Written by Henry Boles
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science... The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” - Albert Einstein
My friend Philip and I walk across the empty car park of Hellweg, the German's answer to Bunnings Warehouse. I fiddle around with my belt, unsure of where to place my hands in an attempt to suffocate the growing sense of embarrassment beginning to lurch inside my stomach. As we approach the queue, about 30 people long, I click open my iPhone to check the time. Sunday. 10.30am. Make that the last time, I think to myself, running through the list of line etiquette rules I’d acquired since arriving in Berlin. Wear black. Don’t check your phone. Don’t smile. Don’t speak English. Don’t speak at all. The bouncers just want to see that you have bigger balls than they do.
It appears I’m not the only one adhering to this advice. Little is said as we wait, rubbing our hands together for warmth. Beside us, a girl wrapped in a leather dog-neck choker skips the line. She drops her headphones from her ears and smiles at the bouncers as they wave her on in. Behind us, a pale, bald-headed man reads a leather bound book in a language that I do not recognise. The front of the line approaches and the man ahead of us with purple dreadlocks and silver contact lenses is told he cannot come in. As are we. Philip smiles and says, “Okay, thank you,” before beginning the walk back to the train station with his head held high. I follow his lead, turning back to see the alopecia monk welcomed inside.
“There’s no point analysing it,” Phillip says in his cheerfully posh British accent, as we pull out of the S-Bahn station. He’s right. Thinking about it too much is painful for the ego, but the logic doesn’t do much to diminish the voice of frustrated disappointment that is resting on my shoulder - damn, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. As the train rolls past I lock eyes with the building, three storeys high and ominously grey. It’s no pretty sight, although what’s inside is reported to be truly beautiful.
You win this round, cunts. Deep down I know that this won’t be the last time today that I front up at The Berghain.
The history of Berghain nightclub, from a gay sex party to an international focal point of techno subculture, is more obscure than most. It’s origins lie in Snax, the fetish fiasco thrown by the club’s owners Nortbert Thormann and Michael Teufele. After gaining popularity among Berlin's gay community, this sweaty affair found a permanent home at Ostgut, throwing parties with names like Yellow Facts and Sewer System. It wasn't until Ostgut opened its doors to the wider public on regular nights that a non-gay audience began to get involved with the rumoured debauchery that was going on inside. When the railway warehouse that housed Ostgut was closed in 2003, it wasn’t long before Thormann and Teufele sought after another industrial space in which to continue. About a year later, an old heating and cooling power station situated between the neighbouring suburbs of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg was renovated and opened its doors under it new alias of The Berghain.
Talk to enough Berliners and it won’t be long before someone chimes in with a myth they'd heard about the parties held inside the club. The night before I tried to gain entry, I was told by an American expat about his early experiences.
“When I first went I saw guys coming down from an upper-level, where someone told me there was a freezer. They were carrying small tupperware containers, which contained logs of their frozen poo. They’d use them as dildos to fuck each other while they danced. It was so fucked up.”
His story is one of many that perpetuate the aura of intrigue that surrounds the Berghain. Other contributing factors include it’s long opening hours (Klubnacht begins at midnight on Saturday and does not finish until mid-morning on Monday), it’s complete ban on photography and notoriously unpredictable door policy. Internet forums are filled with tips and pointers, but inevitably, as most will tell you, sometimes they just don’t let you in - and no one knows why.
When recent German history is taken into consideration, the narrative surrounding the wider EDM scene in Berlin becomes particularly interesting. Germany was, after all, the birthplace of Marxism and one has to wonder how previous years of Soviet dictatorship play into the nightclubbing behaviour and rituals of Berliners today. The club Salon Van Wilde Renate, for example, is contained within an abandoned apartment building that sits on the former East/West divide.
It’s location is significant; according to one patron who told me when I visited, “when the wall came down, it was important for us to be able to party with people who were a part of our city, a part of us, but who had been kept from us for no reason.” Anyone who has partied (properly) in Berlin will echo this sentiment of unity that pervades creatures of the night. Friendships are formed in matters of minutes that will go on to last days and weeks as randoms groups of people come together and tackle the city night by night, party by party. Joints are smoked, sleepovers are had and people connect because - as the man in Renate so fittingly put, “well why the fuck not.”
This notion framed the lens from which I perceived Berlin. It seemed logical enough - after years of being told who they were and what they needed to do, enough Germans escaped to Berlin and started doing as they pleased - but mostly drugs, sex and dancing. The emergence of this Bohemianism was complemented by the rapidly growing electronic music scene, specifically its minimal techno labels. The music, like much of Germany's history is dark, and as Ricardo Villalobos Notes in the 2006 documentary 'Don't Forget To Go Home', "the frequencies of the sound are well separated... each of the special frequencies are touching you and calling some feelings out of you, which are completely hidden normally. When you hear the music you start think about your childhood and your problems and you feel some incredible things."
In the afternoon that followed my initial Berghain rejection, I meet with Andy, who had become my first spontaneous night-club friend on the previous Thursday night. He was a soft-spoken graphic designer from Cyprus, who had a pretty smile that poked out behind an impressive beard. That, combined with his excellent dance moves, had got us talking about his cat and before long I found myself, along with three Guatemalan expats we had just met, staying at his house and watching Netflix well into the following evening.
I down a few beers with Andy at a nearby Chinese restaurant and pitch my re-entry plan to him. He looks down at his yellow knitted jumpe2r and says, softly, “I don’t think I’m dressed properly.” I have to agree - ‘daisy’ wasn’t exactly a colour that had been reported to go down well with Berghain bouncers and doormen. Nevertheless, we were drunk enough to think it was worth a try and headed back once more.
By this stage it was 4 p.m. and the evening sky had begun to turn dark and cold. The line-up was twice as long as when I had been there in the morning, but when we finally reached the front of the queue, the bouncer barely even acknowledged our presence before waving us inside. Holy shit. Holy shit. We’re in. I was wrong. Daisy knitted jumpers for everyone. Andy and I get patted down by two independent bouncers and I turn to him, feeling the shock on my face mould into a burning smile. “Fuck yeah,” he mouths to me. The bouncers take our phones and cover the lens with fluoro green stickers. “Please do not take any photos inside,” the bouncer asks and we head up to pay our entrance fee. “12 euros,” the large tattooed doorman says, “and welcome.”
The teenage girl inside me erupts, but is quickly subdued by the vibe that was awaiting us inside. Strewn across a series of black leather couches lay a sweaty mass of people. They reclined across one another, clad in black sports gear. Women with ponytails tight and high. Men in platform shoes. Feeling remarkably uncool, I turn to Andy and say, above the booming techno leaking from further inside, “I want to jump on you. I feel so FUCKING excited.” Softly as ever, he says, “Just do it. We’re in now.” And he’s right. To even ascribe meaning to a congratulatory hug will seem frivolous when compared to what I’m about to see.
After checking in our jackets, we begin to ascend the wide metal staircase that leads into the main hall. As we reach the top, more than one thousand moving bodies come into full view. The baseline that carries the raw techno music is so deafening that I can almost feel it shaking my toenails. All of a sudden, the industrial interiors of the hall ricochet with the blaring sound of a quick snare blasting through the air. The people erupt. From the foray of dark silhouettes, shadowed between purple and green lights, the people begin to whistle and clap. The energy of a thousand people shifts and the movement quickens in time with the music. They dance toward all angles on a range of different levels. Beside me, three 5-foot leather-clad Chinese girls throw their hands in the air at random intervals. Up the front, I see a man climb up to the ledge of the DJ booth. His slender figure is shaped by a tight, black meshed dress. He flails his arms about to the doof in a way that reminds me of the wacky inflatable tube men you might see at a used car dealership. I laugh, unable to handle the absurdity of it all and ask myself, what the fuck is this place? Shattered are expectations of Sunday school and days of rest. Shattered are prejudices against being the last to go home. Shattered are my conceptualisations of partying or why we do it - or maybe, the type of people who enjoy a party.
Deciding we need a drink in order to digest the last 10 minutes, we head up the bar to order a Club Mate and vodka. As I hand over our cash, I notice the bar is formed by a large glass cabinet. Inside is a myriad of clay, moulded into the shapes of men doing delightfully debauched things to one another. Doggy style. Threeways. Bukkake. Soon after, we set out to find “party supplies.” Assuming the toilets are our best bet, we head there to discover that it is a bathroom without mirrors. After looking around for a moment longer, I realise that there doesn't appear to be any mirrors in the whole complex. Before long we are introduced to a dealer by way of a sweetly smiling blonde girl from The Netherlands. We head downstairs and into the shadows of the space, where a set of blocks forms an almost castle-like structure. On the top of the castle, we find a leather couch where we can do the dirty with a dealer named Paul. He exchanges us ecstasy and speed for cash. The Dutch girl, having cheekily stolen my beanie, wraps it firmly around her head and says with a small giggle, “Well? Shall we go and dance?”
And dance we do. A little intimidated by the main dance floor, we head up to Panorama Bar and dance beside a girl with her breasts out. Black masking tape marks each of her nipples with an X. Next to her, a man dances draped in a long rainbow tie dye t-shirt. The dancing goes on and on as my understanding of time begins to slip away. Looking around, the weirdness doesn’t appear to be halting to any kind of stop. A cross-fit black guy walks around naked, only wearing a white adidas cap. He appears to be alone. Straight and gay couples, threesomes and foursomes alike lay across one another on the black leather couches hidden throughout the space. Leaning over each other in a sess-pool of sweat, they make out, stroke each others hair and pass joints between one another. Their wide smiles and laughter stand juxtaposed to the atmosphere of anger that the roaring minimal techno lends itself to. My mind struggles to make sense of it, but I am intrigued more than I could have ever imagined.
I check my phone to see that somehow, it is now 4.30am - 12 hours since I first entered. Exhaustion gets the better of Andy and he heads home. The offer to join him is tempting but I am determined to make the most of it as my flight to Barcelona is leaving in another 12 hours time. Beside the bar, I lay down on an enormous metal swing that is chained to the ceiling, joining about a dozen others who have already found respite on it. It sways continuously and whenever it looks to lose momentum, another passer-byer comes along and gives it a gentle push. It isn’t long before I hear a sound I recognise. During my travels, I typically take this sound as a cue to leave, but in my sweaty and exhausted state, it is nice to hear another Australian accent. The brunette moustached man, entrenched in enough sweat that it has turned his white shirt transparent, is talking to a girl in front of me. “Did you get an ice-cream when the shop was open?,” he asks, pointing to the staircase behind us. “They were serving them from just up there.” He turns to face me, laughs and says “you look fucked.” I laugh, wiping my forehead with my shirt, as my near-fried mind musters enough energy to produce a single word - ‘Straya’. “Max,” he says, leaning in to shake my hand, “Howzit goin?” Spirited by Max’s 5 a.m. attitude and the sheer wonderment that our houses in Melbourne are around the corner from one another, we decide it’s time to ‘revitalise’ and head back to the floor for further dancing, where the energy has not slowed down by an inch. It’s coming on 6 a.m. Monday morning and there’s still a thousand people here, thumping away.
By this stage, Berghain resident Ben Klock is mid-way through his set and it becomes apparent to me that my hip-heavy style of boogie is no longer appropriate (and perhaps it never was for Berghain surrounds). I survey the crowd around me. The music is so hard and fast that it appears difficult for anyone to maintain any sort of rhythm. As my mind begins to list this in Column B: the Downsides of Minimal Techno, I realise what this music is doing. The repetition of the sounds - the clinks and the snares and the unexpected intrusions of blaring bass are so consistent that the music forms an almost a blank canvas, on to which the people can dance. There is no right or appropriate way to dance to this kind of music and as I realise this, the beautiful expressiveness of such movement becomes stunningly spectacular. The sound system and lighting arrangements of the Berghain are so aggressive that you cannot help but become engaged and immersed to the point that your own mental dialogue, along with all it’s concerns and anxieties, are washed away. I look to the side to see Max, whose feet are pounding away left to right. “I never liked nightclubs,” he had told me just moments before, “but this place has changed things.”
Two hours later Max has called it a night and I am close to doing the same, unsure about how much more physicality my body can handle. I sit beside a sleeping man and quickly realise it’s the bald-headed monk who had been granted access after Philip and I were denied early in the day. A bouncer walks by to check that he is okay and he awakes from his slumber to give a thumbs up. The bouncer leaves him to his peace. Remembering my youth, I stand on my last legs and head back to Panorama Bar, determined to stay for one last dance. The tall, industrial hallways that surround Panorama Bar are scattered with empty glass bottles and cigarette butts. It’s almost post-apocalyptic but serves as an honest reflection of mans hedonistic side. There is, after all, a side to us all that just wants to be a dirty, filthy, sweaty, fucked up lump of flesh - Berghain is just doing an honest job in providing a space for it to be acted on. As I dance away what remains of my humanity, I notice a black cloaked figure that appears to be swooping in and out of the dancing bodies. I try to catch a glimpse of him, but he flies with the swiftness of a quidditch player, keeping his face firmly hidden beneath a dark hood. Almost as soon as I lose track of him, he swoops in on me from the side and comes face to face with me. He pulls back his hood to reveal a pale face and blonde hair. “Aye,” he says with a thick Irish accent, “would yer like some ketamine?”
In the toilet cubicle, he tells me about his boyfriend who is working away on a cruise ship. He is surprisingly camp for someone I initially mistook to be dressed as a Dementor. “Well, I haven’t even told you about my lesbian friend Sarah. She’s got the hots for this girl she’s working with and they’re both here tonight and Sarah is well-shittin’ her knickers.” I imagine us talking over a water-cooler in a company office. As we head out to refill empty bottles of Club Mate we have scavenged off the bathroom floor he asks me, “So, how does it feel to know you’re inside a club that in 10 and 20 years time, they’ll talk about as being the best techno club in the world.” Too K’d out to speak, I just nod and give him a wide grin. “You know, everything in this place is built for a reason, come and I’ll show you.” We head out past a bunch of Korean guys playing kiss-chasey around the toilet cubicles, sweaty and shirtless. They roar with laughter. “The space was purposely built not to have any closed ends,” he informs me. “It’s like the people are continuously cruising each other for human interaction.” He takes me across to another hidden space laid with black leather couches, where some of the clubbers are resting to come-down. It’s about 9 now and the sun is beginning to creep up over Berlin. A space in the wall, which I had previously just assumed was some coloured-tiling, reveals itself in the morning sun to be a mosaic window. Vivid colours of orange, pink, red and yellow leak through and bathe the people seated in the room. “Told ya,” my sassy Irish Dementor friend says, before flying back up to Panorama Bar, where Jimmy Edgar is finishing his set. “Quick,” he calls to me, “before it closes.”
As night fades to day, the tall blinds that cover the windows into Panorama Bar are lifted and the disco lighting is slowly dimmed out. The sunlight illuminates the faces of the few remaining dancers, some of whom have been partying non-stop for 48 hours and onwards. The final house track is merged into some lyrics that seem vaguely familiar. “I like to party,” sings a Motown frontman, “everybody does.” And then, after 36 hours of techno, Edgar concludes his set with Oliver Cheatham’s 1983 disco hit ‘Saturday Night’. The sound of disco sends a wave of euphoria soaring across the room. The people around me hold one another. They clap, they hug and they spin each other around, their faces ridden with a mix of exhaustion and joy. Beside me, an older looking black man with long dreads drops to his knees, clasps his face in his hands and cries. The music comes to a halt and I go to walk away. Having almost reached the edge of the dance floor, I hear the speakers cranking up for one last tune. I cannot believe it - Prince has come to ‘Kiss’ us goodnight.
Grabbing my hand, the Irish Dementor guides me downstairs to the turbine hall where the techno is still booming. “It’s not over yet,” he says with an excited giggle. It’s coming on 10 a.m. and the lights have turned entirely purple and blue. The last remaining 100 or so people keep dancing until the music finally comes to a head at about 11. Too fried to be self-conscious, I throw off my shirt and dance up against three large German bears, my man-boobs shaking about in the open. As the last track is played and the coloured lights fade away, a carnival character comes up from behind me, wearing a purple metallic vest and whispers loudly, “Oh no, the techno was the only thing keeping the demons away.” As though the lords of Berghain had heard his prayers, the lights drop once more and Ten Walls’ “Walking with Elephants” is blasted through the hall.
As I exit out of the hall into the fresh morning air, eyes widened, I see the Irish Dementor waiting for me on his bicycle with some of his other friends, lost earlier but reunited now. They’re riding out to a friends house in the nearby countryside to come down together and want to know if I’d like to join them. I want to, I so desperately want to, but my flight for Barcelona is leaving in three hours and in a way, I sensed this was the end. And sometimes it’s more about what you don’t know, you know?