Everything came unplanned… On my first day in Berlin, I went for a cup of tea. Written on the teabag were the words: ‘Lass die Dinge zu dir kommen’. It just happened. Things came to me….” This was in September 2016. Frédéric Brenner, a 63-year-old photographer from Paris who had made a name for himself criss-crossing the world on his exploration of Jewish diversity, was now settling in as a fellow of Wissenschaftskolleg, an interdisciplinary research institute in leafy Grunewald on the western edge of Berlin. Little did he know that what started as a one-year sabbatical would extend to many more years, sparking a new episode on a life-long photo-existential journey.
Germany was an unlikely home for Brenner, whose dad swore to never set foot in the country responsible for murdering his whole family. “I was raised with: we don’t go to Germany, we don’t buy German, we don’t speak German,” Brenner says. “We’d never speak about the Shoah.” In his first year here, Brenner’s Berlin didn’t really stretch past the Grunewald forest and regular walks to “the railway” – aka Gleis 17, the memorial at Grunewald station that chronicles the Jewish deportations between 1941 and 1945. The stimulating company of his 35 erudite peers at the Kolleg kept him enthralled: “Those brilliant minds! It was one of my most fantastic intellectual experiences ever.”
Brenner had no intention of staying in Berlin past his time at the Kolleg though. Until one man and one particular snapshot changed his plans. That man was the American literary scholar Carey Harrison, the son of thespian icons Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and a charismatic character in his own right. The shot was taken one morning in June 2017, in the Kolleg’s courtyard. It’s a powerful 3x3m photograph, “My first in Berlin, and the one thanks to which I decided to stay here,” he says, pointing to the staggering portrait on show at the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB).
It shows a naked Harrison, lying on his stomach, literally biting the Berlin-Halensee dirt, with a chapter of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life tattooed on his back. The son of German-Jewish actress Palmer who fled Berlin in the 1930s, “he is literally embracing the Berlin soil,” says Brenner, still excited by what he insists on seeing as a stroke of luck: “The photo was entirely his idea, I didn’t plan it. It just came to me.” You can tell that this “letting-things-come-to-you” is a way of life for Brenner, who’s been practising Vipassanā meditation for 13 years and acknowledges a weakness for reading his (good) fortune from teabag one-liners.
“I often say that I didn’t make this photo, but this photo made me,” he says, explaining that it set the modalities of what he refers to as a new “fragment” in his 40-year journey exploring Jewish diversity: this time, he’d let his protagonists direct the shoot – a first in Brenner’s career, in step with his new life philosophy. “I used to intellectualise and control a lot. It took me some courage to surrender – to trust what’s coming to me.”
Brenner spent the following three years photographing what he refers to as the local “Jewish stage”. “I wanted a very large spectrum to be represented,” he says. “The Israelis, the Americans, the Russians, the liberal and the Orthodox Jews, the mixed and the queer couples, the transgender, the Orthodox-kid-turned-secular, the Christian convert who became a rabbi.”
He also included those Germans who, although not converts, dedicated their lives to Jewish memory and culture. People like Christina von Braun, niece of the rocket scientist Wernher, or the controversial activist Lea Rosh – “she changed her name and spent a good part of her life dealing with the memory of the Shoah,” Brenner marvels. “Berlin is a unique stage where endless expressions of Jewish life are performed.” He speaks of a place bent on redemption with its “epidemic of Holocaust memorials and commemorative projects”, where Jews come to escape and reinvent themselves.
Brenner’s eloquence extends well beyond the visual grammar of his photography. Listening to the way he so effortlessly juggles stimulating concepts and ideas, you’re immediately reminded of his background as a social anthropologist. This also shines through the self-penned erudite essays that introduce his exhibitions and the beautiful photography volumes they end up bound into (like the latest Zerheilt). It all revolves around one question: What is a Jew?
Berlin is a unique stage where endless expressions of Jewish life are performed.
Looking at the 50 portraits on show at the Jewish Museum, you’d be hard-pressed to find an answer. What’s the invisible link that connects those people? “The other day I heard a visitor asking: ‘what’s Jewish about those people’?” The question obviously delights Brenner. “Exactly. Everything and nothing.”
But haven’t 40 globetrotting years in search of the remotest of Jewish populations helped him find an answer? How does he feel Jewish? Brenner answers tangentially, recalling the day he was rehearsing the Bach cantata ‘Ich habe Genug’, and his singing master told him: “Frédéric, you’re protecting a territory which doesn’t exist. “This is the most beautiful life mantra I was ever given. Aren’t we all protecting territories that don’t exist?” he asks.
You can tell this is a big thing for him, one he effortlessly connects to Israel and Zionism: what happens when a people with a “portable identity”, a people that lived without a country for 2,000 years, settles on a land it needs to defend? It’s an issue he explored in his 2018 exhibition at JMB This place!, when he asked 11 photographers to re-contextualise Israel and the West Bank as a place and metaphor, beyond political and religious polarisations. “For me,” says Brenner, “it’s key: we need to deterritorialise our identity and therefore the way we encounter the world.”
Like all great artistic endeavours, this is also a journey of self-exploration – undertaken by a man who’s been piecing together his own narrative. Brenner was born in Paris to French parents of Algerian-Jewish descent on his mother’s side, with Ukrainian and Romanian roots on his father’s. “We need to listen to the polyphony inside,” says the man who likes to quote Franz Kafka on the ‘intimate stranger within’ (“What do I have in common with the Jews – I barely have anything in common with myself”), and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, as reminders of our fragmented identities.
And also, of course, Paul Celan. It was the famous German-Jewish poet and tortured emigré soul Celan who inspired the beautifully evocative title of his latest exhibition: Zerheilt (“Healed to Pieces”).
Deambulating with him through the JMB, you can tell that after two solo exhibitions, Libeskind’s famous zig-zag building has become a bit of second home to Brenner. The place also happens to be run by his partner, the Dutch curator Hetty Berg. “The museum purchased the entire Zerheilt series and final- ised a date for the exhibition back in 2018 – before she took office!” he laughs, preempting any charge of nepotism.
On April 24, Zerheilt, that unique snapshot of Berlin’s Jewish communities from 2017-2020, will be taken down. What’s next? Zerheilt 2? “Looking back, it would certainly look completely different, things are changing so quickly. I’ve changed too!” says Brenner. As for Berlin, which he readily compares to New York back in its best days, he has no immediate plans to leave. And if he did: “I’ll always be back: to see my friends – because I’ve made many friends here.”
Zerheilt is on show at the Jewish Museum Berlin through Apr 24.