The Never-Ending Film
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
We're going to kick things off with a behind-the-scenes tour like you've never heard of. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg spoke to Michael Idov, a journalist with his eye on the Russian film world when he happened across a lead that he just had to follow - SNAP JUDGMENT.
JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Michael first heard the rumors back in 2008. Somewhere on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov there was a film shoot, a big one, on which something very strange was happening.
MICHAEL IDOV: I saw some commotion around it on Russian film blogs. Fired PAs and employees writing about how totalitarian and psychologically oppressive the set was - coming back with, basically, PTSD.
ROSENBERG: But then there was the other half of the crew - the ones who stayed.
IDOV: People who got so involved with the film's production that they moved their families there and never left.
ROSENBERG: The film - a period piece about a mid-20th century Soviet scientist - was known simply as "Dau." Its director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, had only one previous title to his credit. But now, supplied with a seemingly endless amount of money from various investors and four years into the production with no end in sight, Khrzhanovsky has supposedly gone mad with power, insisting that his cast and crew live full-time on an increasingly large and elaborate set, cut off from the outside world.
IDOV: An acquaintance of mine compared it to something out of "Heart Of Darkness." You know, half joking that he expected heads on spikes around the encampment. Obviously, I was immediately interested.
ROSENBERG: Michael was dead set on finding out just what exactly was going on. So he pitched his investigation as an article to GQ, booked a flight to Kharkov and after little bit of journalistic maneuvering, managed to score three days on set with Khrzhanovsky himself.
IDOV: I remember pulling up to the set and thinking it wasn't all that imposing or huge - looking at it from the outside - because all you see is, you know, cardboard and two-by-fours.
ROSENBERG: That's when Khrzhanovsky appeared. Wearing strangely outdated clothing and spectacles, the director looked sort of like a young Albert Einstein. He would be giving Michael a personal tour of the set, but first Michael would have to be processed.
IDOV: Because you were not supposed to admit that the film shoot was in fact a film shoot. Instead, everyone was operating under the notion that it's the '50s. That day it was 1952. So I needed to be made into a 1952 version of myself. They took away my clothes. They gave me a new haircut with, like, temples shaved off and gave me an incredibly itchy period suit - including the underwear.
The one thing I was allowed to keep was my watch. I had a vintage watch from 1959 and after a pretty intense discussion they decided it was OK to let me keep this watch from the future.
ROSENBERG: Then Khrzhanovsky instructed Michael to give his freshly minted Soviet passport to a man guarding an otherwise nondescript hallway.
IDOV: So you go through this very narrow, you know, birth canal of a passageway and then a small door opens and you just kind of tumble out onto the set itself.
ROSENBERG: There right in front of Michael is a small Soviet city. And by city I don't mean a movie set that looks like a city. I mean a city straight out of 1952. There's a main square with monuments, apartments, a stadium.
IDOV: A working cafeteria, a working barbershop.
ROSENBERG: And then, of course, there were the citizens.
IDOV: It was 1 a.m. and even at 1 a.m. it was huge and it was populated. There were janitors in Soviet dress sweeping the streets. There were militia men in Soviet uniforms patrolling the perimeter, just sort of, you know, imbuing it with some sort of crazy authenticity. And you might ask when was he directing and the answer is he wasn't. That whole month the cameras weren't rolling.
ROSENBERG: In other words, most of these actors weren't actually actors at all. Or if they were they weren't acting anymore. The janitors, the barbers, those were their real jobs now. They worked and even lived on the set whether Khrzhanovsky was shooting or not. As if to prove it, he would take Michael into structures which Michael thought were just facades, but which proved to be fully functional apartment buildings, complete with 1950s refrigerators stocked with 1950s food, stamped with 1950s expiration dates.
IDOV: The detailing was truly insane. He kept insisting on flushing the toilets in each building to show me, first of all, that they were flushable, but also to point out that they made custom-width pipes for the toilets because the modern pipes made the wrong sound. Like, it hit the wrong note as the water descended into the bowl.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOILET FLUSHING)
IDOV: Khrzhanovsky himself, at that point, seemed sort of beside himself with glee showing me this enormous toy he had built and was now living in.
ROSENBERG: But Michael quickly realized that what got Khrzhanovsky really excited wasn't the authenticity of the set, but what the set was doing to the people living there.
IDOV: There was no traditional movie equipment in sight. Instead, there were hidden cameras everywhere. You could film through holes in walls. You could film through holes in ceilings. There were hidden microphones in lighting fixtures like there would actually be in the Stalin-era Russia. Their function was to create a working totalitarian surveillance society.
Those policemen on the set were real prison guards and one of their functions was to listen in on conversations and fine actors sizable fines that they actually took out of salaries for using modern conveniences or for uttering modern words. As befits Stalin's Russia, everyone - including the cafeteria workers and the barbershop workers - moonlighted as a snitch. So, you know, if you used modern words, within minutes the guards would arrive and fine you for this. This happened to me several times and then you looked around the room trying to figure out who the snitch was and the answer is, as usual, everyone.
The goal was clearly to create an absurd world with absurd rules, but then actually force people to follow these rules and see how fast these rules become normal. And this is something I've experienced myself. I am a Soviet child and it's amazing how easily we accept these totalitarian societies.
ROSENBERG: Or like a '90s totalitarian system - not just accept it, but come to embrace it.
IDOV: One of the seemingly endless female associate producers that Khrzhanovsky had on set started out much like myself. She came on the set to interview Khrzhanovsky and was so enthralled by the production that she never left and I believe she left her husband.
ROSENBERG: So Michael knew that just because he was a journalist who could return to the comfort of his hotel room in Kharkov each night, that didn't make him immune to the pull of the set and the pressure to just kind of obey. Still, he was surprised at how hard it was to resist.
IDOV: Because I wasn't on the set alone - I was there with Sergey Maximishin, a famous Russian photographer. And he was exactly the kind of person that Khrzhanovsky could not abide. He just basically thought the whole thing was a joke and kept kind of cracking wise about it. He, you know, kept using forbidden words, like shoot and scene and lighting and makeup. And what's interesting is that I realized that his infractions made me cringe. I - every time he would say something like, you know, shoot or lighting I would be like, God, no. You know, they're going to fine you.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
ROSENBERG: Michael knew, of course, that this is exactly what Khrzhanovsky wanted - for Michael to almost instinctively care about these obviously arbitrary rules over and above any journalistic solidarity with his photographer. But it turns out that this conditioning was a just one small part of Michael's larger indoctrination.
IDOV: I got really good at putting on my period suit with the suspenders and the cufflinks and all that and I had sweated so much into the suit it was pretty much mine. I had this sort of leisurely stroll on the set, already knowing where everything was, and I just started talking to this very beautiful girl who worked at the cafeteria. Her name was Olya(ph) and at least her character's name was Olya. But she was clearly one of Khrzhanovsky's, you know, favorites. When I asked her how long she was on set she said she worked at the cafeteria since 1949s. So for three years.
In reality she had been on the set for four months. And she invited me and the photographer over for dinner at her apartment. Her apartment was, of course, part of the set. The dinner was probably one of the most surreal experiences I've had. Everyone was trying to keep period appropriate conversation. Olya was the one who held her facade the best. Everyone else, including Khrzhanovsky, kept slipping into anachronistic speech and there was just no breaking her character. I sort of pulled her aside and she pulled out her cigarette and had a smoke. The cigarette - I checked - was, of course, a period appropriate Soviet cigarette. And I asked her if she wants to be an actress if, you know, when she grows up. And she would have none of it. She said no, why? I want to be a scientist. And she was just sort of perfect.
And at some point she pulled me aside and showed me her room - her little bedroom with a half dead cactus and a nightgown thrown over the bed. It just felt like a pet showing off her cage. There was this atonal cello music being piped in everywhere the whole night through these poll-mounted speakers. I noticed it was clearly audible in the room and I asked her if it annoys her and she said no I love it. Sometimes I sleep with the window open. It was a strange, disturbing and somewhat erotic moment. She asked me to come back and see her tomorrow alone. And when a pretty girl asks you to come see her alone you consider it for a second.
But I realized that, as irresistible as I may think I am, she was clearly acting on Khrzhanovsky's orders to see if I can be quite literally seduced into staying on set. The idea of a camera in the ceiling was probably, you know, the best cold shower you could imagine. That night I was incredibly exhausted. The set really did suck the life out of you and I got out with some measure of relief and I was grateful to be out, but also really wanted to go back in.
ROSENBERG: Why would you want to go back?
IDOV: Because it was, in its own strange way, beautiful because it was a mystery - because it was a hell of a story.
ROSENBERG: And so the next morning, Michael donned his itchy trousers, walked down the narrow passageway and entered the main square one last time.
IDOV: That's when Khrzhanovsky found me and stopped me because turns out that his conflict with Sergey, the photographer, had reached full boil. Sergey was trying to shoot Olya, the cafeteria worker, taking a bath. And that alone was fine with Khrzhanovsky, but then the photographer asked her to put her hair up in a kind of a turban using a towel and that really threw Khrzhanovsky into a rage.
Olya does not bathe in a turban because, of course, he would know how she bathes. He would know how everyone bathes on the set. And I remember Khrzhanovsky just yelling your photographer is asking people to pose. He is not observing life. He is staging it. And I can't have that. My people are not puppets. The last sentence was especially ironic because, of course, they were, but his puppets, not Sergey's. And Khrzhanovsky took kind of a dramatic breath and, you know, switched to this half whisper and said we're ending our collaboration. You must leave.
That's when I think my acculturation to the Soviet society reached its peak because I realized what I had to do. I had to disown my own photographer. That's, of course, something that generations upon generations of Soviet people were forced to do - to betray those next to them in order to save their own hides. And that's what I did. I said I understand. I agree completely. I've only just met this guy that GQ sent to photograph the story. He's not a friend of mine. If you feel that he is violating the rules...
And even as I was hearing myself say these words...
...There's no need for the photographer, you know...
...I was aware of how fully I had succumbed to this fascist reality. And then I look at Khrzhanovsky and I see that he has a smile on his face because he understands that this also was a bit of a performance because I knew it would look great in the article to say that I've been conditioned. So I've helped him to create this self-portrait of a tyrannical genius and he finally managed to completely control me. And I'm not sure if I'm proud of the story. I love it. It's the best magazine story I've ever written, but I'm not sure I'm proud of it.
ROSENBERG: And as for Khrzhanovsky and his toy...
IDOV: At some point I asked Khrzhanovsky what would happen to the set after he was done with it? And he grew very pensive and said I don't know. He had achieved the ultimate filmmaker's dream. He had become a creator and sole ruler of an entire tiny world. And once you experience that it's very hard to let go.
ROSENBERG: All told, Khrzhanovsky would go on to shoot over 700 hours of film. When he was finally forced to wrap principle photography, Olya and all the other cafeteria workers, barbers and guards, shuttered their apartments, handed back their clothes and returned to the real world, but not before Khrzhanovsky had them burn the set to the ground. That was three years ago. No one knows when the film will be released.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: Michael Idov is now a novelist and a screenwriter living in New York and Moscow. His first Russian TV series, "Leningrad," is filming in the U.K. and will premiere next spring. For more information about Michael's experience on the set of "Dau," check out our website - snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg and sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
WASHINGTON: Now then, when SNAP JUDGEMENT returns we're going to meet a miracle worker and we're going to flirt with one of the greatest masters of all time, for real, when SNAP JUDGMENT "Behind The Curtain" episode continues - stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.