feature image via shutterstock
We’ve been out all night, chain smoking cigarettes to stay awake, swigging from beers and tiny shooters of vodka. Alcohol is cheap in Berlin, and you can drink it wherever you want, like outside where the long line to get into the club snakes down the sidewalk, where we wait, dodging out to squat between parked cars when we have to pee.
Inside, the DJ is playing in the deep end of a drained-out pool and we have to bend our knees and balance on the gentle slope of the pool floor, like trying to dance while going down a hill. I lose track of my friends in the crowd, catching glances of them when the lights strobe over us, like there’s a lighthouse somewhere in the distance beyond the music.
And then the set is over and and we find each other and it’s 6:00AM but it doesn’t feel like the end, everything feels fresh, as if we’ve come out on the other side of the night. And as we’re making our way to the coat check, L looks around at me and J and says, “Berghain?” but it’s not really a question: L is leaving the city in a matter of weeks. This is one of the last nights out we have together.
So it sweeps over and around us, connecting us, pulling us forward. Berghain. Into a cab. “Berghain.” We ride from one end of the city to the other through the tender pre-dawn light, past shuttered doors packed with graffiti and fluorescent-lit kebab shops and the black shapes of the other all-night partiers, walking forward, going everywhere and nowhere. We pull up in front of a massive concrete building lined with brutally straight rows of windows. Berghain.
The first rule of Berghain is you always talk about getting into Berghain. Its reputation looms mythic: it’s a techno club in an enormous, defunct power plant; it stays open from Friday night until Monday morning; there are separate areas called dark rooms where you can go to perform anonymous sex acts; there’s no rhyme or reason to who gets in and who doesn’t; there are no rules once you’re inside, except no fucking photos.
Sprung from a convergence of underground music and gay subculture (it was the second iteration of a gay fetish club called Ostgut), it’s the modern poster child for all the gritty, grungy, sexually-explicit decadence Berlin is known for. The word most often used to describe it is “hedonistic.”
In Berlin people talk about it, expats especially, in hushed, reverent tones. The sound system, which is supposed to be one of the best in the world. The DJ acts you’ve never heard of with names like Fuck Buttons. And that magical moment in the morning when the blinds at Panorama Bar are yanked open and the suddenly-illuminated, all-night revelers start to cheer.
To the outside observer, it sounds like the church of a religion no organized religion would ever want to associate with. A place where you can go and hear crazy sounds and dance like mad and forget whatever it is you don’t want to remember.
And I didn’t believe any of it. Until I did.
We get out and stand in front of it, this heavyweight wrestler of a building, so solid it seems to have risen straight out of the ground. The sunrise is yellow-gold behind it and we allow ourselves one picture, just one, to mark the occasion.
There is no one else outside as we approach, only two cold-looking bouncers in beanies and long black coats standing near the door on the other side of the winding metal barricades like the kind you would see at Disneyland. We are quiet as we walk towards them, solemn, trying not to betray our excitement, palpable between us, electric.
L stands in front of the bouncers and smiles. One asks her, in English, how old she is, and she says, “Twenty-seven,” even though she’s twenty eight for no reason except nerves and we all answer just in numbers, “Twenty-eight,” “Twenty-six.” My heart pounds but almost immediately the bouncers step aside and open the door and we walk in, the heaviness of the building above and all around us, taking us in, holding us.
When Berliners talk about the Berlin of 1990s, which was post-Wall but pre-cultural tourism boom, they talk mostly about how cheap everything was. Cigarettes were less than five Deutsche mark, somewhere around two dollars. Beer was less. “We’d just leave our bags wherever at a bar or club,” my girlfriend told me once. “No one had anything, so there was nothing to steal.”
When the Wall fell and Germany reunited, Berlin was broke and mostly in shambles. Residential and industrial buildings that had been owned and run by the East German government stood empty and abandoned. Since they technically belonged to no one, people started to claim them. Artists and punks moved in, turned them into living spaces and music venues and studios.
And in factories and warehouses and bunkers, the underground club scene flourished. There were no noise ordinances, no fire codes. What was happening was already illegal, so no one was regulating it. Employment was abysmally low: free time and creativity were not. People, mostly young people, did pretty much whatever they wanted. And for half the city, this was the first time they weren’t living under a restrictive system that attempted to regulate every aspect of public life.
So they danced in the ruins of that system. They built something new with what was left.
Berghain didn’t open until 2004, but it’s impossible to separate its origins from this history, this need: it is a place anyone can go, where anything goes.
The sound that surrounds us is big and clear, like it’s spun out of crystal. It moves through the huge room in waves, something you can almost reach out for and grasp onto. We dive in.
We buy drugs from a lithe, shirtless man in a bathroom stall, the watery light glinting off the stainless steel, making everything feel set adrift on a shallow tide. I feel giddy, a small child up past her bedtime lingering amongst the adults at a party. The man hands us two pills and tells us they’re strong and not to take more than a fourth and we nod and smile and press cash into his hand and then rush to find J.
We divide the pills, swallow them dry, and I keep gulping at the acrid taste in the back of my throat. We buy a beer with our last three euros and sit on low couches in the back lounge, passing it back and forth, smoking, waiting, the dyed glass windows spilling yellow and red and blue all over us, cathedral-like.
There is something in the air I can’t place. Like we’re all floating around, swimming in this space together, enraptured with it. Calm. Everyone seems to be smiling. And when I come back from the bathroom and walk down an unfamiliar hallway and am greeted by a man with an angular face who smiles at me and asks, “Do you want to come in?” and I can only stare at him, he laughs and says, “Come on honey, let’s find the dance floor,” and gently leads me away. When I find L and J it’s all I can do but shout, “I almost walked into a DARK ROOM,” and we laugh so hard we double over.
Then L says, “Let’s dance,” and we go to the dance floor in the center of the tide where giant concrete columns rise up to hold the vaulted ceiling easily over our heads and the lights glow pink and white in the smoke that’s filling the air, moving above us. We sway our shoulders to the pulsing beat, tentative at first, then bigger, we start stepping with our feet towards each other and back, quicker and quicker until that thin membrane separating me from everything else peels back and I’m standing at the center of the moment, occupying it, the whole of it rushing up and through me like champagne fizzing over.
I can’t stop smiling and I look at L and J and they’re grinning like idiots too and we put our arms around each other and the music builds up and crashes over us like a wave and everyone is swept up and cheering, throwing our hands up like it’s a cause for celebration. I can feel the music in the air against my skin when I move my body through it, all my pores open and worshipful and I can only think, This must be it. When they talk about heaven, when they imagine it. It must feel like this.
I never dreamed of Berlin the way I dreamed of places like New York City, or Paris. It was always a backdrop to me, the location where various pieces of pop culture I loved dearly were set: Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When my high school history teacher showed us a piece of the Wall sealed in glass, I imagined briefly the world it must have come from and it seemed both so recent and so far away.
There are the things you can’t in million years predict will happen, that seem as inevitable as gravity when they do. I moved to Berlin by accident. A startup I worked for offered me the opportunity to transfer and I took it, despite the fact that I had never visited, not even once.
After four exhilarating and exhausting years in New York, this new city was like a long drink of clear, cold water. I fell into it head first. I loved the smokey, candlelit bars filled with shabby furniture and fresh flowers. My apartment had original wood floors and elegant gold door handles. I found myself in the kinds of dark basement clubs my pre-teen self imagined vampires would hang out. No one seemed to care what I did for a living or who I kissed or where I came from. I bought a bike and Carhartt jacket and fancy sweatpants. I started smoking, but I finally felt like I could breathe.
I don’t leave Berghain until the dead of the afternoon, alone, the early-spring light outside so bright it seems to solidify when it hits my pupils. The people flocking toward the building look clean and fresh and like they’ve all had a healthy breakfast. I walk past them, reeking of smoke, feeling exposed, sweating inside my wool coat that’s too hot for this day. I try to make my way to the train but end up in the empty parking lot of some large store called a Hellweg, this big red sign above me, and all I can see is the word Hell. I double back. Every time I look over my shoulder I see Berghain, like it’s saying goodbye over the wide, flat rooftops, like it’s saying don’t go. I decide to walk home.
I end up at the East Side Gallery, the almost mile-long section of the Berlin Wall that’s been left standing as a reminder of what stands to be lost and, I suppose, what has been gained. Hordes of tourists throng along it, too close to me, busy taking pictures of themselves and each other in front of it. I defiantly walk in front of a few cameras, hoping to end up a black blur, a shadow at the edges of a bright vacation picture.
I reach the end of the Wall where it meets the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge that stretches across the Spree River into what used to be the West. It was once a major border crossing; now it’s just my way home. The water in the river below gleams and winks and I feel acutely the weight of history, its inescapable trajectory, coalescing over and under and around me. I have the urge to turn around and go back, show my stamp to the bouncers at the door, fall back into the crowd and the music and be subsumed, re-baptized. It’s like I have a reason now, a living breathing, sweating embodiment of the why — why this, why here, why Berlin — and I want to hold it close to me for as long as I can.
That even I, a foreigner, an accidental denizen with the briefest knowledge of what came before, can feel like I belong here. Can take off my coat and lay down my bullshit and dance, ecstatic, at dawn.