|Saturday at Berghain
What makes one of the world's most famous clubs tick? In an excerpt from the English translation of Lost and Sound, Tobias Rapp spends a long night in Berlin's Berghain to find out.
Studio 54, The Loft, The Paradise Garage, The Hacienda, Ministry of Sound, Cream, Shoom, Pacha, Twilo, Tresor, fabric. They are among the most famous clubs in the world. Right now, though, none is more famous (and infamous) than Berlin's Berghain.
Why does this German club have such a mythic allure on clubgoers around the world? Everyone has heard the rumors, maybe even seen some of it in action. Plenty more have waited in line for an hour or more, only to receive word that they will not be getting in. In Tobias Rapp's recent book Lost and Sound: Berlin, techno and the Easyjetset, the respected journalist—and avid Berlin clubgoer since the early '90s—stands in line at the infamous venue, gets in and surveys the scene, and in so doing reveals much about Berlin's club scene, how the legend of the venue has grown to outsized proportions and why there are no photos allowed. RA is proud to present an extract from this chapter of the book, which will be published in English later this year by Innervisions.
Incidentally, when exactly is Saturday? Almost all clubs open at midnight, so a clubbing Saturday is always Sunday already. The time before the clubs open needs filling—in bars, on the street if you really have to, or at home. If you go to a club before one o'clock on a Saturday night, you inevitably end up on an empty dance floor, a dance floor being played to by a DJ who knows full well no one wants to dance at this hour, and who therefore plays music that no one would dance to, if there was anyone there. But there isn't. The people are outside. In the queue.
This is the case everywhere, but especially at Berghain. The queue snakes a long and orderly path over the sandy ground. Bordered at the very back by construction site fencing, then corralled into an S-shape by steel barriers near the door, it's as if these people are queuing to get into another country. And in a sense, they are. A common assumption is that the time spent waiting outside the door of a club has something to do with the exclusivity that the club in question claims to possess. This belief is probably a distant echo of the anguished groans of all those who, at some point in the late '70s, waited to be let into Studio 54 in New York, the most famous discotheque of the twentieth century. Here, the doorman's reign of terror created that mixture of celebrity, money, beauty and youth to which some still aspire today. You were beckoned to come inside—or not, in which case you just had to stand there and watch. This could go on all night. There was no one forcing you to persevere except for the sheer appeal of gaining some ground in the attention economy which governs the nightlife of cities where fame, wealth and taste belong together.
Berlin isn't one of those cities.
Indeed, all attempts by club promoters in the '90s to open a discotheque that followed this principle ended in fiasco. Taste and money just don't belong together in Berlin, except in the art scene. Since the '90s, however, this scene has almost entirely given up its once close alliance with the techno and house clubs, along with the idea that every exhibition opening absolutely must have a DJ. Nowadays artists, gallery owners, art collectors and critics prefer to gather in their own restaurants and bars in Berlin-Mitte. This district is also home to the only club where the door policy remotely recalls the principle of Studio 54: Cookies on Unter den Linden.
All these things may run through your mind as you stand in the famous queue outside Berghain. The first and most important difference between this and all other queues is that it's for everyone. There is a guestlist here, too, but it's relatively short and carries no symbolic weight. If you're on it, you still have to wait, you just don't have to pay. Only the night's DJs and their entourage can amble past the queue, plus a few people who have a particular connection with Berghain. This has little effect on the queue, however. Perhaps three or four small groups walk past you in the space of an hour, no more. You can watch them while you wait. It always takes a while, whether it's one, three or six o'clock in the morning. Sometimes there's an extra doorman who stands about halfway up the queue and whose sole responsibility is to send back any wannabees who think, for whatever reason, that all are equal before the door to Berghain—except for them.
"Will I get turned away tonight?"
In its implementation, this policy actually gives a faint sense of Jacobin Terror. Whether you're a queen or a farmer, it really can happen to anyone. Firstly, then, this door is radically democratic. Secondly, however, it exhibits a refreshing arbitrariness which makes you ask yourself the question each and every time, even after years of getting in without a problem: Will I get turned away tonight?
This is the question that all in the Berghain queue ask themselves. Whether it's the couple who keep telling each other off for fidgeting around, or the group of Italians who look as if they've been reading fanzines back home with style tips for Berlin clubs. Their new-rave look comprises huge coloured sunglasses and haircuts nurtured for maximum asymmetry. The girls are wearing purple leggings and poison-green tops, the guys have post-ironic slogans on their T-shirts. One woman is battling her fear of not getting in with an endless and increasingly confusing lecture on her home city of Wuppertal. The two Dutch guys she's befriended in the queue are preventing her monologue from petering out by muttering an occasional "hm" and "ah." Two other guys are making fun of those who aren't let in while warning one another not to laugh too loud, otherwise they might be on the receiving end themselves.
Berghain not only bears a certain architectural resemblance to a cathedral, it's an actual temple of techno. And whether by design or not, waiting in the queue is the first step in an initiation ritual, soon followed by an unmistakable feeling of butterflies in your stomach as you edge towards the door. You watch as people ahead of you get turned away. You try to figure out the criteria. Most of the time it's pretty simple: groups of young men always have a hard time. If on top of that they are tourists, straight or obviously drunk, things get even tougher. But these are just rough guesses. When a punk who doesn't get in shouts out, "Fuck you, Germany! You're scum! I'm from Vienna!" everyone has a little chuckle.
About the author
This article is an extract from Tobias Rapp's excellent book, Lost and Sound: Berlin, techno and the Easyjetset
. Through a collection of short chapters, Rapp goes in-depth into the history of clubbing in the city, tackling the subject in both objective and subjective detail. The former is a function of his journalistic background. At the time of the book's writing, the 38 year-old was the music editor of the left-leaning daily taz
. He was also one of the few that, as the promotional copy for the English translation puts it, writes "about music from a perspective other than that of the old rocker or a piqued bourgeois [fascinated] with underground trends." As a result of the success of the book, and a testament to the quality of his work at taz
, Rapp has moved on to even bigger and better things: He is now the pop music editor for Germany's best-selling news magazine Der Spiegel
You don't want to party with just anyone, so no tears are shed for any of those who are turned away. At the same time, the price you pay for exclusivity is the risk of not getting in yourself.
Your identification with the tormentor is mixed with anticipation and fear—a multitude of contradictory feelings come together on the way into Berghain. And that's the way it has to be; it's the first tension to be released as you finally set foot in the club. The initiation ritual continues with the thorough drug search carried out in the entrance area beside the cash desk: the ritual cleansing. Then you pay your dues, another religious act, to gain passage to the cloakroom, a huge space which contains a few sofas and is dominated by a giant mural painted by the Polish artist Piotr Nathan. It's called The Rituals of Disappearance.
The lighting reinforces the feeling of an initiation: it's dark outside, dimly lit in the entrance area, bright in the cloakroom. Then, once you've crossed the final threshold and entered the large hall which you could hear booming from outside, it suddenly gets dark again. You cross the hall, climb the large steel stairs, and even if you already know what you've let yourself in for over the hours to come, you still get a sharp shock every time as you stand facing the dance floor and let the music thunder over you. For a few seconds, as your eyes try to adjust to the strobes, you stumble around in semi-blindness. It's a little like a punch in the face—not only do you have to jostle your way through a mass of sweating bodies which have already been there a couple of hours longer than your somewhat more sober self, you also get physically assaulted by the sound waves of the music.
Time for a drink.
Berghain and Panoramabar have a total of six bars spread over three floors. One is in the room on the right of Berghain, next to the large dance floor, a space you can imagine as the side aisle of a gothic cathedral. Just as architects of old created a clever interplay of windows and narrow columns to emphasise the direct link with the heavens, here the spotlights are positioned in such a way as to make the ceiling appear even higher than it actually is. Another bar is slightly hidden to the left of the dance floor, near the darkrooms. There's also a staircase here leading up to Panoramabar, which is a little smaller and brighter than Berghain. Upstairs is house and straight, downstairs hard and gay.
"Upstairs is house and straight,
downstairs hard and gay. "
The techno floor of the famed club. Residents like Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock and Len Faki take full advantage of the enormous sound system which begs for hard sets of unrelenting pressure.
House finds a home upstairs, with residents such as Cassy, Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Steffi soundtracking parties that often last for nearly 24 hours. In-the-know clubbers end up there at 8 AM (or later) on Sunday.
You go to Berghain late, sometimes very late. Many Berliners have started coming in the morning after sleeping to avoid the peak tourist hours of up to 8 AM. And you stay for a long time. Often you can't even remember exactly what you've done in the hours in between. Not just because you may have been under the influence of various mind detergents and disco biscuits along the way, but because Berghain opens up its own space-time continuum. With other clubs you go in, stay for a while, then go on somewhere else. Here, you stay. The rest of the world disappears. In Berghain you're off the map. This is something you have to enter into willingly. You can feel very lost as the only sober person among hundreds of intoxicated revellers. Especially since the club is so huge—over 3,000 people are probably ushered through the doors on a good night. On the other hand, every room displays such a firm sense of proportion that you almost feel—well, it would be going a little too far to say you feel at home. Like a fish in water, that's more like it. After all, you're here precisely because it isn't home.
Taking photographs in Berghain isn't allowed, not even on a mobile phone camera. Because many guests don't want to be photographed while they live out their sexual fantasies, says a doorman when asked. This may be so, but above all every photo would be a bridge to the outside world, a reminder that the outside exists at all. No club is so successful at sealing itself off from this outside world as Berghain. The sun may already be high in the sky outside—inside you always seem to be shrouded in an early-morning twilight.
Sure, there are people who do things here for which they seek out a dark corner. Everyone who's been here has seen or heard people having sex on the bar. Or on a sofa. Or next to the dance floor. Even though the explicit sex parties have always been held in the adjacent venue lab.oratory (which has nights for every sexual penchant, so long as it's gay in the broadest sense: from Yellow Facts and Fausthouse, Beard and Slime through to the biker party Spritztour), Berghain also has two darkrooms of its own. And there are all kinds of stories about people having done this, that and the other while temporarily freed from all inhibitions.
In most cases, however, stories from Berghain are about somebody talking or listening to some ludicrous drivel, or about meeting or getting to know someone who was completely off their face. Then there are the ones about someone going into the toilets with someone else and one of them feeling either incredibly good or not so good afterwards. Often these stories are still funny when it gets to the middle of the week, but sometimes they're sad.
Above all, however, they have an incredible life of their own. Anyone who's been regularly to Ostgut and Berghain over the years knows from personal experience how these stories have given rise to and constantly reinvented the legend of this club. There's this big collective discussion where you subsequently recount the events of the weekend, tell each other what happened to whom, what you saw, what other people told you and what they in turn had seen and heard about. It's a conversation in which all these stories are constantly being retold, gaining new emphasis, being weighed up, evaluated and explained. You assure one another that you can't carry on like this, although you're secretly looking forward to giving in to temptation again.
These are quite normal clubbing stories really, things you experience in other clubs too—except that elsewhere it's rarely five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon when you find your way back out into the real world. What sets these stories apart is that they are constantly being interwoven into the great Berghain discussion. Like the one about the man who was fisting his partner on the Berghain dance floor and had a centimetre scale tattooed onto his forearm. Or the one about a friend who went to the toilet and came across a woman he'd never met before. She looked at him and said "Come on, fuck me right now," but he wasn't too keen on the idea, so she landed him a punch which left him with a black eye for days. Or the one about the guy who was in the toilets having a piss when another guy stood next to him, then suddenly cupped his hand in the jet, drank the piss and disappeared again—"He could have at least asked!"
This is how the Berghain legend comes about, and it's constantly being perpetuated. What's more, the great discussion has extended well beyond the Berlin telephone network. Nights are discussed in newsgroups; Chinese whispers circulate the stories around Stockholm and Milan. A few people in Melbourne have heard them. Then at some point the New Zealand Herald is saying that there are techno clubs in Berlin where sex on the dance floor is the most normal thing in the world. At which point a couple more New Zealanders book their flights to Berlin.
"On a good night, the dance floors
of Berghain and Panoramabar
are the best in the world."
When it comes to creating a legend, it's fairly unimportant whether the events really took place or not. It's enough that the stories exist, that they are recounted and passed on.
Berghain isn't Bar 25, anyway. That's a few hundred metres away, as the crow flies, on the banks of the Spree. It too is preceded by a legend of unbridled partying, but the stories from Bar 25 are more extreme and grotesque. Like the one about the girl who was lying on the grass, using her mobile phone as a vibrator and shouting "Vagina dialogue! Vagina dialogue!" Compared to these stories, life in Berghain is pretty civilized on the whole. Yes, sometimes people fuck in the metal cubby-holes next to the Panoramabar dance floor. But basically the people here know how to behave themselves. Or they ask you first: "Sorry mate, I'm just gonna have to talk a load of shit to you for a little while, is that okay?"
In which case you're quite happy to put up with it.
Then you walk around, see what's going on over here and over there, have a drink, go to the toilet and look out of a window from the urinals behind Panoramabar at that odd little stream which snakes through the wasteland. You meet all kinds of people, some you know, some you don't. While you're waiting to be served at the bar, a Frenchman in his early twenties explains that he's a techno DJ from Montpellier and that his coming to Berlin was like a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca. On the stairway you get talking to a huge, half-naked skinhead who tells you with a smile that there is no other club like this, "not even in Russia." At the edge of the dance floor you pick up the thread of a discussion about dub reggae where you left off a few weeks ago.
And then you dance.
On a good night, the dance floors of Berghain and Panoramabar are the best in the world. They seem to bring together the best of 20 years of house and techno. The musical expertise of the crowd is incredible, as is their willingness to throw it overboard when required by the rising curve of euphoria. It's not so much the multicultural charm of this mixture of gay and straight, young and old, guys and girls, Berliners and tourists which makes it so unique, but its ability to develop its own particular dynamic. On a dance floor full of hardened Berlin techno veterans, everyone knows what the score is, but sometimes they can lack the necessary enthusiasm when the DJ slams the bass back in after an eight-beat pause. It's just that they've heard this trick a few times already. If you replaced this whole crowd with young, gay Italians who were at Berghain for the first time and really getting their rave on, it probably wouldn't matter what track was playing—they'd go crazy every time. But the combination is wonderful. Nothing can beat a dance floor which has been formed over the years, which knows what to expect from what DJ, and is nevertheless capable of breaking out of these patterns from time to time.
"You nod goodbye to the
doormen because you feel
in some way indebted to them."
Then at some point you're in such a misty-eyed state that you vigorously affirm the political dimension of electronic dance music. Which lies, you think to yourself, in the way people interact with one another on the dance floor. You have to behave yourself here, find yourself a space, avoid getting in someone else's way. You have to learn these things, they don't just come to you.
The entrance to Berghain/Panorama Bar, 2009.
When they're lacking, you tend to get these very intense moments of hate. Like when you get shoved aside by one of those little groups who think the shortest route from the door to the bar is across the dance floor. Or when your arm gets burned because the guy next to you thinks he has to both dance and smoke at the same time (unfortunately now you can't even smoke when you're off the dance floor, except for in the somewhat uncomfortable smoking lounge). Or when two guys who lack experience in channelling their uncontrollable urge to move jostle past you and start jacking back and forth. Then they move to another spot to hop around a bit, only then to wander off somewhere entirely different, barging you out of the way again in the process.
These are the times when you would like to introduce the principle of good governance into a club setting: the good dance floor, where everyone knows what they're doing in spite of everything. Where everyone can be as wasted and as spangled as they like, but still show one another respect. Where space is in short supply, but the remaining shred of common sense dictates that those present won't take up more room than is available.
These are the kinds of things which cross your mind occasionally.
Berghain and Panoramabar possess a different level of euphoria to other clubs. The party curve continues to rise steeply well into Sunday afternoon. This is partly due to the charm of the parallel society which exists inside the club. Here they have really managed to shut out the rest of the world. Or better still, to employ it as an effect, as an additional stimulant, a device for adding intensity. When the lighting guy in Panoramabar opens up the roller blinds for a few seconds, for example, letting the sunlight break through, you can physically feel waves of elation washing over the dance floor. People cheer and raise their arms in the air—flirting, of course, with the thought that too much sun could rapidly make this world disappear: like vampires, the crowd would turn to dust.
And at some point it comes to an end. After all, Berghain is a club and not an after-party location. You go to the cloakroom and hand over your cloakroom tag, which—just one indication of the attention paid to every last detail—is not a ticket with a number, like everywhere else, but a metal tag on a string which you can wear around your neck or tie on somewhere else. Whatever state you might be in at the end of the night, you will definitely get your coat back. They think these things through here. Which is important when no one is in the soundest frame of mind.
Then you stumble out of the door and into the light. You nod goodbye to the doormen—not that you know them, but because you feel in some way indebted to them. Somehow you have to give the night some symbolic closure. You look around, feel the fresh air on your skin, notice how much you've actually been sweating. You hear the faint ringing in your ears mixed with the twittering of the birds, the chatter of people sitting around having another beer, and the soft rattle of the sound system emanating from the building.
Now you can go home. Or stop by Bar 25 again.
Translated from German by Paul Sabin.
Published / Wednesday, 21 October 2009