So far, the Berlinale premiere of (some of) the Dau films has
been extremely rewarding for people who took part in the
project. The reviews were mostly positive. Those that were negative
or mixed, such as e.g. Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter,
criticized the films on valid cinematic grounds, in a professional
and completely correct manner. The audiences also seemed to like the
films, or at least, to like them well enough to sit throughout the
whole six hours of Dau.Degeneration and applaud in the end. What
surprised many of us, however, were several persistent questions
asked again and again throughout the questions-and-answers sessions,
questions that might be valid, but look very naive and misguided, at
least to me. We have expected a certain amount of controversy with
this project, in fact quite a large amount of it, but we did not
expect it to be, so to say, so unrelated to what the project
actually is. It is as if, instead of arguing with what we did, or
even looking at it, some people reduce everything to a checklist of
maybe one page, and refuse to go beyond that page. Personally, I do
not think this is a very smart thing to do, but, well, if people
insist, here are some stock answers to stock questions. All the
answers are mine and mine only, they do not represent the Dau
project, nor in fact any other institution I am in any way
associated with. "We" is royal we.
Dmitry Kaledin, Moscow, 08.03.20.
Q. Were you or other cast members manipulated by the
director in any way?
A. I wish I were!
After all, giving instructions to actors is a part of the director's job description, is it not? No such luck. Even during the most intense shooting periods, I got to talk to him maybe once every other day, for maybe ten minutes, and was left to my own devices the rest of the time. As far as I know, the story for other cast members is similar.
Khrzhanovsky is not only unwilling to manipulate people, he is psychologically incapable of doing so. A good manipulator builds up a world in his own head, plans it in meticulous detail, and then contrives to project it outside and fill it with real people, by coercion or trickery or whatever. Khrzhanovsky is atrocious at planning. His inner world is completely closed to outsiders (including me) and plays no part whatsoever in his professional activities. It was our inner worlds that he was interested in. The only requirement was not to do as you are told. People who do as they are told bore him and do not make for good cinema (at least with this particular approach to making good cinema). Personally, I'm quite a conformist and would have been perfectly willing to do whatever he tells me; to kill this tendency right on the spot, he didn't tell me anything at all.
Q. Given the intense and potentially traumatic atmosphere
during the shooting, was there a psychologist on site, for help and
A. Of course not!
Psychologists are like homeopaths: they can only help people who firstly, believe in them, and secondly, do not really need them. Kharkiv is a large modern city with all the usual amenities, and qualified medical help including mental health specialists was available around the clock on a ten to fifteen minutes' notice. Fortunately, there was no occasion to use the mental health facilities --- as far I know, the worst medical emergency during shooting was when my wife had to be hospitalized for a couple of days with a food allergy attack --- but they definitely were on hand. However, this concerns actual specialists with actual medical degrees. As for "psychologists", "psychotherapists", "spiritual advisers", "faith healers" and others of similar ilk that these days tend to plague social service departments and insinuate themselves into our daily lives, typically with no measurable qualifications whatsoever --- no, certainly not. Emotional stability and mental well-being of Dau cast members was much too precious and important, both for the project itself and for its managers, to entrust it to crooks and snake oil peddlers.
What actually acted as an emotional outlet and a safety valve was the way the shooting was organized. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the participants did not live on the set for 24 hours a day. Even those that dived the deepest into the whole thing still had to surface daily, for at least an hour, for technical reasons such as make-up. This meant leaving the enclosed territory suspended in 1952 or whatever year. The atmosphere outside was completely and emphatically different. I suspect that as far as the cast members were concerned, it was actually much healthier and friendlier than usual for such projects (because non-professional actors don't have professional rivalries). It probably was a very stressful environment for people who worked there, with long hours and gargantuan tasks that usually were to be done yesterday. But for us the cast members, this was a prototypical safe space, probably the safest that I saw in my whole life.
I also want to emphasize the crucial role played by Jekaterina Oertel. In the finished films, credited co-directors are those who turned the raw footage into a story, during post-production, and Jekaterina did this in about one half of the films (including Dau.Natasha). During the shooting, her job was supposed to be make-up. But then, my job was supposed to be mathematics. Nobody in Dau only did one thing --- and I believe that it is fair to say she was actually acting as a co-director during the whole shooting. This especially concerns working with cast members. Throughout the whole project, she provided enormous and continuous emotional help and support to those who needed it. These were mostly women, and this is not surprising. It was the women in Dau who had it the hardest, and who actually carried the largest burden and made the whole thing work.
Q. Speaking of women: why are there no strong female
characters in Dau, why are women only used for sex and serving food?
A. Out of politeness, let me first try to be as charitable as possible and convert your question to something reasonable. A legitimate question is: why were there much fewer women scientists then men? The answer to that is obvious: for the same reason we had hammer-and-sickle emblems and KGB officers all over the place. This was USSR in 1950ies. Admittedly, USSR in the 1950ies was slightly less sexist then its opposing numbers in the West, but still. Even now, in 2020, science -- especially physics and math -- is very far from gender equality, and it is not easy to find women scientists willing to devote a sizable chunk of their time and energy to such a crazy project. As you might have noticed, we were not filming Star Wars or Ghostbusters. Striving for formal gender equality in the world of the Dau Institute would be too artificial not to be perfectly idiotic.
However, politeness aside, the answer to the original question the way it was posed is: are you blind?
There is nothing but strong female characters in the films. It is the men who are weak and often bland (and often evil). All women in Dau are incredibly strong.
The idea that Maksim in Degeneration uses Vika for sex is preposterous, it's actually the other way around, and it is obvious to anyone with at least a passing familiarity with the way actual people behave. Even women who came late into the project, such as Alina Alekseeva or Kristina Babich, and who were supposed to live in the safe, liberal and care-free 1960ies, act in a perfectly heroic manner when the push comes to shove (e.g. in the pig scene, where men like me just sit there all frozen in the standard reflexive response of a shit-scared monkey). Throughout the whole project, it is the women, not men who move along the action and most of the subplots. Come to think of it, the only thing in which women had no role was the final bloodbath, the ultimate destruction of the Institute: this was conceived, justified, planned and executed entirely by men.
To those who care about such things, I should add that the part of the project team that lived in 2011 --- that is, outside of the enclosure --- was pretty close to gender equality, with women outnumbering men by something like 6 to 4. The day-to-day running of the project was managed by a small production team of four people (so-called "otdel U"), two women, two men; most of the casting was done by women (expect for scientists who recruited each other), the artistic team had slightly more women than men, and the costume and the make-up team were completely female.
Q. Was the bottle scene in Dau.Natasha really necessary?
A. There is only one person who can really answer this and sadly, he is dead.
Like everything else in Dau, the scene was unscripted, or rather, scripted on-the-spot by those doing it. In real life, Vladimir Andreevich Azhippo was a very intelligent, delicate and understanding man, well-respected in Kharkiv and Ukraine in general, and doing important humanitarian work for prison reform (in particular, he was a member of the Presidential Committee on Clemency). In the Dau universe, he is an utterly ruthless professional torturer who has a clear goal: to break Natasha's spirit. In particular, he is a complete psychopath (in the clinical sense sense of the word -- a person who can voluntarily shut down his empathy channels). He was certainly not doing it for pleasure. Since he did do it, my guess is that this was the only way he saw that could possibly help him to accomplish his goal.
I think that he failed.
A symmetric question is why Natasha Berezhnaya chose to go through with this. Technically, she could opt out at any second (for those who want to know, there was no specific stop word, but none was needed -- anything out-of-context would work, such as e.g. "internet"). I respect her too much to actually ask her idiotic questions like this, but to me, the answer is obvious: opting out would automatically mean that she lost. And this was a battle nobody with a modicum of decency and self-respect could afford to lose. Personally, judging purely from the film, I think that this was a battle she won.
This is not Star Wars, nor Hollywood in general, nor its saccharine Soviet immitations overflowing with propaganda. In real life, and in Dau, you don't get to walk over the bad guys. You can't even seriously inconvenience them. If you lose, you lose. If you win, you get to cultivate your garden and mop your floors. And that's how it goes.
Q. What utter rubbish! Life is not like that, people are not like
that, women are certainly not like that, this is privileged dead
white male speaking, go read any of the modern feminist theory!
A. Well, I was just quoting Voltaire, wasn't I? Dead, white, male and somewhat privileged, but this is not why people still quote him?
In regular science -- physics, math, biology, chemistry, and so on -- theories are there to be tested, and theories that are not supported by experimental data are discarded. If social "sciences" want to be treated as such, and enjoy the benefit of taxpayer's support, they should follow suit.
For the Dau project, however, this is quite immaterial, since we were not doing theories. What you see is experimental data, pure and simple. We did not tamper with it, and did not even attempt a theoretical explanation (it is for you to do this, should you so wish). We did not have a script for a reason: this was the only way it could possibly work. Any pre-conceived idea about how people ought to behave would have been utterly foreign to the whole exercise, and extremely offensive to its participants. You don't tell people to just be themselves, emphatically so, and then suggest what it is they ought to be. Imposing a mode of behaviour, any mode of behaviour on people in such an experimental environment would be an intolerable violation akin to rape. We don't do rape.
Q. Oh, but wasn't that American guy raped?
You're speaking about Andrew Ondrejcak. He obviously did not have a good time in the project (as far as I know, he refuses to talk about it). He was physically assaulted by the Neo-Nazi thugs, two or three days before the destruction of the Institute. The entirety of this is on film, and it is included in Dau.Degeneration. The 30-seconds scene you see takes place in a corridor that is actually five meters from the exit door; at the end of the scene he exists the set and the project through this door. As one can gather from the previous conversations between the Neo-Nazis, also in the film, they did not intend to do him actual physical harm, but they did intend to intimidate him and to humiliate him deeply (if I understand correctly, by forcibly carrying him to the room where pigs were kept). They failed. This is a rare occasion in the project where a safety mechanism was actually needed. It was there, in the form of the exit door, and it worked.
Q. Ok, all these were questions asked in the West, but what about
Russia itself? What are the reactions to the project in its home
country? Wasn't there even some open letter from Russian journalists
raising important ethical issues?
A. Indeed, all the questions addressed above were raised during Berlinale, by audiences and journalists in Berlin, and while I personally might consider them naive, and even silly, I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that they were asked in good faith. So I tried my best to answer them in good faith. But this is an entirely different beast. Basically, while it masqueraded as such, the text you are referring to was not a letter asking questions; rather, it was an attempt at character assasination. Let me respond in kind.
One thing to keep in mind about modern Russia is that it is a cargo-cult country. For the last thirty years or so, it was importing various trappings of civilization from the West, and converting it to god knows what amply spiced by plain old corruption. The prime example is democracy, already a travesty of itself back in 1990-ies, and positively obscene now, under Putin (who nevertheless insists on keeping up the appearances, and is now busily rewriting the "Constitution" which nobody in the country even bothers to read). What passes for journalism -- or feminism, for that matter -- in modern Russia is of a similar quality. The only notable example of "journalism" by the authors of the letter I could find was a rapturous piece by T. Khodova explaining that finally, happily, Leo Di Caprio can fulfill his life ambition -- to play Putin. The website where the letter appeared is not a news outlet; it is a social media marketing engine devoted to pushing this or that particular cinematic product (presumably funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, as they usually are). It had no discernible political or ideological affiliation, and only turned "feminist" for the specific purpose of posting the letter in question. The letter itself is written in the familiar Soviet style, a mix of an anonymous appeal to authorities and a public denunciation, and wouldn't be out of place in 1952, or 1938. One can also find examples from 1958, five years after Stalin's death, when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature -- and the Soviet press was overflowing with letters from "concerned citizens" decrying the fact and demanding swift retribution. Logically, the text is non-sensical (for example, the authors seem to suggest that Harvey Weinstein was abusing his victims for the sake of art), but logic is not relevant for this particular genre.
Frankly, the mere fact that the authors of the letter have the gall to lecture the Artistic Director of the Berlinale in such a tone is quite appalling. But I have bad news for you, guys and girls (and for people who pay your salaries). The genre only works when you have a couple of millions of police thugs to cover your back. You might have it in Russia, or you might believe that you do. But in Berlin, you don't. At least, not yet.
Q. Ok then, here's a question asked by a Russian, but
living in Berlin. Isn't your whole project russophobic? Can you
imagine the bottle scene and similar atrocities done by Western
actors for a Western film? -- and if not, doesn't it mean that you
treat Russians as uncivilised barbarians who are completely
A. This is a film about Russian history (among other things). Why would somebody make a similar film about a Western country?
The only country of Europe with a similar level of disgusting atrocities in its recent history is Germany, and the Germans have already thought long and hard about it. Not being German myself, I cannot know for sure how successful they were at processing the ethical aspects of this history, but at the very least, they definitely had to process the spectacle of a half of their country being bombed out of existence. The result is obvious: anybody in modern Germany who would seriously praise Hitler is treated as a dangerous maniac, a public menace, and subjected to strict quarantine. Russia is completely unrepentant and happy to wallow in the worst excesses of its gruesome past. Portraits of Stalin adorn Moscow city buses. Every year, thousands of people bring flowers to the Red Square to mark his birthday. T-shirts with portraits of Putin are sold by vending machines at the Sheremetievo airport. Torture, of a much worse kind than the bottle scene, raises no concern whatsoever; it is in fact utterly commonplace and constitutes the preferred method for routine police investigations. The favourite bumper sticker throughout the country is "we can repeat it" ("mozhem povtorit'").
Hell yes it is russophobic, and for a good reason: you, and people like you, are scary. Even when you live in Berlin.