Berlin’s Berghain is undoubtedly the world’s most obsessed about club, from its first-rate DJ bookings to its permissive atmosphere and notoriously unpredictable door policy. 12 years into its life, how does a club this mythologised stay true to itself? Last month, a full decade after his last Berghain marathon, JACK TREGONING returned to the techno temple to see for himself.
Sitting at a Berlin rooftop bar, with the TV Tower hazy behind low-hanging clouds, I ask a group of locals if every visitor wants to know how to get into Berghain. The sly smiles around the table give me the answer before I hear it. Whether the enquirer is an Ostgut Ton diehard with dreams of a Ben Klock tattoo or a clubbing novice taking their tips from Lonely Planet, it’s a conversation that invariably comes up.
There are, of course, many great parties in Berlin to keep you awake and occupied for 72 hours — a point that’s stressed to any weekend warrior wearing Berghain blinkers. That said, locals can’t exactly roll their eyes at the over-eager tourists. Even in a world where Claire Danes rhapsodises on Ellen about her lost Sundays with the naked dancers, the doorman is famous enough to go on international book tours, and apps are launched to monitor the dreaded line, the primal pull of Berghain remains undeniable.
I’m in Berlin for one mid-June weekend, with an itinerary that consists of Berghain and several back-ups. The Saturday-into-Monday Klubnacht lineup has one of my favourite Chicago house DJs, Chez Damier, playing the club’s Panorama Bar floor, and a typically teeth-clenching running order downstairs, with residents Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock at opposite ends of the marathon. A house and techno cast this robust is business as usual for a club that also counts Function, Steffi, Tama Sumo and Nick Höppner among its regulars. Using the limited sample size of one weekend, I want to see how the prodigious reputation of Berghain and Panorama Bar in 2016 matches the reality. I also want to see if the mental picture I formed there over ten years ago still checks out.
I last went to Berghain on a bitterly cold January night in 2006. My girlfriend and I were 21 and visiting Berlin for the first time. We were seduced by a city that felt raw and mysterious, populated by people who owned their insouciant cool. We stayed in a hostel, chilled beers outside on the frosty window ledge, and went on an eight-hour walking tour through the darker recesses of Berlin’s past.
I picked up a copy of the local dance music magazine Groove with the burgeoning Innervisions team of Dixon, Âme and Henrik Schwarz posing self-consciously on the cover. It turned out these guys were all sharing the lower floor at Watergate that night, while a hyped London band called Hot Chip played upstairs. We took a camera to the club (forgive the Berlin noobs!) and I still have printed photos of Hot Chip crowded together with their instruments and novelty sweaters, Dixon on warm-up duties for a smattering of dancers, and Âme playing Rej as the first rays of sun hit the icy River Spree.
That night was a fortuitous surprise, but a trip to Berghain was ironclad on the agenda. In 2006, from the faraway vantage of Sydney, Australia, Berlin felt both seductive and intimidating. That was the year Minus was ultimately voted number one in Resident Advisor’s labels poll, and the ‘mnml’ phenomenon was sufficiently dominant to inspire parodies like ubercoolische, a now-defunct website that imagined the ludicrous Berlin lives of Richie, Ricardo, Magda and co. I’d read about the excessive parties at Bar 25, the sets that stretched past Monday, and the anything-goes bacchanal of Berghain, which had opened in 2004 as a reincarnation of the storied Ostgut.
It was about 2am on that Sunday morning in 2006 when our taxi arrived in what looked like a desolate industrial estate. Travelling from our hostel through a frozen foreign city, it felt like we had landed somewhere a long way from anywhere else. I vaguely remember shivering in line, looking up at the tall, austere windows glowing purple and red, but I don’t recall any chilly fear of rejection. I remember or maybe I’m inventing a guy saying, “Now you can relax” in accented English as we were ushered in, the stern but tingly feeling of the cloakroom, and then the ascent into the booming hall with all its hard cement surfaces. I remember the sudden feeling of vast space above me and the dark, perspiring closeness of the bodies on the dancefloor.
What I don’t remember is who was playing that night, except Egyptian Lover and a Hot Chip DJ set in Panorama Bar. Luckily Berghain archives all its flyers online, and I easily found that night’s cast next to a fetching photo of a guy sporting red socks and an erect cock. It was Tadeo and Brian Aneurysm slamming it out on the main floor, while Donato Dozzy and Tama Sumo also played upstairs.
Somewhere that night I found the running order posted on a wall and desperately wanted to take a forbidden photo. They were unlike set times I’d ever seen, with each slot stretched over at least four hours, and DJs I’d hoped to see starting a full 24 hours later. How did the locals do it? Even taking into account the obvious aid of pills and powders, I genuinely believed Berliners possessed a kind of superhuman stamina that equipped them for full days spent dancing and/or fucking freely in dark rooms. It was quite a head-spin from Sydney, where the main DJ played at 2am and the club was closed four hours later, funnelling any stragglers out to the street.
That night ten years ago inside Berghain and Panorama Bar passed in a sensory blur, but it wasn’t exactly a life-changer, and leaving soberly around 9am felt like conceding defeat. Superhuman Berliners we were not. I’ve been back to Berlin a handful of times since that year, but a return to Berghain never lined up. Now — back here in the blazing hot days of early summer, with one of my best friends recently settled in the city — the time is right.
Berghain regulars acknowledge the underlying comedy in the club’s capricious door policy, but everyone still has their tactics, whether it’s the standard all-black uniform, travelling in twos, arriving some time in the mid-morning, lining up behind some obvious rejects, or generally looking stony and serious-minded. (I’m advised to wear contacts instead of my possibly too-preppy glasses.)
You’re also advised against arriving between midnight and 5am, when the line sprawls with tourists, many of whom are either too young or too high-heels-y to stand a chance. Gay, straight, or otherwise, no one I meet has a 100-percent hit-rate of getting in. It’s highly unlikely that three saucer-eyed bros in printed singlets will make the cut, but occasionally, like some cosmic joke designed to keep everyone guessing, they’ll be waved in.
It’s 7am on Sunday when my friend and I emerge into the sunshine from Ritter Butzke, a no-frills club in a former Kreuzberg factory, and head for Berghain. The party had been fun but ultimately forgettable, feeling like a club night in any city. In the too-idyllic warmth of an early summer morning, we catch the U-Bahn to Warschauer Straße, sharing the carriage with bleary ravers nursing beers.
Walking down to Berghain on a hushed residential street beside a dusty, overgrown lot, I realise how unreal my impression had been on that night ten years ago. I’d invented an otherworldly setting to match the club’s mythical reputation, but it’s right here, solid and unadorned in the daylight, just ten minutes from the station.
There’s no line at all when we arrive. Sven, the world’s best-known bouncer, is sitting on a stool in the sunshine, obligingly signing an autograph for an excitable girl. I’m suddenly nervous as we approach the empty space, but a figure inside the door gives a sort-of-friendly nod and we’re inside, handing over our phones to get a green sticker over the eye of the camera. 16 euros each, a stamp on the arm, outer layers left to the cloakroom, and then it’s straight into the illicit heat of Berghain on a summer day.
Outside in the world, it’s breakfast time for early Sunday risers, but inside this huge hall the dancefloor is moving mesmerically to sleek ambient techno from Etapp Kyle, a daring comedown before the kick drums start hammering again. My second wind needs something more jubilant, so it’s upstairs for Chez Damier.
There’s something immediately giddy about Panorama Bar at this point in the 34-hour marathon. As we left Ritter Butzke, the club was populated by shuffling zombies, but here at 9am people are really dancing. There are flushed faces unconcerned with how they look this deep in the party and arms flying joyously in every direction. Friends are dancing together, backs turned to the DJ booth. It’s also pretty bright, with morning sun heating up the tall windows, but there’s no sense of a dancefloor on its last fumes.
Damier is playing chunky, vocal-driven Chicago house, and the first hint of any familiar bassline is greeted by cheers and even more arms. The shutters fly open as a track reaches its crescendo, sunlight streams in, and the dancefloor swells again. It’s also ridiculously, sweat-pouringly hot, which only adds to the fevered atmosphere. It’s not that this set wouldn’t sound great in another context, but there’s something so elevated, so dramatic, so present about what’s happening that I can’t stop smiling and marvelling. (And dancing.) Even Damier looks a little wide-eyed at the response he’s getting.
In the afternoon, my friend and I leave for a nap. This is what I hadn’t really comprehended as a 21-year-old: the superhuman constitution of Berliners does allow for time-outs, as long as you don’t wash off your stamp. My jeans are lined with what must be dried sweat and steeped in the funk of cigarettes. My t-shirt is legitimately drenched.
I have one of the top five showers of my life, sleep a few hours, and head on back for Sunday night. (How rare it is for a 16-euro or equivalent stamp to offer so much value over consecutive nights.) At 9pm, Panorama Bar is rammed for The Black Madonna, with a heady mix of ages, ethnicities and stages of undress. I immediately start pouring sweat again. A nearly naked pot-bellied guy tells me it’s mandatory I also go shirtless. “I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules,” he says, bouncing away before checking if I’ve complied.
With her blond hair just visible through the scrum of bodies, The Black Madonna’s set feels like catharsis. It has only been a week since the mass shooting at the gay club Pulse in Orlando, Florida that claimed 49 lives. In the hours before arriving at Panorama Bar, The Black Madonna—who, like Damier, hails from the house music bedrock of Chicago—wrote a Facebook post on the importance of queer dance spaces. “Sometimes when I’m DJing or just dancing in places like [Berghain] and I really start to lose myself, a quiet thought runs through my mind: we are waging peace,” she wrote, later adding, “We are carving out spaces not just for pleasure but for resistance against violence and hate.”
Inside a heaving Panorama Bar, those words have real potency. The DJ seems fiercely in her zone, looping freely from jacking house to exultant disco, vibing off the waves of heat and energy from the crowd. Three hours in, I’m pressed towards the front of the sticky dancefloor, enveloped by the room’s punchy sound system and raw from lack of sleep. The set is all hands in the air release over heads-down drugginess. Taking a scan of the faces around me—the people dancing with eyes closed, the people making out, the people wearing and doing exactly what they want, all coalescing in the music and this moment—I feel a surge of pure elation. Maybe that sounds pretentious, but after chasing it on enough dancefloors, it’s a rare and welcome feeling. It’s the kind of sensation this club feels engineered to invoke.
We end the night down in the humid darkness of Berghain, where Ben Klock’s closing set is entering its second hour of taut, propulsive techno. The atmosphere in the room is almost festival-like, with tangles of bodies silhouetted against the high glass windows and Klock presiding over it all with steely focus. His selections tonight are hard-edged but textured, with space around the muscular kicks. The dancefloor is all skin and sweat, and it’s one of those sets that nails you to the spot as the hours race by.
I emerge on Monday morning, registering how comically serene it feels just metres away from that much agonised-over door. My friend tells me I caught a great session, and obviously not every Berghain weekend can be one for the books.
Even in this post-Ellen world, though, the most hardened Berliner could hardly begrudge its status as the greatest club in the world. Certainly there are few better rooms than Berghain and Panorama Bar to get lost in sets from DJs bringing their best, or lost in dark uninhibited corners, cut loose from regular life. I’m glad for my well-being that it’s not a weekly temptation, but I won’t wait another ten years to catch that feeling again.