Liberté or Death

Dennis Lim on Albert Serra’s Liberté

Albert Serra, Liberté, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne, Berlin, February 21, 2018. Anne Tismer, Ann Göbel, Laurean Wagner, and Catalin Jugravu. Photo: Román Yñan.

THE FORTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD CATALAN DIRECTOR Albert Serra has brought his singular sensibility to bear on a remarkable range of works, straddling the film and art worlds with a rare understanding of the contexts of spectatorship and a flair for productive provocation. His films bring the mythic past to life by distilling fabled events to eccentric anecdotes and imbuing figures of legend with the mundane weight of existence. Following the droll anti-adaptations of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (Honor of the Knights, 2006) and the Biblical parable of the Three Kings (Birdsong, 2008), he staged the eighteenth-century passage from rationalism to romanticism as a tussle between Casanova and Dracula in The Story of My Death (2013), and revealed the cosmic absurdity of the Versailles court—and of death itself—by chronicling the Sun King’s slow expiration in The Death of Louis XIV (2016). Moving into the gallery while insisting on cinematic qualities of duration and immersion, Serra has made his most demanding and complex works: the one hundred-hour Three Little Pigs (shot over the course of Documenta 13) and the five-channel video installation Singularity (commissioned for the Catalan Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale). His new work, a play titled Liberté, poses the intriguing question of how the Serra aesthetic translates to the stage, and what’s more, in the glaring spotlight of Berlin’s storied Volksbühne—a target for protests since the appointment of Chris Dercon as artistic director last year.

The most immediately striking thing about this Serra play is the degree to which it resembles, in theme and effect, a Serra film. The year is 1774, on the eve of the French Revolution, the location somewhere “between Berlin and Potsdam,” and the characters are an assortment of aristocrats obsessed with the pursuit of carnal gratification. Having fled the conservative reign of Louis XVI, a retinue of French nobles—led by Ingrid Caven’s imperious Duchesse de Valselay—are plotting to export their doctrine of libertinage to the more buttoned-up Prussians. The pleasure seekers find their German counterpart in the aging Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger) and, while cooking up a scheme to convert the novices at a nearby convent to courtesans, expound on matters of desire and decadence in philosophical, moral, and economic terms.

Sex, death, money, power, exploitation: The concerns of Serra’s recent work are all present and accounted for. So too the atmosphere of mesmerizing stupor and nocturnal murk. “Why are we waiting in such a dark place?” someone wonders early on, and the lights are kept low for almost the full two-and-a-half-hour duration. Extravagant wigs and costumes abound (notably a deconstructed hoop skirt), and all the erotic talk does eventually lead to some mildly BDSM action, but the prevailing tone is resolutely subdued.

Liberté moves Serra’s Warholian deadpan toward a kind of radical Neoclassicism. It unfolds within a lush, leafy, Watteau-like idyll: a forest clearing surrounded by gentle slopes and a lake (which at one point occasions a skinny dip). Without recourse to cinematography and editing, Serra finds slyly inventive ways to both fill and carve up the Volksbühne’s large, deep stage. The heavily trafficked space comes to suggest a purgatorial cruising ground in which characters are constantly circling one another or waiting for someone to appear. Many are transported in enclosed sedan chairs, which are carried on and off stage repeatedly, with no small effort and to considerable comic effect. Foregoing the crutch of projected video, Serra instead uses the carriage windows as screens of a sort, enabling parallel action and creating the subtly magical quality of illuminated jewel boxes within a permanent twilight.

Albert Serra, Liberté, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne, Berlin, February 21, 2018. Photo: Román Yñan.

For years Serra has populated his films with a Factory-like family of nonactors, but he has lately found fascinating uses for professionals—specifically for larger-than-life stars, like Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Death of Louis XIV, whose iconic status is built into their roles. In Liberté, the weathered divas Caven and Berger bring with them the auratic residue of Fassbinder and Visconti, two Serra touchstones, even as the director denies them, Berger in particular, conventional star turns—consigning the actors for long stretches to their curtained sedans.

Quintessential Serra, as witty as it is perverse, Liberté is premised on a rejection of spectacle that runs counter to the trends of contemporary theater, especially in Germany. The Volksbühne of Frank Castorf, the theater’s longtime leader until last year, thrived on experimentation too, albeit with productions notorious for their confrontational energy. Doubly provocative in that context, Liberté turns down the volume in almost every sense, from the unfashionably naturalistic set design to the actors’ hushed deliveries, which prompted bouts of heckling on opening night (“Louder!” “Some acting please!”). Local theater critics responded with predictable indignation. “An evening of shame,” declared one typical headline; one critic even called for the “fastest possible removal of the piece.” Detractors see the Dercon-era Volksbühne as a symbol of gentrified Berlin, synonymous with a jet-setting art crowd, and a play about a group of outsiders marketing their lifestyle to the skeptical Germans was unlikely to win them over. Liberté is in any case a triumph on Serra’s own terms. It attests to the sheer force of his idiosyncratic aesthetic signature, and even the response is fitting for a minimalist who strives for maximal effects: an uproar born of murmurs and whispers.

Albert Serra’s Liberté runs through April 8 at the Volksbühne in Berlin.

Dennis Lim is director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.