One of the most important photographers to come out of the GDR and a kind, soft-spoken man, Manfred Paul is an artist whose work is consistently in search of what it means to be human. His pictures, be they in black & white or in colour, tell stories that demand of the viewer to devote time and attention. All the more better if one indeed does so. Having a long conversation with the artist in his light-filled Prenzlauer Berg studio has been a joy.
What got you interested in photography, in the first place?
It probably was not so much photography itself that first attracted my interest, as images. And to images, I arrived through literature. While I was still a student, I was lucky to have a very good German literature teacher who introduced us to Rilke – I was deeply impressed by his writing which triggered my imagination. I was always creating images in my mind, in great detail, which unconsciously led me to paying great attention to scenes playing out in everyday life. I was fascinated by the ability to narrate a story through images. I had to learn to use a camera, to do that.
Did you then go on to study photography?
No, after school came a time where I was considering a number of different possibilities as usually happens at that age. For a long time I was thinking I should study philosophy. Then I started having an interest in theatre and acting. So at some point, I ended up working as stage assistant, then as an assistant to the director and as time went by I was drawn into the workings of theatre photography. But I always tended to mentally juxtapose these man-made scenes, these in a way metaphorical images, with scenes and images from everyday life. I was wondering how the real-life equivalents of those scenes one photographed on stage, would be played out in reality; or rather how their essence would be represented in everyday life. This was a very good time of my life – we were working a lot, but also having long discussions into the night about art and the theatre. I learnt a lot during that time. Two years would pass before I applied and secured a place to study cinematography, at the HFF in Babelsberg.
Did you already live in East Berlin at the time?
That was when I moved to Berlin. But the problem was that Berliners had a special status and one needed a special permit in order to be allowed to live here. To get the special permit, you had to have a job. To make things even more difficult, in order to get a job, you had to first have a permanent address. But how was it ever possible to rent a place when you were not allowed to live here in the first place? So what young people would do in order to overcome this obstacle, was to simply move into empty apartments – and there were loads of those.
Did you move into an empty apartment?
Exactly, I was a squatter in this apartment that we’re now in. At first I just moved into one room, but as years went by, I worked my way into more square metres.
What was the atmosphere like among students at the Babelsberg Film School? This was the GDR, after all. Did you feel there were limits imposed on what you were being taught?
I think I wouldn’t have been able to tell, because I had nothing to compare it with. I mean we were a pretty close-knit group of people and we would learn about what was happening in the West through watching films. Later one would learn some things by attending underground artists’ gatherings in friends’ houses. But actually it was not until much later, when the French Cultural Centre opened in East Berlin that I had the chance to meet people from outside the GDR and see works by foreign photographers -that’s when I first laid my eyes on a photograph by Henri Cartier Bresson, for instance. That was the early 1980s. Up until that time I knew painfully little about what artists in other countries had been pursuing.
Do you, then, feel that you missed out on something important ?
Didn’t I? Anybody interested in photography in the GDR had two options available: either the group around Arno Fischer, or official photography that was everywhere in the media. I found Arno Fischer’s photography interesting, but I needed more. Much later I would happen upon the work of certain photographers and think to myself that it was such a pity I had not known about these twenty years earlier. I should have been able to see the photographs of Eugene Adget, for instance. To study the work of what has come before us, to get to know the history of our forebears, is critical to anyone who aspires to become an artist. You know, there are some things that one is lucky to learn as a young person.
On the other hand, you must have watched a lot of great films during your time in film school.
Indeed I had ample opportunity to watch great movies and as well as some of the best documentaries. Watching films by the great artists, observing the way they construct a story, and the stories themselves, too; this was a life forming experience. For anyone to be able to delve deep into the images of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard and of course Fassbinder, is a huge privilege.
Your initial intention, then, was to pursue a career in the cinema. Why did you stray?
We all went to film school nurturing dreams about the films we would make, nurturing the illusion that it would be perfectly possible to work in the cinema. But the GDR was a very small country, there were not that enough jobs around for all of us. So it was very hard for me to find work as a cinematographer. Everything was already taken. We all stood in line waiting for an opening. And at some point, I finally managed to land a job in television. It was about that time that I started spending more time taking pictures and gradually devoting myself to photography.
That’s the time to which your series “Berlin Nordost 1972–1990. Am Rande der stehenden Zeit” go back to?
Yes, I would simply go out, walk around Prenzlauer Berg and take pictures. Everything was so different than the rural setting that had been familiar to me. By taking pictures, I wanted to get to know East Berlin, and especially my neighbourhood, this small world I was living in.
What were your first impressions of East Berlin?
It was autumn when I arrived here. All was grey and melancholic, there was even a sadness about the city, but to me it seemed so wonderfully exciting. And what was maybe even more interesting, was how many like-minded people were around and how easily we stuck together. The gatherings that took place inside the East Berlin apartment were so lively and exciting. Everybody had come to Berlin in search of something, everybody wanted to be here. It was quite something.
And what were you looking for, when you set out to take pictures of Prenzlauer Berg?
At first I was motivated by the sheer unfamiliarity of that new habitat; the setting, the way people lived. This was nothing like what I had known growing up in my small village. From that realization came the thought that I should make pictures of what I was witnessing. And I sensed, I really did sense, that what was standing before my eyes was only temporary, that this world would not be there for much longer. Taking pictures maybe had to do with an unconscious need to save things from being lost.
History was very much alive in those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. With time, what started to interest me was to examine how the social structures had affected housing arrangements. That explains why I was photographing the inner courtyards. Up until the end of the war, the wealthier classes would occupy the side of the building that was facing the street, with the clerks living around the inner courtyard, leaving the apartments of the second inner courtyard for the working class families. It is remarkable that the people that I met and photographed in the apartments of second inner courtyard, had always lived there.
I am trying to imagine those people, seeing a complete stranger walking in and out of their buildings, taking pictures. This was East Berlin and it was the Cold War; weren’t they at all suspicious or even scared of you?
Some of them were. On one side were the rather compliant citizens, who thought that I intended to provide western television with testimonies of all that was old, broken and destroyed in our socialist country. Because, according to their way of thinking, why would anyone want to take pictures of something that is so old and sad? And on the other side were those, usually older people, who had lived through the wars. They definitely had no fear of risking their careers. They were simply curious as to why I was taking pictures and would often invite me in their homes for a coffee. They would talk to me about their life, tell me stories about how Berlin used to be decades earlier and what they had been through.
I was very interested in the bonds between them and the place itself. It just so happened that it was always the inconspicuous ones that I photographed. And they usually didn’t care at all about what I did, they simply wanted to tidy up their place a little and I had to stop them, to ask them to leave everything as it was. “But you want to take pictures of this mess?” they’d wonder.
So your still lives from that series are not staged? They compositions are perfect.
No, they are not staged, I wouldn’t touch a thing. But I have always started with the composition and then took a picture. With me, it’s always the search for the form and the search for the time. These old still lives I couldn’t do anymore, experience has made me look at things with less sentimentality, to be more sober and to take a distance.
With the privilege of time and experience, what has photography been for you?
Photography was a way to understand life itself, a way to wonder whether the essence of life lies in simply living. And I was trying to find out in what ways it may be possible to capture this in an image. What others might use words to narrate, I needed to tell in pictures. With photography I have wanted as much to explore, as to tell a story about life.
Had you ever been to West Berlin?
Only once, during a summer holiday with my parents. On our way to Ostsee, we drove through West Berlin and spent a night there. There was an open rock concert that we happened to pass by, and I can very vividly recall how impressed I was by the atmosphere. In the East we were being told how decadent rock music, so I was very surprised to see how joyful all those young people looked.
Wasn’t that a culture shock?
Well, it was. I was 18 years old at the time and had grown up in a system where all students were expected to become members of the Free German Youth. At the same time, however, I was lucky to have this wonderful German literature teacher, an older woman, who had long conversations with us after class about the work of Rilke and Shakespeare. It was only natural that I would start to question what I was taught in school and start to take an interest in philosophy. And on top of that, I suddenly saw how life looked in West Berlin. I was very upset and confused, I didn’t know what to think anymore.
Could you share your doubts with anybody? What about your family?
My father had never liked it when I had joined the Young Pioneers, as a young boy. He had been a conservative, patriotic German officer who had studied Philosophy. I grew up near my grandfather and his influence has always been greater than that of my father, whom I got to know when I was already eleven years old. He had been a war prisoner in Russia and came back a broken man in 1953. My grandfather was a committed communist who once told me that “after the war all the fascists became members of the communist party”. That’s why he had left the Party. He was right, you know.
Did your father ever speak about the years he spent as a war prisoner?
No, he never said a word. Many years later, my wife managed to get him to open up to her.
Did your mother talk about it?
No, she didn’t. You know, my mother had burnt his library. After Germany lost the war she had been terrified that the Russians would soon be at our door. She took my father’s library out in the garden and burnt all his philosophy books. She burnt everything.
You mentioned earlier that your father was not happy about you joining the Young Pioneers. Did he ever openly disapprove of your choices, though?
He had to, when I enlisted in the Navy planning to become an officer. He sat me down and we had a long talk. He told me that when Hitler decided to go to war, he had felt that as a patriotic officer it was his duty to serve. He later realized he had made a grave mistake believing so. He shouldn’t have unquestioningly followed the order to serve. I shouldn’t make the same mistake. I should question what I was being taught and think for myself.
I am curious as to your opinion of “The Lives of Others”, which has been a huge success.
It’s a load of crap, there’s nothing in it that comes close to reality. A Stasi officer was a very different, totally unpredictable and a lot more dangerous person. I have many friends who have had the experience of dealing with the Stasi and I know very well that the reality was a lot more brutal. Many of our friends broke. One man that I knew very well suddenly disappeared and then two days later he was back. But he was a changed person. Soon afterwards he went over to the other side.
Did you ever have problems with the Stasi?
Well, we all had. But in my case the pressure had been mainly psychological. Of course they had attempted to get me to cooperate with them but I turned them down. This was never an option for me, even if it meant that I would have to abandon my profession. I have experienced a questioning, but only once. It lasted a whole night. It was crazy: they led me to an eight-cornered room. And there was a door on almost each one of the walls. All through the night people would go in and out of those doors, asking exactly the same questions. Again and again. It was extremely stressful and exhausting because it was very important to give all of them exactly the same answers. Friends had warned me I should keep calm and never lose my concentration. I managed it, in the end they let me go. In any case, one was always and very rightly scared of the Stasi.
Have you read your file?
No, I haven’t. Before the files were made available, my wife and I learnt who were the five or six persons who had been spying on us. That was enough, neither of us wanted to know more. Two of those people have killed themselves…One never knows under what circumstances they did what they did, or what kind of pressure they were under when they agreed to become IM.
You have been a professor of photography for many years. What is it that you have always wanted your students to learn from you?
That they should always mistrust me, in the sense that they must put everything I tell them into question. What’s most important is that they judge things for themselves and develop their own worldview. Naturally that takes time.
Manfred Paul’s current exhibition at the Galerie Pankow until the 17th of November