THE BOMBER JACKET sent one of its writers to Berlin’s Berghain nightclub to check out the venue and share his experience with readers.
Alright, let’s talk about Berghain.
If you live in Berlin, or have just been to Berlin, there’s a very good chance that you’ve at least heard of the legendary nightclub. If you talk to anyone who’s familiar with Berlin and its nightlife, the name “Berghain” is almost inevitably mentioned, as though it is somehow synonymous with the whole club scene itself.
Needless to say, I wanted to see this for myself, even though I am not a “hard core” partier, largely because of the club’s cultural significance to Berlin. I should warn, before you read further about my depiction of Berghain: I have a very minimal knowledge of electronic music. I enjoy it when I’m around it, but I am going to speak about its role at Berghain in vague, non-specific terms. I hope that’s going to be okay.
Before going to Berghain, there were a few things that I came to understand about it. First, Berghain’s party usually starts Friday evening and ends early Monday morning. Second, the electronic music played at Berghain is known to be some of the world’s best. Third, Berghain is a deviant place: drugs are abundant and sex is around every corner. I had even heard about its (in)famous “dark room,” specifically designated for electronic, music-charged lovemaking, especially for gays; this is apparently a relic of Berghain’s roots as a gay fetish club. Fourth, Berghain is a challenge to get into, with hoards of people turned away at the door, and with widely discussed theories about what or who makes the cut. This last part I had the privilege of experiencing first hand, having tried last summer to enter with my brother, and being silently pointed away from the door by the 6-foot-5 bald bouncer. We went at 12:30 am Saturday night. There was practically no queue. One thing I can tell you with confidence about Berghain is that if you want to go in, wear something besides boat shoes.
After my first Berghain rejection, I wondered more about how exactly Berghain got to be Berghain. I thought, why does everyone want to go there so badly anyway, and will I have a “life-changing experience” once I do finally (if ever) get in?
To better understand Berghain as it really is, I’ll try to describe it (from the outside). First, in case you’re wondering, Berghain is named for being on the border of the quarters of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Get it? In reality, it’s entirely in Friedrichshain. Berghain is inside a massive, fascist-style building that used to be a power plant. It stands alone in an area of open lots behind Berlin’s Ostbahnhof (East train station). When you see it during the day, it looks like an abandoned building, maybe haunted.
There’s no very easy way to get to Berghain. No matter where you get off the U-Bahn or tram, you’re going to have a good 10- to 15-minute walk. There are no signs and there’s no clearly marked path. One of the ways to the entrance, you walk through a dirt lot. All of this add up to a lot of anticipation that you are about to have a unique clubbing experience.
This past weekend, to better write this article, I decided I would give Berghain another shot and see if I could make it through those coveted doors. I often heard that it is much easier for very small groups to get in–definitely no more than three. For this go, I invited a girl friend of mine. She is German, about 6-foot-1, pretty, blond, and she’s a fashionable dresser (I am about the opposite of all these features, but let’s not worry ourselves about that). After having a few drinks at an already stylish bar opening party (Berlin is hip, right?), the two of us headed over around 2 a.m. to Berghain. We made the 15-minute trek from the drecky Waschauer Straße U-Bahn stop, through the empty dirt/mud lot, and approached the queue.
Arriving around 2:45 am, we were preceded by about 150 hopefuls, standing relatively patiently, getting into their zones. We got in line. Over the next hour or so, we chatted with the other platonic girl-guy twosome behind us, I taught them all how to play “Geography,” and we theorized about what it would be like inside and if we had what it was going to take to get there. Something I enjoyed while standing in line was seeing who the bouncers let in and who they didn’t. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes it wasn’t. Three guys wearing sideways hats? Yeah right, next! Three pretty, chic-dressed girls, sure thing, right? Nope, next. I definitely noticed that this is not a “posh” club. If you have any image in your head of a club in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan, dispose of it. This place is for the Berlin hipster or even occasional grungester or punk.
By the time we approached the door, we were already friendly with the two behind us, and I was genuinely worried about what it would be like if we got in and they didn’t. And then it was almost us. It was the same bouncer that so casually turned me away last summer. Was he going to recognize me? Does it work like that? Directly in front of us was a group of about six men. They were buff, they were wearing tight shirts, and they were fondling each other. They all got in. Was that going to hurt our chances? We stepped up.
(In German) How many? Two. Looks left, looks right–gestures into the door. And we were in.
We took a second to see if the pair behind us were as lucky. A pause. They step in as well. High fives all around. I bet that made the bouncers immediately regret their decision. It didn’t occur to me at the time that we hadn’t yet paid and that they had every right to turn us away still. Didn’t happen, we were in. I got the biggest non-airport pat-down of my life. NO PHOTOS INSIDE. I paid the 12 euro-a-person entrance for me and my accomplice (this is how I thanked her for her hard work), and we entered the club.
When you first walk into Berghain, you’re in a massive foyer that doesn’t have any dance floors or music, just a very, very high ceiling. It’s almost disorienting to enter somewhere so calm once you’ve been standing for an hour in anticipation. However, the staircase is in front of you, and you know it’s going to lead to the real action. We ascend into Berghain.
When you get into the main dance hall, you feel small. The room is indescribably large (Wikipedia says it has an 18-meters high ceiling), the lights are low and the music is loud and rhythmic. We walk onto the dance floor and look around, do some electronic-music dancing. Some men are dancing with their shirts off. Although some people are clearly “together,” you hardly see anybody dancing in pairs. Some people were making out, though. It only takes a few minutes until you are captivated by the music. Berghain isn’t a place to have conversations or be social; you go there to dance.
After getting our first fix of the Berghain dance floor, my friend and I decide to wander around a little bit. There is a second floor to this club that is actually a separate, albeit contiguous, venue called Panorama Bar. Panorama Bar is where you usually hear house music. We ascend again. Panorama Bar has a remarkably different feel from Berghain. The lights are brighter, the mood is trancier, and you can look at art on the walls. In general terms, Panorama Bar is a club, but compared to Berghain, you’re in a chill bar. The crowd was even different: no topless men, maybe a smarter vibe. My favorite part of the Panorama Bar is that its windows face outside at the queue, so you can look upon the people who are still freezing while you’re inside having the experience they’re imagining about (assuming they haven’t been inside before). Once we got enough of a feel of Panorama Bar, we did some more wandering around. Besides the two main clubs, Berghain has a ton of small corridors, side bars, nooks, and cubbyholes. If you did want to spend time talking to someone, or doing anything else, you’d go to one of these places.
From my experience, some of the Berghain “facts” that I had come to know were spot on, and some were a bit exaggerated. The party definitely goes all night and the whole next day. The music was great–some of the best electronic music I’ve ever heard. I am not the kind of person who “feels” music or gets lost in it often, but you definitely could if you were there.
I should comment on Berghain’s deviance. On the surface you see two pictures. Berghain does have a strong gay vibe, which the shirtless men enhance. However, it had a bit of an old school feel to it. The men without shirts on were mainly older, in their 30s, at least. It almost felt a bit like a throwback, incongruous with the younger crowd. Besides the making out, I didn’t see any visible sex or even close dancing among hetero couples. However, the girl who was behind us in line later told my friend that, apparently, someone hurried her in the bathroom because she “wanted to fuck.” Apparently people are having sex at Berghain, but not on the dance floor. Also, nobody offered or asked me for drugs while I was there. Again though, I am not going to say they aren’t aplenty, but it’s certainly more discrete. It never felt like “anything goes” at Berghain. It did make me wonder how much of Berghain’s reputation was overplayed speculation or myth versus being based on an scene that has already come and gone–one that had more open sex and took drugs more liberally than the younger generation.
My friend got tired “early,” around 5:30 a.m., so we took off then. For once in my life, at this hour, I actually wasn’t tired at all. I probably could have stayed another few hours at least, but I decided to oblige her and head out as well, thinking about the benefits of not sleeping until 6 p.m. the following day. After getting home at 6:30 a.m., I ended up sleeping a total of eight hours. Reasonable.
Overall, I can say that Berghain is one of, if not the best clubs I’ve ever been to. It is totally worth it to go if you can, even if just for the experience of standing in the queue. The music and sound system are a marvel, even if you don’t typically enjoy electronic music. The most impressive part is the brutal, massive, endless space. It really is a place to wander, and with the music and the people, you can keep yourself well entertained for hours. Like lots of places in Berlin, though, Berghain feels like it’s at a turning point. That everyone has heard of Berghain reveals that is in no way underground anymore; it is discovered, Lady Gaga has been there. As a result, some of the more elite electronic music enjoyers have begun to dismiss Berghain as being on the decline. Britain’s DJmag has removed it from the world’s top-ten clubs list. But no fear, this place is still special. Although it might be going through a time of transition, Berghain’s values and vibe remain constant.