This month, the bleak and beautiful work of Berlin director and photographer Miron Zownir receives the retrospective treatment at Lichtblick Kino. He explained his fascination with misery, outcasts and cannibals.
If you had to describe Miron Zownir’s work, one word comes to mind: noir. But no matter how provocatively bleak his gritty tableaux are, they’re never cheap shocks... and, well, there’s the disquieting beauty of his visual language.
In a career spanning four decades, three media (photography, film, even literature) and five cities, Zownir’s approach hasn’t budged. In stark, high-contrast black and white, his lens (always analogue, on Kodak TRX film) creates portraits out of raw slices of humanity. It is rough, but never mean. Snapped without indulgence but never without empathy.
His visual style is so consistent that looking at his work, you could be excused for confusing eras and cities, a thought he enjoys immensely – at a recent Neurotitan exhibition, a TV monitor displayed a random succession of his photos without any geographical or time references, leaving the viewer slightly dazed and unsettled. “Anyone can recognise one of my photos. How many photographers could say the same?” This no-bullshit autodidact never lacked conviction or candour – but yes, at times, he can lack humility. Is he a genius? “In some ways I’m an idiot, in some ways I might also be a genius, probably,” he proposes with hearty laughter.
His favourite characters are “those who the world treats as waste”: the homeless, the junkies, the down-and-outs and the freaks. “Many ask me, ‘How could you show this misery?’ My answer is always, ‘How can you close your eyes to this misery?’ There’s unbelievable hypocrisy all around.”
His guiding principle is intuition, a somewhat prophetic gut feeling which seemed to lead him to “always be at the turning point of some big thing” – the punks and addicts of 1970s West Berlin, the pre-AIDS underworld of queers and prostitutes in 1980s NYC, bums in post-communist Moscow (he changed the subject of an assignment on nightlife after seeing “so much freaking misery on the streets”), Maidan’s Ukraine and even a short trip to refugee land in the ‘jungle’ of Calais, all the way back to Berlin, his home base for over 40 years.
“When I’m here for too long, I become restless. But where else could I live without either starving or slaving myself away in some stupid job?” says Zownir, admitting that if he could afford it, he wouldn’t mind going back to LA (where he lived for one year in 1989) or maybe Mexico. Berlin lacks light – not good for a black and white photographer.
"Jetzt oder nie" by Miron Zownir
Zownir’s fascination with misery and outcasts was there from an early age. The son of a Ukrainian war veteran, he grew up in the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of post-war Karlsruhe, a time he remembers as filled with rats, Nazis, alcoholic veterans and impoverished widows. “And the sound of my grandparents’ Volksempfänger radio, endlessly playing funeral parlour tunes”.
While his influences range from the Beats to Robert Frank and the Hitchcock movies he’d watch on his grandparents’ TV set all alone at night, one reference stands out: Jean Renoir’s little-known 1921 masterpiece The Little Match Girl, a dark featurette based on Andersen’s fairytale about a girl who sells matches and freezes to death on the street. “It was playing before the main John Wayne film the first time I went to the cinema with my grandmother. The atmosphere and the aesthetics grabbed me – at some point there’s a very abstract hallucinatory moment. It remained with me, that crazy childhood memory... until one day, I was in New York and I ran into the film on late-night TV. That’s when I realised the film was by Renoir!” Today his shorts and features combine that darkness with what he describes as his “sick sense of humour”.
Back To Nothing, his second feature-length film – produced by artist Nico Anfuso, his partner in work and life, and supported by a loyal cast of Berlin household names like Birol Ünel, Timo Jacobs and Meret Becker – might be Zownir’s ultimate expression of both. When it premiered at this year’s Achtung Film Festival, the film clearly shattered some tolerance levels. Not that it bothers him. “The thing is that nowadays, there’s too much of everything: pseudo art, information... Seldom do you see something which still grabs you.”
And grab the film does. Its setting: a dilapidated building as you forgot they still existed in Berlin, populated by surly twin wrestlers, crack-addled transvestites and sicko murderers providing to a starving population turned cannibalistic. In this literal version of dog-eat-dog humanity, Zownir’s strength as usual is his aesthetics. “Even if you disagree with everything in the movie, it has the visual language of my photography.”
Is this a vision of dystopian Berlin or just a reflection of the society we live in? “It’s totally based on our society. We’re living through disturbing times – exploitation, violence, so much injustice – it’s endemic. So of course my film is set in the future, but all the elements are already here. One day, all the underdogs will fight back. It won’t be a revolution, but individuals who are frustrated will express themselves again.”
Until that day, there’s Zownir and a retrospective of works kicking off at Lichtblick Kino from June 26, featuring Back To Nothing all the way to his debut anti-racist spot, as well as M.A. Littler’s documentary Zownir: Radical Man. Like the man himself, it unapologetically promises to ignite controversy with passion and sophistication while making society’s rejects look fucking poetic. He’ll be attending, provided no Euro matches clash with the programme: this is one radical artist that won’t miss a single German game. Every transgressor has his limits...
Radical Eye: Miron Zownir in 10 films, Jun 26-29, Jul 4-5 | Lichtblick Kino, Kastanienallee 77, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelderplatz, see website for full programme