There are films whose title, premise or images are already enough to generate an inexplicable sense of transcendence that goes far beyond philias and phobias. They have an immediate cult status: a mystique. Very little Russian cinema makes it onto our screens, and since the USSR was no more, and even earlier, the mainstream in the largest country in the world seemed almost non-existent. Even so, every now and again we receive pieces that are both teasers of an immense cinematographic catalogue and reminders of a totemic, pioneering and ground-breaking past. These were movies like Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002) and Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, 2013); directors like Kossakovsky and Zvyagintsev, who from a unanimous solemnity that permeates form and tone —even in the occasional attempts at comedy—, offer the audience unique experiences, as demanding as they are revealing. This mystique, in short, has an inherently inaccessible component, the mark of those who demand a lot but give even more. And this is exactly what the DAU project does.
DAU is a project spawned 15 years ago by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Sergei Adonyev, one a filmmaker, the other a philanthropic businessman, and which began as a biography of the scientist Lev Landau and went on to become a detailed radiography of social hierarchies at an institution of Soviet Russia, specifically, in a secret government department dedicated to scientific research, and possibly an important part of the exhaustingly brutal race between global superpowers that marked the last century. The film project operates on a scale that even the biggest blockbusters and series would struggle to match: almost 400,000 castings, 40,000 costumes, a 12,000 square metre set —the biggest ever in Europe—, 400 characters, 10,000 extras, 40 months of shooting and 700 hours of 35 mm footage. All that for a series of feature films (and novels too) that explore thirty years of history —the story goes from 1938 to 1968— of this organisation, in the limbo between reality and fiction, through the personalities and circumstances that could have formed part of that ecosystem.
In fact, DAU is more than an audiovisual work. As it advanced, it also came to be viewed as a social experiment in which, for more than two years, a group of between 200 and 300 people lived and worked on set in keeping the era when the plot was happening and the specificities of the context: scientists and artists of different disciplines, cooks, waiters, families, clergy… all working as such, reading newspapers of the time, using the Rouble and eating, dressing and speaking as people did in the Soviet Union of the mid-twentieth century. It all meant that between the mammoth scenery walls, a historical re-enactment was partially filmed, and not without its controversies. Such an obsessive, visceral reproduction of the workings of a dictatorial regime can easily lead to dangerously similar occurrences to those that it intends to question, which is precisely what Russian critic Tatiana Shorokhova denounced at the presentation of DAU. Natasha in Berlin, where the film won an award. The abuses of power in a deliberately oppressive parallel reality; the pressure of a film that sought to create something so unique and unrepeatable; the importance of individualities in such an overpopulated enterprise … There was ethical debate aplenty, and aesthetic, artistic, spiritual and scientific debate too.
DAU and its fifteen component parts —Natasha and Degeneration, the first and second parts of the saga are being shown at D’A— are, indeed, a cinematographic creation with the mystique of high and singular art and, most probably, a sensory experience so powerful and radical that it will resonate for a long time in the minds of those who dare to enter.
— Tariq Porter