Shooting recently wrapped for Desire Will Set You Free, a Berlin-centric film directed and co-written by American expat Yony Leyser, who also co-stars in a semi-autobiographical role. Set amidst the city’s queer scene, the story maneuvers through identity politics—sexuality, gender, class and race—showing how they intersect and motivate the characters’ desires, offering a critical portrayal but without pedagogic aims. The cast also includes Amber Benson, best known for playing Tara on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, and newcomer Tim-Fabian Hoffmann, who most recently appeared in MEAT at the Schaubühne. The plot strongly revolves around Berlin’s music scene, with small but crucial appearances from luminaries like Nina Hagen and Peaches.
Desire Will Set You Free is Leyser’s first feature-length narrative, following his award-winning documentary A Man Within: William S. Burroughs from 2010, the year he moved to Berlin. His new project is a reflection of, and a response to, his experiences here. He is working with Amard Bird, a production company newly founded by Paula Alamillo (assistant director for The Knife’s “Full of Fire” music video), who co-wrote the script, and Sonja Klümper (Warten auf das Wunderland). Joining them as director of photography is Ali Olay Gözkaya (Praia do Futuro, Cathedrals of Culture; both screened in competition at this year’s Berlinale). The crew’s various backgrounds with documentary have tinged the tone of Desire, according to Alamillo—although the events that inspired the film have been highly fictionalized and aestheticized.
The plot follows Ezra (Leyser), a spoiled gay novelist born to an Israeli mother and Palestinian father, who leads a hedonistic lifestyle along with his Canadian friend Cathrine (Chloé Griffin) and her girlfriend Jayne (Benson). They spend their time indulging in art and music with their friends Connor, an English expat, and Ozan, a German who lives with his Turkish parents. One night, the group spontaneously decides to leave their comfort zone of Kreuzberg and head to Schöneberg where they visit a gay hustler bar. There Ezra meets Sasha, a Russian artist and prostitute whose world blossoms open after this new friendship is formed. Upon moving in with Ezra, Sasha’s life takes a new path as he questions his own gender identity. Berliner rapper Sookee and pioneering filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim also have roles.
“The story of the main characters could conceivably take place in another city, but it doesn’t. Berlin is very present,” explains Alamillo, “even becoming a character in itself.” Similarly, Desire isn’t meant to be about a definitive queer scene, but their surrounding is an important element that carries the film. Shot in 30 locations in just three weeks’ time, the characters find themselves in many familiar spots, such as Roses, Monster Ronson’s, About Blank, Silver Future and Supamolly. Many are even mentioned by name within the script, an example of Alamillo’s connection to documentation: “I’ve lived in Berlin for ten years and have seen many places disappear. We wanted to capture these cultural establishments while they’re still here.”
Integrated into the story are performances by several Berliner acts: synth-wave duo Crime, electro-shanty singer Rummelsnuff and Peaches, plus a concert scene in which Blood Orange (Dev Hynes and Samantha Urbani) play “You You”, originally by German band Malaria! from 1985. Accordingly, the soundtrack will honor the capital’s rich musical legacy, featuring new cover versions of songs synonymous with the city, from cabaret through Neue Deutsche Welle, plus original tracks from Berlin-based artists, both established and new. Leyser and company are hoping to set Desire free in 2015—you can help fund the film’s post-production through their Kickstarter campaign.