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Berghain: The Secretive, Sex-Fueled World of Techno's Coolest Club

Berlin's Berghain is famed for its groundbreaking sounds and X-rated sights, but the club is also a test case for how tourism and gentrification are threatening Europe's party capital

Berghain nightclub in Berlin, Germany.
Stefan Hoederath/Getty Images
February 6, 2014 12:35 PM ET

At 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday in January, the massive main dance floor at Berlin's Berghain is full. Dino Sabatini, an Italian DJ with short dark hair, is playing hard, hypnotic techno to a crowd of shirtless gay men, disheveled dudes in sneakers and tiny women with tiny backpacks. Many of these revelers have been in the club for more than 24 hours, a feat of stamina likely attributable to some combination of MDMA, speed and ketamine.

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The club has been open since Friday night and will remain open until some time Monday morning. On the dark, cavernous dance floor — which is located in the imposing turbine hall of a defunct East German heating and power station — the strain of endless partying is starting to become evident. Near the club's main staircase, an overly energetic young man in knee socks and short shorts is dangerously close to falling from a platform on to a trio of skinny brunettes below. The air smells of weed, sweat and urine, and next to the bar, a couple of glassy-eyed men in leather harnesses are leaning against each other, absentmindedly putting their hands down each others' pants as strobe lights flash.

"I've seen two men making out, but that's about it," complains Sofia, a thin, hoodie-wearing 24 year old with long hair visiting from New York, while surveying the general crowd. She's eager to see more. Sofia is at the tail end of a three-week visit to the city with her husband, a Brooklyn bar-owner, and has been a fan of EDM since she was 19. This is her last day in Berlin, and her friends recommended she come here, the city's most famously hardcore and important club for electronic dance music, as a final blow-out: "Everybody was telling me you need to go to Berghain," she says. "So this is where we went."

She isn't alone. Over the past decade, Berlin has transformed into Europe's unofficial party capital, and Berghain has developed a reputation as the Mecca of clubbing. According to a study by Berlin tourism organization visitBerlin, one-third of visitors to Berlin are drawn by the city's nightlife. A record 5.3 million tourists visited Berlin in the first half of 2013, including 150,000 Americans — an increase of nearly eight percent over the first half of 2012. Many of these American tourists were drawn to the city's music scene by the popularity of EDM back home.

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The famously secretive Berghain — which attracts many of the world's most respected DJs and has been described as the "best club in the world" by everyone from the New York Times to DJ Mag — has gone from being a local phenomenon, infamous for its sex parties and drugs, to one of the city's most high-profile tourist attractions. Now the venue stands at the intersection of the bigger trends facing the city, namely gentrification, a rise in low-fare tourism and a flood of international hype, and faces an awkward question: What does it mean for a club to be underground when the entire world wants to dance there?

A visitor carries a cloth tote bag advertising Berghain during the second annual Hipster Olympics on July 21st, 2012.
Adam Berry/Getty Images

To enter Berghain is, as many people have described it, a religious experience. On Facebook, Sunday trips to the club are referred to as "Sunday Mass," and techno blogs are littered with references to the "church" of Berghain. Religious imagery is nothing new to the electronic music scene — Frankie Knuckles compared the Warehouse, the Chicago club which gave birth to house music, to a "church for people who have fallen from grace" — but in the case of Berghain, the sacred comparison is especially apt.

First of all, the building is enormous. The main Berghain dance floor, which focuses on hard techno, has 60-foot ceilings supported by massive pillars made of unpainted concrete. "The construction is similar to that of a cathedral of the Middle Ages," says Thomas Karsten, one of the two architects responsible for the 2004 renovations of the building, which was originally constructed in 1953 as part of East Germany's postwar reconstruction process and abandoned in the late 1980s. "There's something almost spiritual about the atmosphere."

Most of the building has retained its original industrial architecture — the décor is spare, the walls are mostly empty and a slightly less Dante's Inferno-esque upstairs space, called Panorama Bar, makes use of cages that formerly housed electrical equipment. As a result, the club, which was opened by two media-averse German men, Norbert Thormann and Michael Teufele (who, in keeping with the club's no-media policy, refused an interview request), still has the look and feel of an abandoned building. A large metallic swing hangs off the side of the dance floor, and warm white lights illuminate part of an imposing preserved façade behind the club's main bar. The building is so large and maze-like, you can discover new stairways and rooms even after spending a few days in the club. 

The most conspicuous new elements in the main space are the famous stacks of Funktion One speakers that dominate the dance floor. Benedikt Koch, who installed the Berghain sound system — one of the most powerful in the world — claims that on most nights, the club's sonic apparatus operates at only 10 to 20 percent of its full capacity. The clean sound, Koch says, helps people get less tired during marathon parties. If you turned it up to full power, he claims, "it would be like getting a massage of every nerve of your body."

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The cult of the club, which takes its name from the adjacent neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, also stems from the its rigorously tasteful approach to booking. In the nine years since Berghain opened, the club has hosted many of the world's best known and most esteemed DJs — residents include Ben Klock and Cassy, while Detroit legends Carl Craig and Jeff Mills as well as famous younger DJs, like Gesaffelstein, have also played sets. The smaller Panorama Bar floor, which focuses on groovier, more melodic house music rather than the main floor's severe techno, has hosted avant-garde heroes Laurent Garnier and Ricardo Villalobos, among many others.

While EDM in the U.S. is currently dominated by the more pop-friendly vibe of dubstep, the sound in the main Berghain space is dark, hardcore techno. When the former turbine hall fills with people, one-third of the crowd tend to be shirtless men, sweat and testosterone dripping off their bodies, and much of the dancing consists of some combination of marching and forceful air-punching, a proper physical response to the big, industrial beats. As Karsten puts it, "When you're in the building on a Sunday afternoon, there's this feeling that this is exactly right, that the club Berghain and the building Berghain are part of the intensification of this minimal music, and you can't imagine anything different."

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