Why you should care
If you want to understand Europe, you should understand Germany. If you want to understand Germany, you should take a look at the photography of Andreas Mühe.
At 29 years old, Andreas Mühe got his big break. He was asked to shoot a portrait for Angela Merkel’s election campaign. When she won, Mühe became one of her most beloved photographers. He accompanied her to the United Nations and to the White House.
And then, Mühe purposely squandered his enviable position.
“Art is not about making friends,” he told OZY from his studio in a north Berlin loft. He’s talking about a project he finished last year, which, after four years of diligence in the chambers of power, propelled him to the Olympic heights of the art world — but cost him his position in Merkel’s court. It was all because of a series of stunning landscape photos that he shot in Obersalzberg (“The Eagle’s Nest”), Hitler’s eerie mountain palace high in the Bavarian Alps. On closer inspection, it turned out that the solitary figures in these majestic landscapes were either taking selfies … or taking a piss.
Mühe was too young to be molded by the Socialist über-state, allowing him to feel untainted by the sins of his father’s and grandfather’s generations.
Mühe, who had studied the work of Walter Frentz, Leni Riefenstahl’s cameraman and later Hitler’s personal photographer, was re-enacting images of the Nazi elite using nude male models against the Alpine backdrop.
One of the pictures is called “Darth Vader.” And yes, Mühe reminds you how much modern cinematography has been influenced by Riefenstahl — one of the most influential filmmakers of the early 20th century — and her disciples at the Nazi-ministry of Propaganda.
These photos elevated Mühe from the ranks of a portrait photographer to that of a celebrated contemporary artist. But they’ve also created a soft distance between himself and Merkel. Controversy and public office don’t make good bedfellows — at least in public.
After the mock-Nazi photos, Mühe moved on to an equally provocative series of portraits of the hard rock band Rammstein in the nude. All part of his obsession with the “German fascination with grandeur,” he says.
Mühe has long been drawn to the megalomaniac aesthetic Germany saw in Nazism and in the socialist East-German dictatorship. Take his iconic photograph of an old swimming pool in the athletes’ quarters for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Or the images of the Prora beach resort, built by Nazi Germany as a future holiday resort for the German proletariat, with its endless housing blocks on the island of Rügen in the north of Germany. His pictures feel cold but also majestic.
Mühe’s familiarity with German ghosts has plenty to do with his upbringing — and his generation. Born in Saxony, the birthplace of socialism, his hometown of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-City by the socialist authorities after the war. He grew up behind the wall in East Germany, and his father, Ulrich Mühe, was one of the country’s most acclaimed actors, while his mother, Annegret Hahn, was a director and major figure in German theater. Both his parents were at the core of socialist Germany’s cultural elite, the East-Berlin intelligentsia.
The Berlin Wall fell when Mühe was 10, meaning he was too young to be seriously molded by the teachings of the Socialist über-state — allowing him to feel untainted by the sins of his father’s and grandfather’s generations. Mühe sees himself as one of the few German artists who can mock any period of German history, no matter how dark.
Anke Degenhard, one of Germany’s major art consultants and collectors of photography calls Mühe impressive: “His portraits are unusual; I love the way he burns peoples’ faces onto paper. He makes everyone look luminous, exciting and somehow mysterious.”
Mühe’s most recent project has turned into him into the superstar of contemporary German art photography. In a series of 14 pictures, exhibited at the Carlier/Gebauer gallery and printed in Monopol magazine, he captures many of Germany’s most iconic scenes — from inside Merkel’s armored car. And the chancellor appeared, at first glance, to be featured in each shot, gazing on famous cultural objects like the statue of Karl Marx in Chemnitz, the Lorelei rock at the Rhine, the infamous Stammheim Prison. It’s the essence of German identity seen through the eyes of Germany’s mother figure.
The meticulousness of Mühe’s stage management is unusual, even for German standards.
— Anke Degenhard, one of Germany’s major art consultants
Only it wasn’t her. The woman in the photographs is Mühe’s mother. Was Merkel amused? Perhaps privately — she still adores Mühe, invites him to birthday parties and owns some of his work — but as Germany’s chancellor she had to disapprove of the prank.
The inspiration for the project came when Mühe accompanied Merkel on a visit to the U.S. When he asked a bodyguard for permission to photograph the chancellor inside the car, they said no, for security reasons. “So I decided to simply re-enact this situation myself,” he explained. It took work: For one photograph, showing Zugspitze, the top of Germany’s highest mountain, Mühe had his team haul the door of an armored Audi A8 limousine, weighing almost a ton, to the summit of the neighboring mountain to get the perfect perspective.
“The meticulousness of Mühe’s stage management is unusual, even for German standards,” says Professor F.C. Gundlach, Germany’s most respected collector of photography, when asked by OZY about his former prodigy. In his early 20s, Mühe — who received no formal arts education — worked in Gundlach’s lab in Hamburg. Gundlach encouraged the young photographer and now compares him to an icon of German art, Caspar David Friedrich, a famed painter of the romantic period in the 19th century.
Next up? A major exhibition starting in October that will tour Berlin, Vienna, Paris and other European cities. And he plans to head to New York City in 2016. Who knows what work will result from such a different landscape and subject matter that’s not quite so laden with dark history. Then again, maybe he’ll encounter ghosts across the Atlantic as well.