is truly potent. The 6 hours of footage could be summarized in that communism ends up becoming a kind of destructive religion behind the mask of science and the common good.
DAU project is an experimental film that explains that communism is a scientific experiment that always went wrong, very wrong. It is not for all audiences, both for its lurid and extreme content, as well as for its forms, with long, improvised, and sometimes unconnected dialogues, as well as strange framing and a slow pace.
But it is precisely this strange format and the oppressive aura that surrounds the film that make it a powerful and unforgettable experience, especially for those viewers who want to know more about the horrors of communism.