Stars of Albania by Matthias Aschauer

Albania during the communist times. The country is totally sealed off from the outside world. Landowners have been expropriated by a radical collectivisation drive. “Exorbitant” capital goods have been confiscated. A kind of generalized paranoia is reigning all over the country. It is whispered that you can even receive the death penalty for having one chicken running around the house. When the smell of a fresh leaf of bread, baked for private consumption, reaches the nostrils the secret police (Sigurimi), the courageous baker will vanish into a labour camp.


© Matthias Aschauer

Freedom of movement is something very abstract for Albanians. It is forbidden to move out of their home town without formal permission. Anyway, Albanians are not even allowed to have their own bike. In the 1980’ies there are only 300 cars driving through the streets of the Tirana.

The Albanians are the last of the Europeans to wake up in the so-called free world. Eventually, Enver Hoxha’s statue is toppled in december 1990.  Consumer goods and western values start flooding the country. In the years thereafter, the new economic is still very frail and there is social unrest but the spirit of the nation quickly shifts from “everything is ours” to “everything is mine”!


© Matthias Aschauer

In times of uncertainty and chaos, it is natural for  human beings to look up for a star that will show the way to move on.  And here we have Sterne Albaniens (Stars of Albania), a very original photobook by Austrian photographer Matthias Aschauer. The title is beautifully explained in the introduction (David Staretz). The book is about stars that are guiding Albanians through the cultural shifts their country is undergoing.

To be more precise, it’s about one very specific star: the emblematic star of Mercedes-Benz. This is because – since the collapse of its stone age communism – Albania famously has attained the highest concentration of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in the world. It is estimated that 60 percent of the cars and trucks in the country are Mercedes-Benz! Sure enough, there is no room for discussion in Albanian families about about what should be number one on their priority lists. A Mercedes-Benz will always come before the washing mashine!

And the funny thing is that  Matthias’ book contains dozens of pictures made in the streets of Albania in 2010 and 2011 that (how did he do that?) depict ONLY Mercedes cars. Most of them are private cars but there are also taxis, learner cars, hearses, busses, vans…..


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© Matthias Aschauer


With their long noses, spacious trunks, solid doors, typical radiator grilles, chrome lines and big steering wheels they present themselves in everyone’s subconsciousness or dreams as archetypes of what a car should be. They are not only symbols of success and prestige but they also stand for total reliability, safety, durability and – most importantly- also sovereignity. All what is needed during the chaotic aftermath of the communist era, full of hardship and terror.


© Matthias Aschauer


What I like about Sterne Albaniens is that it seems to be conceived as a book of typologies. The annotations with the pictures don’t mention the time and place where Matthias made the shots. Each picture is only provided with the official factory references and the period of construction of the  vehicles (e.g. Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (W211) 2002-2009). The main focus is on the wide variety of Mercedes-Benz types that he found in the streets.


© Matthias Aschauer

As it goes in a book of typologies, there is no story line in this book. The sequence of Sterne Albaniens seems to be (at first sight) a purely random one. In a way this book brings to  mind the famous books of typologies from the German culture, like the ones from August Sander or the Bechers.

The concept of the graphic designers (Knis Steizinger and Simon Walterer) is maintained till the very end. In the back of the book all the references are grouped in an index. In a way, with its sober and neat outlook, they made the book also look like a prospectus for automobile professionals. You may even say that the book design is reflecting the sober -German- design of the cars themselves. (BTW, the type that shows up most is the Mercedes-Benz W123 series (1975-1985), this oxymoronic ubiquitous luxury car of which you may have some good memories.)

At the same time, Matthias Aschauer offers us much more than a automobilographic overview of the different lines of executive cars, sedans or limousines that once have left the factory in Stuttgart. The book is also ethnographic. We get intriguing glimpses of the Albanians and how they behave in the public space. Time still seems to be on their side! We see many persons who are enjoying a friendly chat and the state of strolling idleness. In spite of the turmoil from which they are coming, in spite of the barrenness of their country, they seem to consider the public space as a very pleasant social space.


© Matthias Aschauer

That there is time, also might have to something with the absence of economical drivers that allow the country to move on. But, as Matthias is showing, Albanians always keep up the good spirit and they have found their own stylish ways to move on. So, if the country is doomed to be some economic wasteland, I would say “Oh Lord, why don’t you buy them ……”