The European: For your “Obersalzberg” series, you have photographed “pissing Nazis”. Where does that idea come from?
Mühe: I wanted to photograph very iconic German landscapes and landmarks but add a little disturbance.
The European: Why does it have to be a man in Nazi uniform?
Mühe: The Berchtesgarden region, the Watzmann mountains, the Königsee, all these beautiful archaic landscapes are deeply engrained into the German consciousness. The Nazis utilized that; they took the plants and animals of the region and staged very idyllic images about what it meant to be German.
The European: Your earlier works also play with an aesthetic appeal that is reminiscent of the images created by 20th century dictatorships.
Mühe: I used a lot of different motives in my first works. For example, I worked in the old pool from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, or at the outdoor pool in Prora on the Baltic coast. I was interested in those locations, I wanted to go and work there. The photographs ended up with a certain aesthetic and my newer works are trying to provide an answer to that. I wanted to go back to the basics, to tackle the problem at its roots.
The European: Is your current work a response to the question where your aesthetic comes from?
Mühe: I wanted to know how to deal with it. I didn’t simply want to use a certain aesthetic and use it; I really wanted to examine it and attempt to provide a context. I wanted to make a statement. I got into photography by working with musicians, ad agencies and photojournalists. The question was always: Where can I do my own thing without having someone else barge in to tell me what to do? Right now, I am at a point where I simply want to pursue my ideas, and I have been able to do just that.
The European: I want to go back to the connection to National Socialism and fascism…
Mühe: Don’t forget Eastern Germany! You had very similar images in all cases. The aesthetic connects the different dictatorships.
The European: There’s a strange visual appeal to it. How do you approach it, and how can you come to embrace it?
Mühe: It’s an aesthetic of megalomania. It is very powerful, very masculine, there’s a sense of being overwhelmed. That is true for all dictatorships of the 20th century and for their respective architectural heritage. In the end, it’s all about power. I am interested in portraying politicians for the same reason. If you have power, you find instruments to create these weird monuments.
The European: It’s hard to maintain a sense of detachment.
Mühe: I don’t see much difference between the Nazis’ Luftwaffe Headquarters and the Communists’ “Stalin Alley” in Berlin. The megalomania connects these different ideologies. You can’t say that one was more sophisticated and the other was more martial.
The European: The chateau in Versailles or St. Peter in Rome are also monuments of power. Yet their aesthetic is very different.
Mühe: Yes, but those buildings are from a different epoch. All monumental constructions try to capture the spirit of their time. They were all spying on each other: What’s Stalin building over there? What’s Hitler doing? And then they tried to surpass each other.
The European: How can you rediscover the aesthetic without transporting a bit of ideology as well? Is that even possible?
Mühe: Yes, because we can devote time to it. The aesthetic did not vanish in 1945 or 1990, powerful leaders continued to embrace it. We have not yet finished our examination of it and I am not afraid to keep engaging with the visual heritage.
The European: Is the German way of portraying dictators – the things you incorporate into your own work – somehow tied to the natural world? We always hear about the Germans’ love for their forests and nature.
Mühe: I think that’s deeply anchored in the German soul: The landscapes, the gaze into the distance, the forest, the sea. Either we were lucky to have artists who immortalized these motives in their works, or we have a certain innate sensitivity that reacts to it. It’s certainly not tied to dictatorships.
The European: Would we find similar pictures in other countries?
Mühe: Germans have taken a liking to them. Just think back to the landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich – they just open up your heart! Who knows what emotions they kindle. It doesn’t matter whether he painted a Bavarian mountain or the chalk cliffs of Rügen. In my current works, I want to show how the Führer utilized the imagery of the peaceful home country. The Nazis wanted to tell a story about Hitler’s life. It didn’t have to be the Obersalzberg mountain but the whole region was geographically well-placed, especially when you think back to the time before he came to power and was basically a fugitive. After the rise to power and the expansion of the Obersalzberg into Hitler’s headquarters, the goal was to portray him as a private person, to spark emotional reactions in the audience. It was a big PR campaign: A good man, peacefully at home. In reality, it was the visualization of the devil.
The European: How does the staging of Hitler differ from the aesthetic of Eastern Germany?
Mühe: I don’t really want to make that comparison. A crude answer might be to say that the Nazis climbed mountains while the elite of the Socialist Party retreated into the forest. Most top Nazis were present at the Obersalzberg: Bormann, Göring, Speer, … In the GDR, they would not have allowed for that cult of personality.
The European: Do you play with the usual accessories of iconic Nazi images: The uniform, the red armband, the swastika?
Mühe: I consciously tried to avoid boldness. Many movies and photos really focus on the swastika, but I don’t really want to visualize it that much. It’s all about the proportions. When the protagonists become too large, the uniform begins to dominate the foreground. Most people are incredibly sensitive to that visual appeal, especially since it has been embraced by pop culture. Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds” is the best example: Americans and Britons masturbate to that stuff. Here in Germany, it’s obviously a delicate issue. Our synapses only need to see a black uniform and a red armband to make the connection. I wanted to make sure that the models in my works were not becoming personified.
The European: Aren’t you also abusing the landscape for your images?
Mühe: The locations of my photos are historical; I didn’t make them up. The locations are important, although they are also a bit of a curse for the region. Until a few years ago, Hitler’s tea salon was still intact. And today, you have tourists who roam through the forests with secret maps to find places and buildings that are long gone. It’s a bit like a pilgrimage. By the way: the Finns are most involved in mapping the area.
The European: The Finns?
Mühe: Pretty random, isn’t it?
The European: You have said that the aesthetic is about power, the display of power, and masculinity. Is the habitus of a dictatorship a distinctly non-feminine endeavor?
Mühe: Women are different. The martial landscape, pissing Nazis who mark and befoul their territory – no, women don’t really fit into that image.
The European: Do you expect your work to be controversial?
Mühe: The topic is still hot. Very few similar works have originated within Germany.
The European: And how can your works add value to the debate about National Socialism?
Mühe: If you want to put it trivially, you could say that it’s a contribution to keeping the debate alive. We must not push it out of sight, we must continue to confront the past. But to frame it narrowly and more personally: This is about Germany. Between the Baltic Sea and Southern Germany, there’s a lot of contemporary material to cultivate.
The European: Are you interested in looking at non-German dictatorships?
Mühe: I’m German, so I’m bound to have a particular cultural outlook. I don’t really want to leave my culture, adopt a different one and attempt to work through their cultural language.