Forging a path of hedonistic eccentricity and uncurbed adventure-seeking through Berlin’s underground, the part documentary, part fictional narrative film ‘Desire Will Set You Free’ presents a personal and shared account of the city’s marginalized, queer and artistic circles. Released in 2015 and premiered to a sold-out crowd at Kino International earlier this month, the film is currently showing at select theaters in Berlin.
Shot on location in Berlin’s recognizable parks, streets, bars and clubs, the film is deeply rooted in the specificity of time and place. Described by director Yony Leyser as a work of docu-fiction, lives and identities of personal friends and local icons act as impetus for and manifestation of the narrative, which is constructed from spontaneous shoots and mostly unscripted dialogue. Live performances by Berlin-based artists and musicians structure and punctuate the film’s scenes, further cultivating its documentary quality and aesthetics of location, in an exploration of the city’s contemporary art scene.
Performance artist Labanna Babalon improvises a frolicking, glitter-infused spectacle in Görlitzer Park. Other cameos and music performances appear within scenes in clubs and venues, including those by Peaches, Rummelsnuff, Blood Orange, Nina Hagen, Wolfgang Müller, and Einstürzende Neubauten. Original music written for the film, or by the city’s underground artists, looms large in the soundtrack—producing sound as a principal component of the work, tied as much to Berlin’s cultural landscape as its visual idiosyncrasies.
While the film traces the intersecting journeys and relationships of various characters, central to the narrative arc is the story of a Russian trans woman navigating the city’s subcultural terrain, as introduced to her by American writer Ezra (Leyser). The story was inspired, and the film set in motion, by a real life encounter experienced by Leyser, who envisioned the film as unfolding from her perspective.
Interwoven with real locations, experiences and conversations based on true stories, and improvisational performances and dialogue, are a few actors from outside the realm of the specificity of Berlin’s subculture. American television and film actor Amber Benson appears as the girlfriend of Ezra’s dark and rebellious friend Catharine (Chloe Griffin). Though not directly connected to the documentary scope or personal relationships portrayed in the film, Benson’s participation in the project was initiated because of her well-known role in portraying one of U.S. television’s first on-screen lesbian couples (in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’).
The film layers such references to on-screen depictions of queer relationships, shifting gender identities of the Weimar-era cabaret scene, and 70s counterculture and punk, in a vibrant and immersive look through the multi-dimensional landscape of a world existing below the surface.