Still Intimidating During The Day

Last week, I finished my third year of university after an incredible semester abroad in Paris. Right after my last exam, I was off to Berlin to meet a friend who had just finished his semester in Florence. What better city to head to than Berlin, and more specifically, what better place to go than Berghain? Nowhere else in the world can I enter a club near midnight and leave with a sunburn. Here’s the story of the two best weekends of my life.

Disclaimer: I will try and describe Berghain as best I can, but it’s really like describing colors to the blind. Please forgive me if I skip certain things or go too in-depth into others. In respect to the club’s no photo/video policy, I will not be linking any images or videos – that is up to you. I will also omit certain details not only out of respect for the club, but for the other clubbers as well.

As a Techno fan, Berghain has always held a near-mythical status in my mind: the finest Techno club in the world, the scariest bouncer in the world, the craziest soundsystem in the world, the most random door policy in the world… and many other superlatives. Weeks before my departure, I searched everywhere on the internet trying to get tips on how to beat the insane door policy (links here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I practiced saying “Zwei” (two) like a German. Needless to say, I was a nervous little school girl.

As I met my friend in Berlin Friday evening, I filled him in on the details of Panorama Bar (Panne), which is inside Berghain and caters more to house fans. In case you’re wondering, Panne is what you can see from the outside at night. It’s called Panorama because the large windows allow for an incredible view of Berlin. Berghain opens only on Saturdays, and that is when the club fully opens up, connecting the more intimate Panne to the beast that is Berghain.

We had a few beers around town, but I was so anxious to see whether we’d get in or not that I decided to head over around 1:00AM (the club opens at midnight, and peak waiting hours are anywhere from 2AM to 5AM, where you can wait for over an hour, just to be rejected). Our hostel was only a five minute walk to Berghain, so we grabbed our last beers with us and headed over. There it was, towering in the distance. We couldn’t hear any music yet, but seeing the blue/violet light system pour out the windows was enough to get my heart going. Occasionally, a silhouette would peer through the window, bidding farewell to the real world, or taunting the rest for having made it in.

As we got closer, we could begin to hear the bass. I couldn’t take it anymore. We could see the entrance to the club, and surprisingly there was no line. However, as we finished up our last beers, we witnessed a good amount of people being turned away, as well as others around us who were discussing how to get in, or why they had been rejected. Such hype. But either way, I had to go. We tossed our bottles and headed down the menacing fenced entryway. This was it. As we neared the doors, two behemoth bouncers stood there under dim light, exaggerating their already intimidating features – luckily no Sven. Like cattle, we zig-zagged through the railings, stopping right at the door. To my relief, the bouncer was nearly happy to let us in. He looked at us and asked “Zwei?” I nodded and he waved us in immediately.

WE DID IT! We received our pat-downs and I was forced to check my camera in. No photos allowed inside. I paid the entry fee and headed through plastic curtains to a stairwell. I smiled at my friend as we hiked the three floors up. The music was picking up and so was my heart rate. Even the stairwell was interesting. All concrete, very industrial (the place is a former power plant), the windows were covered in some filter so we couldn’t see outside. We climbed the last stair and finally entered. To our left was the dance floor and bar, to our right were various seating areas and the bathrooms. A stairway led up to the coat-check, a balcony overlooking the dance floor, and a more quiet area for lounging around on modular sofas.

With our mouths dropped open, we checked our coats. The guy working the coat-check could tell how awe-struck we were and kind of laughed. It was still quite early, and there weren’t that many people, but you could still feel the amazing vibe of the place. We walked down, through the dance floor to the bar. The lighting system we witnessed from outside was awesome. Looking up, various squares were placed around the ceiling, each emitting their own light at various tempos. Dinky, one of Panne’s fine resident DJs was playing some really nice deep house to get people going. One of my favorite aspects of Panne/Berghain is their emphasis on their own Resident DJs. Most clubs have residents only to warm up the place for changing headliners, but here, they are just as exciting, if not more, than the headliners. And for good reason. We ordered our drinks and explored the club.  There were a surprising amount of seating areas, but most interesting were the private booth-like seating areas, closed off from the public. Just as the silhouettes had done before, we peered out of the windows to see the line of people trying to get in.

As the alcohol began to flow and the floor began to fill, we headed towards the dance floor. It was packed but with still enough room for everyone to dance freely. Several trips to the bar later, shutters were descending over the windows to block the sunrise. I couldn’t believe it: it was already past 4AM. At first, it was quite bizarre to know the sun was coming up. But once you embrace it, it’s beautiful. At 5:30, we decided it was time to grab our coats. Walking towards the stairs, I noticed that part of the windows down the hallway were covered with colored filters. As the sun rises, it shines in through the filters and the smoke of the inside to create an unreal view. As people walk through the hallway, only their multicolored silhouettes are visible.

The lounge, which had been a quiet area earlier, was now packed with people talking and enjoying themselves. Again, the windows were painted with gray and yellow filters that allowed for slight sunlight to penetrate the room. We grabbed our jackets and headed out to see the sunrise. People were still in line to get in.

Finishing our first day of “tourist activities” gloriously hungover, we headed back to Berghain around 1AM, wanting to see the club in full form. We figured if we didn’t get in we could always hit Watergate or one of Berlin’s other many fine institutions. We waited nervously in line for around half an hour. Famed Sven was working the door. Shit. As we inched closer, a good half of the people were being turned away. It’s almost funny noticing how people get quieter the closer they are to the door, but for good reason. Sven doesn’t like loud tourists (especially Americans apparently). We approached the door, waiting at the first bouncer. Don’t walk up to the door, don’t say how many you are until they ask. Answer in German, hopefully they will ask no more questions. Don’t go in a group of more than 3. Dress simply but somewhat fashionably (no hoodies, baggy jeans, …). Don’t stare at the bouncers. Just act calm, confident. Sure, you could say the whole door policy is ridiculous and pro-establishment/anti-Techno, but it’s all worth it once you’re inside. Trust me. I hate to say it, but the bouncers do an incredible job of keeping the crowd inside diverse and interesting.

“Zwei.” Sven waved us in.

We could already feel the increased energy of Berghain. For starters, the pat-down was like going through airport security. My mind was nearly numb from the surreal feeling of the entire experience. The stairwell that had led to Panne the previous night was closed. Instead, we had to make our way through plastic curtains from a different door.

There are no words to begin to describe the amazement of first going through the curtains. If getting into Panne is exciting, walking into Berghain is absolutely-incredibly-over-the-top-where’s-my-diaper-this-is-amazing. No joke. I had no idea where the dance floor was, but I could already feel the bass in my feet through the concrete. To the left were some couches, in front was a wall in minimal decor, and to the right was the coat-check, a good twenty times bigger than Panne’s. All was lit in a very dim, industrial yellow light. We again checked our coats, and received dog-tag like necklaces as tickets. We turned around to pass through a large doorway. Both my friend and I were grinning ear to ear. With each step, the bass was growing louder. Out of the quieter coat check area, we entered a whole new dimension of the club. To our left, a bar, in front of us, a stairwell leading up to the club, a good 40 or so feet above us. Behind the bar exists a labyrinth of dark rooms, sofas and various interesting seating areas. The dimensions of the place are unreal. We’d only explored the ground floor and it was already twice as large as Panne.

Looking up, we caught glimpses of lasers and strobe lights going off – over 50 feet above us. We began our ascent on the metal stairs, buzzing to the bass. As we rose, so did the volume. I’m getting goosebumps just remembering first setting eyes on the dance floor. You start climbing the stairs towards the outside of the club, halfway up, the stairs U-turn to face the dance floor.

Holy. Shit.

Before I could think of anything else, I imagined ourselves walking into a battlefield scene from one of the first Terminator movies. 14 foot Funktion-One speakers stood on every corner of the dance floor. The subwoofers alone were at least 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Two more speakers hung from chains. As I stood there witnessing the beautiful chaos, I realized that the ceiling above us must have been another 50 feet high. Monoloc was at the DJ booth blaring raw, industrial techno. Lasers, strobes, and light squares attached to the wall were all perfectly synched to the music. Smoke was pouring down to fill the floor.

To our right was the bar, where we headed. The decor and design of the place is phenomenal. With a lot of concrete, everything is extremely raw, minimal and industrial; you can see many remains of the power plant days. The lighting is always low to maintain an intimate atmosphere, but not frustratingly dark that you’re bumping into people. I have never been to a club where everything is so intimately designed to enhance your experience all while keeping the music the prime focus. We grabbed our drinks and headed towards a swinging chair, 8 x 8 feet. A few people gladly moved over to make room for us as we took in the scene – carefully sitting down as to not disrupt the momentum. If ever the swing came to a stop, someone walking by would give the swing a few pushes before heading off. Separating the dance floor from the bar and swing area is a floor to ceiling glass pane. It blocks some of the sound out while still allowing you to take in all of the energy visually.

As we looked around the various people sitting on the swing, we could hear German, English, French, Spanish, Italian… people from all over were mingling. People of all ages were walking around, there was no “average” person here, hence the very random door policy. We put our drinks down and headed up another stairway above the swing. Another bar, not only serving drinks, but ice-cream, milkshakes, sandwiches, muffins and fruit! Unbelievable. We decided to head to the dance floor, ice-cream could wait for now (I later got lemon, very refreshing, but Hazelnut is king). Walking past the first speaker, my entire body absorbed the bass. I had to cover my ears it was so loud, but a full body experience to music was totally worth it. As we settled in the middle, we joined the apocalypse. By this time, Tommy Four Seven was playing an industrial techno set – no words, no melodies, only raw bass.

To the left of us were leather-clad-muscle-gay-men, with the occasional suspenders and cheek-chillers (chaps). But that was the only distinguishable group. I spun around to take in the crowd. What makes Berghain such a special place, despite all the hype surrounding it, is that it is entirely about the music and the people there. Everyone there, no matter race, age, gender, sexual orientation…, are all there for the music and to have a great time together. As I’ve been told, it’s like partying back in the early 90s of Techno’s “glory days”. There are no mirrors in the club, and without any cameras, all inhibitions are left at the door. Unlike commercial raves that I’ve been to in the US, where people dress up to be another person, people come to Berghain to be themselves. No, that 50 something- year-old dorky looking man dancing over there isn’t here to hit on younger women, he’s here because he wants to fucking party, to let go and be free, and to not care that he’s dancing like a total nut. Because everyone else is right there with him. I even had a few uptight 40-something businessmen next to me, bobbing slightly to the music. A few hours later, they had taken over a few of the elevated boxes, fist-pumping to the crowd below them. And unlike Ibiza, people don’t bring their sunglasses to wear in the club, but for when they’re leaving.

As Chris Liebing took the decks at 6AM (or was it 8AM, 10AM? – replacing Brian Sanhaji), I couldn’t help but picture him as Satan in his “Temple of Doom.” Grinning with his thousand-yard smile and an ominous red light illuminating him from behind, I wondered what it must be like to play at a club like this, what kind of ego must he have. But then it hit me, both in Panne and in Berghain, the DJ booths are right on the dance floor, not on some pedestal above the crowd. I hate that, it’s turned DJing into such a spectacle, when at the end of the day, it’s all just about getting together for the music. As much pretension as there may be at the door of Berghain, it’s all left there. This idea was reinforced when I came back the next day (yes, the party had been going non-stop for over 24 hours) to see Radioslave close Berghain. In the booth were Monoloc and Liebing as well. As the lights turned on and the music came to an end, not only did the crowd clap for the DJs, but the DJs clapped back in thanks to the crowd. Fans came up to thank the DJs, and I don’t believe one handshake was turned down. I was glad I got to witness that.

Back to Liebing. He was destroying, killing the floor, I have never heard drops quite like this. I’ve never seen people party so hard. Ever. The visuals were spectacular. Sometimes during buildups, warm-yellow lights (like the ones in the coat check), hanging from the ceiling, would turn on to light up the crowd so you could see the entire floor, combining visual energy with audio. Other times, drops would bring the strobes to turn on every other beat, as if time had slowed down or completely frozen. And then there’s times when everything goes off, something you have to witness for yourself.

As it was nearing 7AM though, we decided it was time for a little break. We headed towards the smoke room, which is ironically the best place for fresh air. The light was almost blinding. The smoke room is a 2 story glass and steel box that juts out from the main Berghain building. I later found out that it was not glass, but double sided mirrors (we could see out, no one could see in). It was unreal to watch the outside world continue, to see the trains of the S-Bahn move. We then headed to Panne for some good old house (Stefan Goldmann is now one of my favorites). Nearing 8AM, at one of his biggest drops, the most magical part of the whole weekend occurred. Right as the bass came to an unbelievable low, the shutters blocking the sun were opened for just less than a second 3 times in row. There is no way to put the amount of energy that I witnessed into words. Instantly, people turned towards the windows and cheered and screamed at the light, nearly like watching a tribal sun-worshiping ritual. I never saw it happen again, and I will never forget it.

By 9AM we were getting pretty tired, but the party was still going strong and leaving for the real world seemed depressing. We went from room to room, swinging on the chairs, chilling on the sofas… you can never get bored at Berghain, there is always something to do. If you need a dancing break, there are plenty of areas to sit and talk with your friends, or many of the interesting strangers. And if you’ve just gone too hard, or need to recharge, there are couches on the ground level that people use as beds. Entering Berghain isn’t just an entrance to a club, but really to a dimension where time, space, and just about everything else in the real world don’t matter.

We ended up leaving around 11AM, cringing at the sun while trying not to bump into the bouncers who were still working the door. After much needed rest, we actually ended up coming back Sunday night to finish off the weekend. Luckily, we still had our stamps from the night before and did not have to pay entry (if you have a stamp, you can leave and come back and don’t need to wait in line, it’s your “carte blanche” as one of the bouncers told me – you join the family). I met a girl who had just graduated fashion school in Berlin. When I mentioned I was from New York, she said her friend went there, and he told her that the DJs switch songs every 30 seconds. “Is that true?” – in utter disbelief, she couldn’t believe it. I could only laugh, and reluctantly confirm. We left at 3:30AM, but Panne showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.

I went to Copenhagen for the week to get much needed rest (14 hours the first night), and came back to Berlin to meet 2 other friends. We decided to go to Arena Club to check out Marcel Dettmann, a Panne/Berghain resident, a Berlin legend. On our way there, we witnessed a party going on in one of the U-Bahn stations in Kreuzberg. The DJ was playing out of a shopping cart with his computer and a speaker. Only in Berlin… We got to Arena but it was pretty empty. It was an awesome venue, but after waiting until around 1 or 2, we decided for Panne, Cadenza night. We managed to get in. It was packed, but nonetheless absolutely phenomenal. Reboot and Ernesto Ferreyra were incredible, but we missed Luciano (we left at 8, he came on at 9). As we left, people were still queuing to get in to see Luciano! I heard he played until 2PM.

We again went to Berghain Saturday night, making it in at 12:30AM (my advice is go early when the line is tiny, if you get in, you have your stamp, can leave, sleep, and come back at 11AM, or stay, and if you don’t get in, you didn’t waste too much time and can come back later). If ever I have the opportunity to return, I would probably sleep Saturday night and go around 11AM. This time I brought ear plugs and danced in Berghain for a good 10 hours. Dave Clarke was by far the best live act I have seen. The acid techno was perfect for the speakers, and his ways of intricately altering and playing with rhythm is something I will never grasp.

As I waited for my friend in the bathroom, I was peering out of the filtered windows into the barren lots of Friedrichshain. Blue looked like a nuclear holocaust. Red and yellow looked like Mars or something post-apocalyptic. As he came out and I showed him, he mentioned that it was May 21st, the predicted end of the world from that religious group (that had received a lot of press in the US). Here we were, in Berghain, partying to the non-end of the world.

Len Faki came on at 11AM. His intro was a nearly 2 minute long build-up. I first heard it begin from down in the basement, and as I was listening, I grabbed by buddy and ran up the stairs, just to make it to the floor in time. While he was amazing, and had great crowd interaction, we were getting a little tired and went back down to the basement couches. As we were talking, a bouncer came over to us to let us know that the garden was open. We followed the light and were immediately blinded as we came outside. Since we were some of the first out there, we got to witness the others pouring out into the garden, all simultaneously covering their eyes and yelling – almost like vampires – as their pupils were forced to adjust for the first time in who knows how long. Some people almost tripped as they couldn’t see the 2 steps right below the door. Luckily they caught themselves.

The garden is an incredible place, surrounded by 4 foot high concrete benches and covered with beanbag pillows. Grass and lounge chairs cover the area. There’s a bar in the middle, and the dance floor is built out of cut-up shipping crates. Our favorite spot was these metal bunker-like containers. You could either sit in them, or get some sun on top of them. We chose the latter. From our vantage point, we witnessed everybody pouring out and immediately passing out on the grass or pillows. As resident DJ Cassy started playing outside, the crates began to fill with people and perfect Sunday pick-me-up house tunes. It was a beautiful sunny day in Berlin, except that I got a ridiculous tank-top sunburn that I didn’t realize I had until I got back to the hotel around 4PM…

We tried to finish off dancing in Berghain, but after 14 hours straight, my eyes just couldn’t adjust. I was seeing figures out of the corners of my eyes that were not there at all… I thought I was about to bump into people when I had a good five feet around me. We realized it was time to call it. As I laid in bed exhausted, I could still hear the throbbing bass-lines. As worn-out as I was, I longed to go back.

I know my level of affection towards a “club” may seem absurd, but you have to understand that Berghain is way more than that. Music is my absolute favorite thing in the world, it moves me on an emotional level that nothing else does. It’s the reason I write this blog and DJ for myself. That said, my experience with music is purely intangible. For me at least, Berghain is the physical embodiment of what music is; it combines everything beautifully. It has the spectacular venue, the perfect crowd, the soundsystem from the gods and everything else to create an all out perfect interaction through music.

The next day, I flew back to Paris, nearly depressed at leaving Berghain behind, especially since I have no idea how long it will be before I am able to go back. There are also rumors circulating that Berghain’s at times brutal door policy (telling people to “never come back”) has been pissing off too many of the wrong people, and that undercover cops are trying to weasel their way inside. It may not be around forever.

As I got back to Paris, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Nowhere else in the world can a place like Berghain exist: cheaper property, more space, somewhat lax legal restrictions on club policies, an energy and openness of the Berliners like no other… I’m almost worried that any other clubbing experience will be futile, that I’ll forever be jaded. But after a night’s rest, and finally writing this up, I’m hopeful that I can look at Berghain as a positive example, not something to be replicated, but to bring certain characteristics back home with me. I’m not sure what those might be yet, but I still have some time.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts