The Never-ending Story

A Russian director recreates a city for a film-and-method-acting-project about an anti-Stalinist Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist with philandering issues

01 October 2012
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ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE DRAB, industrial city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, a vast wooden box spills out of a three-storey brick building that houses The Institute, a film set that is trying hard to be a perfect replica of a 1950s-1960s Soviet city.

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 $12 3.5) and often flat-out fired.

Even the photographer of this essay had to leave most of  his digital accessories—including his mobile phone—behind at the gates of the gloom-palled ‘set’. After the wardrobe folks had remodelled him (visitors are also incorporated into Khrzhanosvky’s dystopian spacetime distortion), he emerged looking like a Taynoy politsii (secret police) in a trenchcoat and a Homburg—all in black.

The film is titled Dau, which is what the devoted students of Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-68), an Azerbaijan-born Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, called him. Landau changed the world of quantum mechanics studies with his findings on superfluidity and quantum thermodynamics. A fornication machine with a genius’s brain attached to it, he was also the author of a stunning leaflet that the KGB declassified only in 1991: the tract, dated 1938, was one of just three explicit denunciations of Stalin during the Great Purge.

History teems with auteurs who push the lines of control with their projects. Francis Ford Coppola shot his momentous Apocalypse Now (1979) in 238 delirious days in the deepest Philippines, giving Martin Sheen a heart attack in the process. Stanley Kubrick appropriated Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman body and soul for 15 months without a break for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), working himself so hard that a heart attack killed him days before the film’s release. Khrzhanovsky is just eight months from Dau’s scheduled release at L’Atelier du Festival at Cannes in May 2013; and with just a single award-winning feature film—Chetyre (or 4; 2005)—to his name. How he plans to cut-and-splice six years of random shooting into a film is anybody’s guess. But whether the film wins the Palme d’Or or blows Khrzhanovsky’s reputation into the weeds, it’ll have been an Event.

Sergey Maximshin has worked for major international newspapers and magazines including The TimesTIMENewsweekParoolLiberation and Washington Post.

Keywords: film set Ukraine photo essay The Institute Soviet 1950s 1960s
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