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The Movie Set That Ate Itself


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By Aman Sardana

Eight years ago, a relatively unknown (and unhinged) director began one of the wildest experiments in film history. Armed with total creative control, he invaded a Ukrainian city, marshalled a cast of thousands and constructed a totalitarian society in which the cameras are always rolling and the actors never go home.

Dau is a Russian film directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky. The film deals with the life of the Nobel Prize winning Soviet scientist Lev Landau.

The rumors started seeping out of Ukraine about three years ago: A young Russian film director has holed up on the outskirts of Kharkov, a town of 1.4 million in the country’s east, making…something. A movie, sure, but not just that. If the gossip was to be believed, this was the most expansive, complicated, all-consuming film project ever attempted.

A steady stream of former extras and fired PAs talked of the shoot in terms usually reserved for survivalist camps. The director, was a madman who forced the crew to dress in Stalin-era clothes, fed them Soviet food out of cans and tins, and paid them in Soviet money. Others said the project was a cult and everyone involved worked for free. Khrzhanovsky had taken over all of Kharkov, they said, shutting down the airport. No, no, others insisted, the entire thing was a prison experiment, perhaps filmed surreptitiously by hidden cameras.

I’m about to write the rumors off as idle blog chatter when I get to the film’s compound itself and, again, find myself ready to believe anything.

The set, seen from the outside, is an enormous wooden box jutting directly out of a three-story brick building that houses the film’s vast offices, workshops, and prop warehouses. The wardrobe department alone takes up the entire basement.

The film was shot at various sites in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, United Kingdom and Denmark. Most of the film was shot on a specially constructed set called The Institute in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. The Institute was the largest film set in Europe, the area totalling 12,000 sq. meters. The set was a dynamic creative reconstruction of a Soviet restricted-access Institute in 1938-1968, located in Moscow. The destruction of the set became an integral part of the story and was shot on the 8th November 2011.

The Institute is the brainchild of the 37-year-old enfant terrible director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, an unruly-mopped, bespectacled, anarchic and flamboyantly imperious scion of a film family, who has so far managed to convince enough European investors to bankroll his brutal and baroque movie project/human experiment that has been in the making since 2006.

The actors live their roles day and night, literally: the heavy serge clothes, the slop pretending to be food, the grey, suspicious, furtive drone look of the reluctant stalinista. Anybody found balking at or trying to buck the historical dynamics of this time-warp is fined 1,000 hryvnia (about $123.5) and often flat-out fired.

The preparation for the shooting for the film began in 2006, whereas the actual shooting started in 2008 and went on for three years. The world premiere of the movie was intended to take place at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival but was rescheduled to L’Atelier du Festival at Cannes in May 2014. It is currently in post-production.


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