Interview by Katya Tylevich
KT: What drew you to Berlin in the seventies, and why did you leave again in 1980?
MZ: I was bored of Karlsruhe, wanted to avoid the draft, and tried to get accepted at the
Berlin Film School. Fortunately, they refused me. Almost thirty years later, I was invited to the same F i lm School as a lecturer after my documentary BRUNO S. - ESTRANGEMENT IS DEATH was screened at the Berlinale. The film follows Bruno Schleinstein, perhaps best known as the lead in Werner Herzogs's THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER. So I had to survive on temp Jobs, lived in poor neighborhoods and had to find a way to avoid frustration. I had an equally strong need to express myself visually as well as verbally. But I wasn't ready to write yet, so I borrowed a camera and stalked the streets. Back then, I found Berlin gloomy, dirty and aggressive. Everybody had a political opinion, and everybody wanted to impose it on you. Even the junkies seemed to believe in a mission to seduce as many as possible to follow them into their artificial Nirvana. There was phony idealism and a real cleft between the frustrated and the authorities. In the old working class neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Neukölln or Wedding, there was a big sanitary deficit and living conditions were poor. New projects went up that seemed more inhuman and cold than the buildings they replaced. And the wall seemed to keep lots of tourists away. You could still feel the megalomania of Hitler and the threat of communism. And the first Punks celebrated
their hatred of everybody, walking a thin line between illuminated narcissism and self-destruction.
KT: What brought you back to Berlin in 1995?
MZ: Some personal reasons brought me back: a failed movie project, a sense of artistic isolation, professional connections I under -or- overestimated, new opportunities, the proximity to the changing Wild East (Eastern Europe, Russia), the desire to write in German. Well, since I've been back, I have written five novels and a book of short stories.
KT: So how does Berlin compare to other homes you 've had ? On a professional level, is Berlin somehow a different palette for you from which to draw inspirations, characters, and subjects?
MZ: What I miss most in Berlin is the sun, and the proximity of ocean or desert. What I like most is diminishing more and more these days: empty lots, ruins, rundown buildings, dead ends, junkyards, backstreet musicians like Bruno S., secret sleaze clubs (everything is so well organized now that even a German 'Spießer' feels welcome in those new kinky establishments). Sex is integrated like a carnival or Christmas, here. You have your Love Parade, your Christopher Street Parade, your sex and tattoo fares and so on. You are organized and informed now, and you don't sneak around anymore in train stations, secret alleyways, the red-light district or forbidden anarchistic meetings. Your kinky neighborhood freak is decriminalized and knows where to get off his steam. Techno Clubs bang the last bit of brain out of their customers. It's the reign of the Computer. But Berlin is always developing and changing, there is still room for nonconformist artists, even if they have to survive on welfare. And Berlin isn't as commercialized as other metropolis'. You can
put more energy into your own thing here than you can anywhere else.
KT: Do you think of yourself as belonging to a larger Community of artists?
MZ: Not really. I 'm not committed to any group, but I know other artists that I respect,
not limited to Berlin. In Berlin, the best artists I k now are rather unknown otherwise, misunderstood, controversial, or underrated. You couldn't call it a 'scene' or a 'movement', in Berlin. Rather, it's every man for himself and fuck the rest. It's hard for outspoken iconoclasts to find a gallery, the right collectors, or media attention.
They might give you a clap on your shoulder, drag you into the next bar and bum a drink off of you. And then you wait until the next exhibition in another noncommercial rat hole — hopefully, not more than a couple of years. I'm sure there are other artists, but real art is always close to the edge, the rest is entertainment.
KT: Where do you do most of your writing, thinking, and photographing?
MZ: Of course, for my photography, I'm roaming the streets, visiting happenings.
But when I'm writing or thinking I have to be on my own or feeling alone, walking the emptiest streets. Most of my writing, I do at my desk, on the roof,
or on my balcony. Only when I'm blocked do I have to move, searching for Inspiration like a sniper searches for his targets.
KT: It seems like every time you walk outside then you are working. Do you have time that isn’t “work”?
MZ: I do work a lot, but I'm no workaholic. I have a girlfriend, I read as much as I can, and I keep myself physically fit. I haven't had a real holiday i n a while. But I've also kept out of the nuthouse.
KT: Could you please tell me more about your new photo book THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW?
MZ: Well, it's an extension of RADICAL EYE, my previous photo book, and it's far from mainstream photography. As the title suggests, it's a moody book of Images focusing on the social twilight, and that void of our existence, which most people like to ignore. There is an almost apocalyptic atmosphere to the photographs, a sense of mystery and secret. You may ask yourself how did he get there, what's behind that moment, who is that character, what happened afterwards or before? Those photographed seem to be uncomfortable, misplaced, unwanted, rejected or obsessed, but nevertheless present and demanding attention. Every freak, geek or nerd is as welcome as any overrated media God. No living situation is too embarrassing and no monster too ugly. No personal Obsession too perverse and no s l um too fucked up. No crime unforgivable.
KT: I understand the book also chronicles Berlin across decades, so what is the portrait of Berlin that you paint?
MZ: Very subjective. I'm more interested in an atmosphere or mood t h a n i n a socially conscious reflection or documentation. You can document or illustrate anything in any way you want. If you like the losers, you can give them an aura of pride; if you hate the rich, you can make them look cheap. I don't have any prejudice, except maybe against the mediocre, but you never know. So I guess I like the mysterious better than the obvious, the rejected more than the successful, the fighter more than the coward, the beautiful more than the ugly, though my definition of beauty differs from mainstream tastes. Anyway, being interesting is more important to me than being beautiful. Authenticity means being yourself.
KT: What are some of your favorite dark corners and alleyways of Berlin?
MZ: My favorite spot used to be the ruins of thePlace of the Republic, next to the Berlin
Dome, but it's gone. The Landwehrkanal, when I lived in Kreuzberg. Mitte, after the fall of the wall, when it wasn't developed yet. Potsdamer Platz, when it was empty. Kurfürstendamm at Christmas; it's almost l i k e an open-air Harrods. The punk clubs in the eighties. Bahnhof Zoo, before they built the new train station.
KT: Your official biography says that you have an intuitive proximity to outsiders and misfits. Do you consider yourself an outsider and misfit ?
MZ: I feel like a misfit in a supermarket, kindergarten, church, hospital, oldpeople's home, police Station, watching TV, reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, Listening or talking to fanatics or ignorant people. According to my tastes, beliefs, temper, work, and personality, then, I'm at least different.
KT: Do you think Berlin is welcoming outsiders and misfits?
MZ: I guess Berlin is no more welcoming to misfits than any other big European City, but it's a place that's not as demanding as London, Paris, or Moscow. You don't have to make it to survive, and you don't have to compromise if you choose a life of unconditional determination, accept an uncertain future, and are able to face defeat. If you're a conformist, you better go live in the provinces or in Stuttgart.
KT: Have your subjects ever become your friends?
MZ: Yes. One even became a n actor i n my movies. After a publication i n the 'New
York Native,' which included my address, I got a letter f r om a m a n who wanted to experience being photographed by me. He included a nude photo of h im masturbating.
Well, I followed up on h i s invitation, documented his obsessions, cast him in my movies and we became friends. He later disappeared, became infected with full-blown AIDS in the late eighties in New York City, after which he announced that he was going to drown himself in the East River.
KT: You come exceptionally close to disturbing and violent scenes when you photograph. How does it affect you to be inches from death or some sort of disgrace or misery?
MZ: Of course, I always feel different according to the Situation, my involvement, the state or condition of my attention. I'm never objectively removed, but the camera does work like a shield. And high on adrenaline, you can tolerate much more than in any other situations. I guess all the survival instincts and auto-protection mechanics start working to numb or alter your sensors.
KT: Are you still getting is as much trouble as before?
MZ: I hope not. At fifty-six, it's embarrassing when you have to defend yourself physically - even if you knock out your opponent. Better to call the shots and send your bodyguards. (Just kidding.) •