'Cars on Fire' Art Show Revisits Berlin's Burning Automobiles

A spate of torched cars put Berlin in the global headlines last year. A new exhibition revisits the charred remains of vehicles set ablaze. Taken by a photographer better known for his snaps of gleaming new cars, the photos are now on show in England.

Michael Danner

"Cars on Fire" is an exhibition of photos by Michael Danner, a Berlin-based photographer who usually turns his hand to creating more glossy images of automobiles. But last year -- when a car was being set on fire almost every night in the German capital -- Danner would take his camera out onto the streets of Berlin, snapping a photographic record of vehicles' burned out shells.

"The car wrecks interested me as an attack on the city environment, similar to graffiti," said Danner, whose images are on show at the Hereford Musuem and Art Gallery, southwest of Birmingham. Luxury cars were often the subject of the arson attacks, as well as smaller cars, old vehicles and those belonging to companies like national mail firm Deutsche Post and railway firm Deutsche Bahn.

A broad cross section of the press attributed the arson attacks to left-wing extremists. Some said the blazes were motivated by anger against gentrification, a trend which left neighborhoods with higher rents and a different social mix. But officials rarely received letters claiming responsibility for the attacks. The police estimated that around a third of the blazes had been ignited by apolitical copycat arsonists but few arrests were made.

Stinking Cars

The flaming vehicles made national and international news and Danner decided to train his camera on the charred shells left behind. He started his day early, sitting at his computer and reading police reports from the night before. If there was a new car arson attack, he knew he had to get to the scene without delay.

"The car wrecks were cleared away very quickly. On average I only got pictures of every three sites I visited," he said. Moreover, locating the burned out vehicles was not always easy: The police only mentioned the name of the street, and streets can be very long in Berlin. "At some stage I realized I had to drive with my window open when I was looking for the burned car -- the wrecks stunk to high heaven," he said.

He collected some 20 images. Danner's project is not yet finished, although the number of torched cars in Berlin has slumped this year. "In the meantime you only read of a flaming car once every two weeks," he said.

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