The Kunstverein in Hamburg presents the film The Three Little Pigs (2012) by filmmaker Albert Serra, developed for documenta (13), as a monumental installation. This shows a portrait of Germany and an illustrated reflection on the shaping of history and our perception of it. To this end, the film follows the stories of three main characters from German cultural history: Goethe, Hitler, and Fassbinder.
Thanks to its artistic, reflective potential, the work has becoming even more relevant today in a political landscape that has quickly and dramatically changed in the few years since its creation: the founding of the AfD in 2013, the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015, the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and the AfD’s entry into the Bundestag in 2017, just to name a few key events. The Three Little Pigs is as complex and challenging as the question of what constitutes an understanding of history today—especially in Germany. Form and content uniquely coalesce, making it clear that work on an enlightened view of history and efforts to undertake the difficult placement of a so-called “cultural nation” in the present always primarily mean: an ongoing task, continually reassessed reflection, and relentlessly grappling with the past in the present.
As indicated already by the titular triad—a play on the classic fable The Three Little Pigs —this complex operation unfolds in Serra’s work on three levels. First, on the artistic level of his monumental film experiment. Second, at the level of content, the (first person) account of the three protagonists Goethe, Hitler, and Fassbinder, and their reception as core figures symbolizing the main phases of the modern German self-image. The Weimar classics and anthropocentric enlightenment with Goethe, world-famous naturalist and poet; phantasies of omnipotence, Germany’s and the Germans’ Führerkult and crimes against humanity during the “Third Reich,” the Holocaust, and World War II as well as their sometimes contradictory and controversial critical assessment in the German Federal Republic and the country’s positioning against fascism, racism, and misanthropy, which must be re-oriented again and again. Finally, the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who wanted to trace the missed chances of German society after 1945. The so-called “Fassbinder Controversy” surrounding his play Garbage, the City and Death (1976)—the question if the character it portrays of the “rich Jew,” a real estate speculator, bears anti-Semitic features—is symptomatic of the difficulties for an artist interacting with the past in the present. On a third level, Serra’s work confronts us with the question of what our understanding of history represents and what increased knowledge we can draw from artistically dealing with history in the form of a historical re-enactment
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most interesting experimental works in recent film history. It originated as Albert Serra’s contribution to documenta (13) in 2012. Over the one hundred days documenta ran, Serra filmed daily in public with actors at locations in and around Kassel. Two-hour sequences filmed and edited three days earlier were shown one at a time during the exhibition. But only the entire film – first shown all at once at the end documenta – counted as the actual work. The Three Little Pigs has a running time of 101 hours. In the Kunstverein in Hamburg, we will show it in a large, multi-channel installation. This will allow for the simultaneous reception of work’s three narrative levels. Serra approaches the history of modern and contemporary Germany by way of the biographical experiences of three protagonists: Goethe, Hitler, and Fassbinder. He collects speeches, statements, interviews, and fragments of conversation, and allows the participants to act out their own words literally: The film is a massive speak-in, a literal transposition of the literary documents of these three individuals’ personal testimonies.
Two unabridged texts are adapted with actors in historical settings: Johann Peter Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens (Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, published in three parts from 1836–1848) as well as a selection from Hitler’s table talks, whose English translation was published with commentary by British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1953 (first released in 1951 as the first publication of the Munich Institute of Contemporary History). Therefore, the structures, dialogues, chronologies, and diary-like character of both texts fully remain and are precisely staged, although in Goethe’s case, descriptions of situations serve as the basis for the transposition and text in the third person is transposed into the first. In the case of Hitler’s table talks, the dialogues remain unchanged and Serra drew on additional historical studies for creating settings for the them.
The third document from which Serra draws interviews and statements is Fassbinder über Fassbinder: Die ungekürzten Interviews (Fassbinder on Fassbinder: The Unabridged Interviews, 2004) edited by Robert Fischer. The character Fassbinder and his statements provide the artist with a counterweight to the stringency of the other two parts. Serra himself appropriates Fassbinder’s character and opinions about Germany, art, and film—supplemented by personal and intimate aspects of the filmmaker— in order to freely contrast them with the other two. These texts are not dramatized, nor is there improvisation or any variations: page for page, the actors perform as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adolf Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder by quoting completely and verbatim the published texts.
Serra’s hundred-hour film can also be understood as an exercise in attention and, in this respect, of not allowing oneself to be overwhelmed. Wherever there is a continuous stream of speech, it becomes insistently clear that words can never be dismissed as mere words. At a time when nationalisms are again playing a significant role, national identities and identity constructions need to be continuously and critically questioned.
The Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra (*1975) is one of the most idiosyncratic minds in contemporary cinema. Since his sensational debut Honor de Cavalleria (2006), all of his films have received great attention at festivals, including most recently, Historia de la meva mort (2013), which received the top prize at Locarno. Albert Serra’s cinema is committed to reduction. He works with a small, trusted crew, meager budgets, and always with non-professional actors, almost all of whom come from the place where he grew up. Having studied literature and art history, Serra’s films focus on well-known literary and historical figures—Don Quixote, the Three Wise Men, Casanova, and Dracula—without being classical adaptations. He purges his material of its mythic baggage in order to explore its meaning in the here and now.
Curated by Bettina Steinbrügge
Text from Bettina Steinbrügge and Benjamin Steinbrügge