PARIS — At the Institute, everything was real. Real mathematical equations chalked on real blackboards, by real scientists wearing real lab coats. Of course, in this midcentury Soviet science lab, there were no laptops, no internet, no Wi-Fi — nothing, in fact, that wouldn’t be part of the daily life of an institution studying theoretical physics in the U.S.S.R. Oh, except cameras, a director and a production staff who were turning the whole thing into a movie.
Between 2009 and 2011, the director Ilya Khrzhanovsky created the most ambitious film set of all time. His living recreation of a theoretical physics institute took over the town of Kharkiv, Ukraine, and the actors lived their roles 24 hours a day. No one had scripts: If a character was to be a lab assistant, the person in the role simply had to live as a lab assistant.
“DAU,” the result of this provocative experiment, is finally on show for the first time in Paris, opening Thursday and running through Feb. 17. The Théâtre du Châtelet and Théâtre de la Ville have been taken over with this genre-defying accomplishment, which ballooned from a movie into something between immersive theater and a live video game.
Exhibition efforts have been plagued by problems. The debut was initially planned for Berlin in September — intended as the first stop of a three-city tour that would then travel to Paris and London. It was canceled weeks before it was supposed to open, when city administrators rejected a proposal to build a concrete wall around the interactive spectacle. The wall was intended to be 1.5 miles long and painted by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, encircling the event until its final night, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it would be torn down.
Once announced, the wall began to divide people (as walls do), stirring up debates about painful historical events that are never far from the surface in Germany. “I don’t believe in reconstructing a totalitarian system as an experiment,” said Sabine Bangert, a politician from the Greens party, who, like many Berliners, felt that the construction of a concrete barrier just meters from where the Berlin Wall once stood was an insult to those whose lives had been torn apart by it.
But many artists said that refusing to show this work was cowardly censorship of artistic expression. In the end, the wall proposal, which had been negotiated over several years, with millions of dollars of investment, was rejected because the paperwork was not filed correctly. “DAU” is to open in London in April, but its showing in Berlin is still an open question.
Paris officials received the project’s premiere more enthusiastically, but it has nonetheless been forced to scale back its ambitions. A proposed bridge that was supposed to arc over the Place du Châtelet, linking the two theaters for the duration of the event, was scrapped in part because of ongoing protests in the city, Khrzhanovsky said. “The yellow jackets killed the bridge,” he said in a telephone interview, because the city authorities were “afraid of terrorism.” (A spokeswoman for the Paris Police said that the bridge proposal was refused partly over security concerns, but also because it would have disturbed foot traffic in one of the city’s busiest areas.)
“DAU” was originally conceived as a biopic of the theoretical physicist Lev Landau, who received a Nobel Prize for his work. Landau was also known as a proponent of free love, and his marriage included a “spousal nonaggression pact.” Like Landau’s sexual appetites, the film’s ambitions spiraled.
During the shoot, historical authenticity was paramount, down to the last detail, according to people on the set. Food was labeled with 1950s expiration dates. Underwear, cutlery and sanitary products were sourced to match those of the time. The toilet pipes in the institute where “DAU” is set were modified to ensure the flush sounded right. Despite this mammoth effort, shooting was sporadic, pausing for up to six months at a time. In all, more than 700 hours of footage were shot.
Khrzhanovsky said that his unorthodox approach began with the casting process. “I started working like this because I needed nonprofessional actors,” he said. “I needed to find certain types of personalities and combine them.”
These included the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis, who plays the uncompromising genius Landau, and Radmila Shchyogoleva, the only professional actor, as Landau’s wife. More than 400 ordinary people also joined the “DAU” experiment, as did 10,000 extras and the occasional, real-world luminary. The performance artist Marina Abramovic played a visiting professor of anatomy, and the theater director Romeo Castellucci a visiting anthropologist; the theoretical physicists David Gross and Carlo Rovelli also made appearances.
If the epic shoot was the first phase of the project, the premiere on Thursday is the beginning of the second — and it is just as ambitious. Upon entering the installation, visitors hand over their cellphones, exchanging them for smartphone-like devices that guide them through the various interactive performances, happenings and film screenings.
Each visitor’s experience will be different, although everyone will be invited to see at least one of the 13 feature-length films that have been cut from the footage. This, however, is only a portion of the material available to watch. A video-streaming platform, accessible in single-person booths, will show many more scenes, each tagged by character and theme, that let the viewer explore additional story lines.
Depending on the time, visitors might also be invited to one of an ever-changing series of talks and performances, including by Robert Del Naja of the band Massive Attack and the Venezuelan D.J. Arca. Meanwhile, actors — or, as Khrzhanovsky calls them, “participants” — will be improvising (or perhaps, living) their Institute lives in the backstage areas of the two theaters. (At the Pompidou Center, actors will be living for a month in a Soviet-style apartment, watched by visitors through two-way mirrors, as part of a supplementary exhibition.)
Visitors to the theaters, who must be over 18, purchase “entry visas” rather than tickets: A three-hour pass costs 35 euros, or about $40; an “M1 visa,” which grants unlimited access over the monthlong run, is €150. With passes for 24 hours or longer, visitors fill out a psychometric test, and the device that guides them through the installation will tailor its recommendations around the results.
What about the films themselves? Naturalistic and engrossing, they lure the viewer into the characters’ ethical dilemmas, scientific discussions and sexual encounters in real time. The human search for freedom — whether within a politically repressive society, a scientific laboratory or a marriage — is a constant theme.
At times, the films show humanity at its lowest: Mental breakdowns, incest and brutally degrading K.G.B. interrogations all feature. It’s made more shocking by the knowledge that the people appearing onscreen aren’t acting, but rather responding to their lived conditions.
“Nobody is ever in the middle of the road with this project,” said Ruth Mackenzie, co-artistic director of the Théâtre du Châtelet. “You either find it provocative or exhilarating.”
Khrzhanovsky said it was the project’s confrontational nature that spooked officials in Berlin and forced him to scale back its ambitions. “If it’s not possible to build a bridge in Paris, or a wall in Berlin,” he added, “it looks like art exists somewhere in a ghetto, where you can do things — but not very visible, not very provocative.”
But Khrzhanovsky said he remained committed to “DAU,” despite the need to compromise on his vision. “For me, satisfaction is when the project will meet the public,” he said. “The public is the main collaborator in this phase.”
Collaborators from the creative scene, like Mackenzie, are already convinced of the project’s significance.
“I’ve worked on a lot of ambitious projects, but this is the only one that has had mythic status before it’s even started,” she said. “It’s the world premiere of something that’s never been done before.”