‘You Are Alone? Bitte.’ (Sunday, July 31, 2011)
Official Berghain/Ostgut Ton Fünf stamp: Klubnacht @ Berghain/Panoramabar
And somehow, I found myself awake and alone on a rainy Sunday morning in Berlin. My friend Ryan had left our hotel room at 6:30am to catch his flight back to New York, and, after failing to get much sleep following his departure, I realized I could use my last hours in the city in the best way possible: a last-minute trip to Berghain, which is, for the uninitiated, the current Mecca of techno and house in Europe. Housed in a disused power plant in an industrial section of town, it carries a mysterious aura not only due to it’s prestigious lineups and lauded resident DJs, but also because of its somewhat quirky ‘rules’: there is no photography allowed inside, the clientele ranges from hardcore gay bears looking to get fisted on the dancefloor to long-haired four-to-the-floor music junkies, it’s open from midnight on Saturdays straight through to midnight on Sundays, and the door is guarded by one of the clubbing world’s most feared bouncers, Sven Marquardt, who has half his face covered with barbed wire tattoos. But, more on Sven later.
If I hadn’t been to Berghain before (more info on that weekend here and here), there is no way I would have braved it on my own. Armed with a basic knowledge of how time flows there (one morning in February, I left the club at 10am and was surprised — and impressed — to see fresh-faced folks rolling up on their bikes, having gotten a night’s sleep, ready to join the party), I got out of bed at 9am in an effort to arrive at 10 to catch the beginning of a set by one of the venue’s best residents, Ben Klock.
The first order of business was deciding what to wear. “Look gay and bored — and not American!” some German colleagues had warned in Munich, where I was working earlier in the week. I totally agreed. I didn’t have many choices, and, knowing about the sorts of things that set the bouncers off there (thanks to Tobias Rapp’s brilliant book Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set), I opted for all black, save for the occult-like white shapes on my shirt (which a guy on the street in London recently disparagingly referred to as an “Illuminati t-shirt”) and blood red lipstick, hair pulled back. If Sven was going to let a young-looking lone white American straight girl past the doors at 10am on a Sunday, I figured this might be the low-key, serious-looking outfit to succeed in. I downed some hotel lobby croissants and tea, and ran outside to grab a taxi. “To Berghain,” I told the driver, who nodded and said, “No problem.”
Five minutes and €6 later, I was there. Of course, it was still raining. Just as I had figured, there was a very short queue at the front door to the club. Walking up to join it, I spotted Sven at the front, and a wave of nervous energy washed over me. ‘I have an umbrella,’ I thought. ‘Do I open it? Do I keep it closed? There’s a guy up ahead who is using one; he looks natural, so maybe I should follow suit. But what if it makes me look like a pussy? Ok, a compromise — I will use it until I start passing through the metal barriers, at which point I will close it up and wait to face the doormen.’ Which I did.
Two chill-looking guys at the very front of the line approached Sven and another similarly large, imposing bouncer, waiting to receive news of their fate. The other man looked the guys up and down for a moment, shook his head, and simply said, “Nein.” The guys looked at each other, then at the bouncer, and gave a respectful, understanding nod before heading off into the gravelly walkway. A genuine chill spread out through my arms and down my fingertips, and I struggled to keep hold of the umbrella. What if I got up there, and the same happened to me? I figured I’d also nod respectfully, and leave quietly, hoping that it wouldn’t be my last time trying to visit. But…you never really know. Tobias Rapp explains the politics of their highly-guarded door best: “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?”
The people directly in front of me approached the door next. They were an über cool-looking German couple, bordering on crusty, with facial piercings galore, dreads, and partially shaved heads. I knew they’d get right in. ‘Hell, they probably know Sven personally,’ I reasoned. In they went, and suddenly, there I stood: at the front door to Berghain, in the rain, at 10am on a Sunday on the last day of July in 2011, face to fucking face with Sven fucking Marquardt, whose myriad facial piercings gleamed in the dull morning brightness. He put his hand up in a ‘Wait a second, the people inside need to pay, so I am now holding the line’ motion. GULP.
I had no idea where to look. ‘Do I look at Sven, or the other guy?,’ I thought. ‘Do I look away coolly, trying to seem aloof and unfazed?’ I decided to go with D) all of the above, attempting to remain calm as I casually shifted my glance a few times. The crew directly behind me, a group of girls, were laughing and joking a bit too loudly, and I realized I needed to try, using body language, to distance myself from them, and let Sven & Co. know that I was not, in fact, with these people, should they consider not letting them in.
At that moment, a bee started flying around the door to the club. Bouncer number two picked up a cardboard box and started swatting around until it flew off. My hands were starting to feel clammy, and I struggled to keep it together. What felt like an awkward eternity was, in actuality, probably the span of three to four minutes.
Finally, Sven looked right at me, and asked a question in German. I didn’t understand, and made a face of confusion. The other bouncer translated: “You are alone?” “…Yes,” I replied firmly. He looked at Sven, and Sven looked right back at him, before turning to me. “Bitte,” Sven said, warmly waving me inside with an outstretched arm. Or, as close to an approximation of warmth as a man who has half his face tattooed can come. “Danke,” I replied, and I really, truly meant it. I had stood alone before him to be judged, and was accepted.
I scurried inside, had my bag checked, paid my €12, got my hand stamped, and counted my blessings. It felt so refreshing to see that, in Berlin, a diminutive, young female on her own is proudly allowed entry to what is essentially a German den of sin, rather than being turned away for fear she’ll be corrupted or won’t be able to handle what’s going on inside the walls of this, the old disused power plant on the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichschain.
The thing about rolling up to a club at 10am which has been operating since midnight is the fact that anything goes: people are, quite simply, FUCKED UP.
Upon entering the lobby and coat checking facilities area, I was immediately hit by the trademark Berghain smell: a sickeningly sweet mix of cigarette smoke, body odor, and fog machine juice. One must make peace with the scent from the first moment, because it is guaranteed that any item of clothing inside the building will end up absolutely wreaking of it.
In line for the coat check, a tall, blond-haired German guy behind me started chatting me up. ‘Ugh,’ I thought. ‘I REALLY don’t want to have to talk to this guy for the length of this line.’ He told me he hailed from Black Forest, which is apparently in Southern Germany. He got into it right away: “You haven’t been to Burning Man? You MUST go! It’s where everything starts… Oh, by the way, I’m confused. Does this drink I’m holding belong to you?” Just as I was about to say no, thankfully, a woman ran up and began furiously making out with him. Bless her; I was off the hook, and handed in my coat.
I then walked through the main foyer, opting to ignore the small nooks and crannies that were, in all likelihood, places where sexual activity was taking place. It’s not that I felt unsafe — I actually felt oddly relaxed and comfortable — it was just that I knew Ben Klock was starting his set. Stopping at the bar, I paid €5.50 for a vodka and orange juice. ‘A screwdriver is a breakfast-y drink!’, I reasoned. Next to me, some guys were bravely doing shots of Jägermeister. Without this drink, I would’ve felt a bit like I was cheating. Is it fair to pit people who’ve had a nice night’s sleep and some caffeine against those who have been raving madly for hours on end, some of them finally becoming weary but most still going strong? Did I earn this privilege? But then, this concept is so very Berlin, where every man is left to govern himself, yielding sometimes brilliant and sometimes disastrous results. I needed to level the playing field, or at the very least show willing.
Climbing the big stairs that lead up to the main Berghain dancefloor, I passed a couple of human casualties sat on the stairs with their heads down, being thoughtfully looked after by friends. One of them was still nodding his head along to the beat, which became louder with each step up I took. I arrived at the top to see things in full effect. A crew of muscle bears danced in a circle on the left. One of them had a giant tattoo on his back which read ‘BEAR’ (in case you weren’t sure, I guess?); another’s back tattoo said ‘PIG’. To the right of them, a geeky couple danced while holding each other, swaying along after a night of loved up techno appreciation. A guy nearby wore a shirt that said in block capitals ‘YOU’RE ONLY YOUNG ONCE. DO IT RIGHT!’ I’m not entirely certain how he managed to get past Sven, but I did appreciate the sentiment. It is, in essence, what had dragged me to a club at 10am.
I kept climbing upstairs, reaching the bit of balcony which functions as the dividing line between Berghain and Panoramabar. There was just enough room for me to nuzzle in between two people, and it was here that I settled into The Best (Non Dancing) Spot at Berghain. Perched above the floor, I had the ideal view of Ben Klock and his entire dancing throng.
Standing there alone overlooking the crowd, sipping my screwdriver, a million questions ran through my head. Did Ben Klock get a good night’s sleep, and is just now reporting for work in the morning on the Berghain dancefloor, in the wee hours (debatably wee, since 10 is really pretty much the morning)? And if so, does he just mainline some coffee, or alcohol? Drugs? Obviously the trope of the strung out DJ is well-worn, and makes a lot of sense, but this is his residency. He plays to this crowd at this time very often, so if anyone could pull it off sober (or, sober-ish), it just might be him. And, what about Sven — did he sleep? Does he EVER sleep? Did he spend a number of years partying like a madman in Berlin, and now he’s so over it, all he wants to do is deny people entry on the door, or, to affirm their lives by accepting them in? What does he make — is being the doorman at the Berghain a well-paying, salaried job, in a city known for being tough to hold down a job in? What about the coat check workers — do they receive some sort of joy from handing people back their personal belongings when they’ve been dancing for 12 hours straight and are more a pile of sweat than a human being, or are a drug-addled mess? And ah, if only it were possible to freeze time on this dancefloor and do a little interview with each and every person there about what time they arrived, and if they’ve been here before, what drugs they have or have not taken, what their expectations are, if they’re gay or straight, if that even matters, what DJs they are excited about, and so on. Would the result be boring? Maybe.
But back to the physical. For those whom the idea of THOOM THOOM THOOM-style techno is repulsive, please never visit this place. It showcases the THOOM THOOM THOOM-iest techno out there (ableit sometimes it is quite minimal). However, for anyone who enjoys it, it truly makes the most sense here, within the dank, heavy walls of Berghain. Indeed, one could talk about the tracks played for hours on end. But at this hour, when most of the club’s inhabitants have been at it for ages, it’s simply not about critical analysis. This is dance music, after all. So I went into Panoramabar to dance.
If Berghain represents all that is dark and macho about techno music, Panoramabar is its lighthearted little sister. The DJ booth is right smack at the front of the dancefloor, and people can walk right up to it to give the DJ a high five or dance right in front of him or her in a show of appreciation. Behind the bar at the back of the room, large-format paintings by Wolfgang Tillmans depict abstract forms that pair perfectly with the atmosphere.
I waded through the crowd to see DJ Thomas Schumacher smiling with glee, just as the person in charge of lighting flicked open the room’s massive blinds for one fleeting moment, letting everyone subtly know that morning had arrived. Rather than shun this development as most humans who’d been dancing for hours on end might do, everyone cheered loudly and applauded, and the dancing became more intense.
Deciding it was time for techno, I headed downstairs and placed myself towards the back of the room, in the center, amidst the bears and freaks and geeks, and listened to the music, and danced.
Leaving Berghain is a funny thing, too. I made my way down the big stairs, collected my things at the coat check, and headed in the direction of the sunlight, which spilled in through the front door. Even at 1pm, Sven was still standing there. I walked past while staring right at him, too nervous or humble to nod or smile. ‘He already knows,’ I reasoned.
Making sure I was a good distance away from his watchful eye, I turned around, stuck my hand in the air, and took the above photograph as a last gesture. If The Kinks were right when they said, People take pictures of each other/ Just to prove that they really existed, I want this picture to prove that I was here.