Catalan director Albert Serra on his ode to old Europe, Liberté.
Serra is best known for films such as his 2006 Don Quixote adaptation Honor of Knights or 2016’s The Death of Louis XIV, historical pieces that hypnotize with their long takes and dearth of dialogue. He has also become infamous as his own biggest fan, dubbing himself the greatest Spanish director since Luis Buñuel. Now, the Volksbühne has invited Serra to write and direct his own stage work. Premiered last month, Liberté takes place in 1774. A fictional group of French libertines have gathered near Berlin in an attempt to export their ideas to Germany. When the Germans prove sceptical, the Duchess of Valselay figures out ways to overcome their doubts. Alongside non-professionals and student actors, Serra recruited film stars such as Helmut Berger and Ingrid Caven (known for her work with Fassbinder), performance artist Anne Tismer, and longtime Volksbühne veteran Jeanette Spassova.
German resistance to a foreign cultural intrusion… is Liberté also about Berlin’s response to the Dercon Volksbühne?
If you say it that way, maybe. But libertinage was not just one man. It was a trend, a mood, a way of thinking and living. It’s about when pleasure becomes the sole aim of desire, and this becomes a crime. It resonates with the current politics in France, like with this manifesto of the 100 women…
Who were criticizing the #MeToo movement…?
Yes, it’s similar to issues raised by the libertines. Until what point is it just natural desire, and when does it become unnatural, or violent? And is this violence acceptable or not? The 100 women’s manifesto raises this question, and so does libertinage.
What’s your own interest in libertinage?
It’s been a subject long on my mind, an obsession, almost. I did a film about Casanova already. Libertinage implies desire going farther and farther and farther into a full life – one idea of a full life, ok, but it’s an important one! It’s something central in our soul; in the 21st century, it has a centrality it never had before, but it stems from the libertines’ time. Up to what point is free desire compatible with the idea of a society that has to be governed by moral rules?
Even with de Sade, pleasure was relational, on some level – which made it a moral, or ethical, issue.
Of course, you cannot be isolated in the world. Otherwise it’s masturbation. The real satisfaction comes from the relation, even if it’s in a totally despotic way. Maybe you can get more pleasure in the despotic way. That’s de Sade. Why respect? That’s what we have to ask. People say, Harvey Weinstein, he’s horrible, blah blah blah. And I would ask these people: Have you ever been married? Yes. Have you ever had a lover while being married? A lot of people have. What attracted you to your lover that you didn’t find in your husband? Usually, it’s sex. It’s not moral. It’s not acceptable. It doesn’t go as far as what Harvey Weinstein was doing, but what you are looking for is the same…
Isn’t there an important difference between the dishonesty of adultery and Weinstein’s coercion?
Maybe the abuse of power, but the essence of both is that they are offensive because they rely on possession.
And these are the issues Liberté raises?
I like this idea that Liberté is an ode to the sophisticated decadence of Europe. Europe was the only society that created this possibility to think about pleasure in a different way: to put the aesthetics of pleasure ahead of moral considerations. Only Europe could arrive at this sort of decadent, sophisticated self-destruction while still being alive.
Do you see decadence as a sign of advanced civilisation – something like high culture?
Of course, because decadence is always artistic and prosperity is always boring. We don’t want to live decadently for too long but we also need it, spiritually.
Liberté Mar 4, 19:00, Mar 22-23, 19:30 (German/English surtitles) Volksbühne