The entire undertaking has more than a tinge of nostalgia, too. All but one of the performers were born after 1968; watching their contributions, it’s hard not to feel their yearning for a time when radical thought and action went hand-in-hand, because young people believed that they really could change the world.
“I don’t want to recreate 1968. But we can learn a lot from the 68ers. We can learn how to fail,” the theater director and performance artist Christoph Schlingensief once said. The quote appears in “Partisan,” a documentary about Berlin’s Volksbühne theater under the quarter-century reign of its artistic director Frank Castorf that was a standout title in this year’s Berlin Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend.
From 1992, Mr. Castorf deployed his radical, immersive and demanding theatrical approach at the Volksbühne as a counterweight to what he and many other East Germans saw as the conformity and false optimism of the reunified Germany. As an envelope-pushing provocateur, he hit on a recipe for success, turning the Volksbühne into ground zero for avant-garde theatrical practices. Admired and reviled, praised and denounced, Mr. Castorf’s Volksbühne was never a theater one could remain indifferent to.
In 2015, the announcement of the former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon as successor to Mr. Castorf set off waves of protest. Many feared that Mr. Dercon would transform the theater into a posh venue for international artists, with no connection to the city of Berlin or the people who live there.
After a fall program that included productions from the French choreographer Boris Charmatz, a version of “Iphigenia” featuring Syrian refugees and a trippy immersive installation from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the most ambitious dramatic production of Mr. Dercon’s still-young tenure arrived in February: a world premiere written and directed by the Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra.
The work, “Liberté,” centers on a group of French nobles seeking to spread the ideals of “libertinage” at the Prussian court shortly before the French Revolution. In propagating the radical and unbridled pursuit of erotic pleasure against all social, religious and moral restraints, the licentious aristocrats seek to establish a sexual utopia that challenges the prevailing forces of the Enlightenment. The French title invites us to reflect on the meaning of freedom, and whether the libertines are out to liberate humanity from its shackles or merely seek to enslave it to its desires.
Mr. Serra has managed to coax two legendary European actors out of retirement for the production: 79-year-old Ingrid Caven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s wife and muse, plays an exiled French duchess and notorious libertine, and 73-year-old Helmut Berger, who appeared in several of Luchino Visconti’s films, takes the role of a freethinking German duke. But despite the big names attached, “Liberté” is a resounding failure.
Mr. Serra’s choice to set the entire 150-minute play in a secluded field populated with aristocrats who rarely leave their ornate sedan chairs produces the theatrical equivalent of rigor mortis. From the fourth row, I had a hard time making out what was happening in the large, murkily lit set, or in the mysterious Mr. Berger’s broken-down coach in a corner of the stage.
The first 40 minutes or so, while the Duchess and her retinue return to the field time and again in the hopes of meeting an Italian count with connections at the Prussian court, are especially rough. It can feel like a version of “Waiting for Godot” with dialogue by the Marquis de Sade.
Once the count materialized, things got only moderately more stimulating. A subplot involving two novices at a local convent whom the French seek to debauch starts out promisingly, yet, like everything else in the play, leads nowhere. And in what sort of play about libertinage do you have to wait 90 minutes for a decent flogging?
In “Liberté,” Mr. Serra’s sensibilities are ill-served by his static and airless direction. As in his most recent film, “The Death of Louis XIV” (2016), the attention to historical detail is exacting. But why these laboriously made-up actors languish in their toll booth-like sedans is a mystery. Many directors before him, including Mr. Castorf, have used video to amplify or even reveal aspects of a production that would otherwise be invisible. There is much gratuitous use of video in German theater productions at the moment, but when used wisely, it can greatly enrich the dramatic experience. In the case of “Liberté,” a few close-ups now and again would certainly have helped the plodding evening along.
Mr. Serra might consider turning to the Swiss director Milo Rau for inspiration. In “Lenin,” over at the Schaubühne, Mr. Rau masterfully employs video in a grim and claustrophobic dramatization of the Soviet leader’s final days in 1924 at his dacha outside Moscow.
Like Katie Mitchell, another director who frequently works at this bold ensemble theater, Mr. Rau films and seamlessly edits the production in real time, providing a parallel visual track of expressive cinematic images that add interpretive layers. Our eyes constantly dart from the live actors before our eyes to the screen on which they appear, larger than life, from multiple camera angles and occasionally in black and white.
Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and starring the remarkable Ursina Lardi in the title role, “Lenin” examines the legacy of that pivotal world event from the vantage point of its incapacitated leader and from the perspective of a world that had yet to experience the greatest horrors of the 20th century. “You say you want a revolution,” all these plays all seem to agree: Just don’t expect it to bring about the promised utopia.