Ulla von Brandenburg, Chorspiel (Choral Play), 2010, still from a black-and-white video, 10 minutes 35 seconds.

Ulla von Brandenburg, Chorspiel (Choral Play), 2010, still from a black-and-white video, 10 minutes 35 seconds.

Ulla von Brandenburg/Malin Pettersson Öberg

Bonniers Konsthall

Ulla von Brandenburg, Chorspiel (Choral Play), 2010, still from a black-and-white video, 10 minutes 35 seconds.

In 2010, Ulla von Brandenburg made Chorspiel, a video in the form of a “choral play.” In this Ibsenesque family drama, a grandfather, grandmother, mother, and daughter move like pieces on a chessboard in front of a drawn backdrop that shows an open field near a forest, reminiscent of the settings of Lars von Trier’s films Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). The interactions among these figures are characterized by ritualized gestures, such as the loosening of a tangle of yarn they pass between them. Rather than speaking, they lip-synch to the singing of an offstage choir, which gives them an irritatingly alienated presence, or, considered psychoanalytically, allows them to speak their many selves. The choir also sings at times when the family does not speak, presenting a recapitulation of what has been said, or a summary of the action. In this way, the choir acts as a kind of authority, similar to a Greek chorus, while lending a sense of ambiguity to the constructed rhetoric and the symbolic language of the action onstage. This language merely hints at its meaning, but it essentially consists of the protagonists’ efforts to negotiate their fraught relationships along with philosophical considerations on life and transience.

Eventually, a Wanderer appears, bearing a box: He is a fascinating interloper whose role is unclear. The young man causes a stir in the life of the family: “The ribbon is hot, the breath is cold, we need you,” the choir chants (in German, with English subtitles) as the Wanderer and the young woman approach each other. The daughter, like Ibsen’s Nora, wants to escape the rigid, numbing life of the family, to leave with the Wanderer, but at the end, all remain: “We did not choose, it has made us,” the singers intone, and life runs its course. The mysterious box is never opened.

The video, which is based on a performance at the Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö, Sweden, in 2010, was shot in one uncut take, and therefore retains the character of a filmed live performance. As often with von Brandenburg’s works, the black-and-white work is suggestive of a certain nostalgia in its mode of production, underlined by the anachronistic diction of the songs and the ritualistic actions of the characters. The refrain of the chorus, “We did not choose, it has made us. Now we are here, but for how long?” reflects a fatalistic view of life but at the same time alludes to a kind of social imprisonment whose outcome is uncertain. (The somewhat threatening mood of the work is also reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s portrayal of the subliminal power of strictly regimented communal life in a patriarchal society in Das weisse Band [The White Ribbon, 2009].)

Von Brandenburg presented her film here within an installation made for the occasion by the young Swedish artist Malin Pettersson Öberg, Stereoscopic Scenography, 2011—a room within a room made of heavy black cotton with white designs printed on it, presenting the scientific history of optics, but also echoing the film’s historical view of (in)visibility. The heaviness of the fabric and the alluring power of the choral music as it emanated from behind it lent the installation a haunting and enigmatic atmosphere.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Anne Posten.