The story of Berghain begins 20 years ago, when Thormann and Teufele threw their first Snax sex party, a fetish gathering that was held in various different locations around Berlin. In the late Nineties, a contact at Deutsche Bahn, the German national railroad, helped them secure a space for their parties in a former railway freight yard, which later became a club called Ostgut, the predecessor to Berghain.
Ostgut was in many ways the quintessential gritty, hedonistic Berlin club. Daniel Wang, a Berlin DJ who has played at Berghain, remembers that the first time he went to a Snax party at Ostgut, he had to climb off the side of a bridge and down a ladder to make it into the boundary-pushing club. "There was a piss room with huge funnels connected to tubes so the liquid wouldn't drip onto the dance floor, and people could duck their heads under the funnel waiting to be pissed on," he remembers.
When the club was closed to make way for a new arena, the owners searched for a permanent location, and in 2004, they opened Berghain, which has a capacity of 1,500. Panorama Bar, the upstairs dance floor, opened in October of that year, followed one month later by the main dance floor, and one year later by Lab.Oratory, the gay sex club (Crisco is sold at the bar) that takes up space on the building's ground floor. The club melded Ostgut's underground vibe with a more professional service experience — drinks are shuttled to and from the bar via hidden hallways, and the building was retrofitted so clubbers couldn't easily injure themselves.
In the early years — before the city's tourism boom hit full swing — the club attracted a typically eccentric Berlin crowd: diehard techno fans, leather fetishists, bearded young professionals on drugs. Shambhu Leroux, a voluble, heavily tattooed blues singer who for eight years was one of the club's bartenders, said "there was a genuine vibe at Berghain in the beginning." She remembers that the crowd welcomed nonconformists, including transgender people like her. "There were a lot of freaks there," Leroux said. “[And that] is a word I apply to myself."
In addition to the music, sex and drugs were always a key part of the club's appeal: It's no accident that Berghain offers countless areas for people to sneak away to — there are two darkrooms, small closable cubbies upstairs, and large unisex bathroom stalls which, according to Karsten, were built to "accommodate six people" and also to be capable of resisting cleaning materials "not used outside of the meatpacking industry." The club was also purpose-built not to have any dead ends, even in the bathrooms, so people can cruise each other without running into a wall. Those bathrooms don't have any mirrors, either, to save partiers the buzzkilling indignity of seeing their own faces after an epic partying session.
Lab.Oratory, which shares Berghain's industrial architecture, is known as Berlin's most extreme sex club. The club hosts regular nights called "Yellow Facts," "Sewer System" and "Scat" (the website description reads: "From hard to soft stools, you'll find the right taker for everything.") Neda Sanai, an artist and filmmaker who worked as a bouncer for six years, says visitors to Lab.Oratory would sometimes bring shit into the club in Tupperware containers. Karsten, the Berghain architect, says, "if we designed the Lab again, we would have made those floor drains a bit bigger."
The all-male Snax parties still take place twice a year, once on Easter weekend and once in November. At its most recent iteration — a sports-themed bacchanalia — the dress code required sneakers and "sportswear," and the line to get in at midnight was more than three hours long. A boxing ring was set up in the middle of the main dance floor, and as Boris, one of the resident DJs, played pounding techno the space filled up with men in jockstraps having sex, or giving each other blowjobs by the bar. At 9 a.m., the club was still full, and three men were trying to revive a passed-out man in the downstairs orgy room, while a dozen others had sex nearby.
If you want an explanation for the extreme nature of the Berlin club scene, you need to look at the city's history. For the decades before unification, the city was poor and isolated, with little to offer economically. "Half of Berlin was walled in," Boris, a native Berliner remembers, "and the city was politically aligned with the left; it had a very militant character, which expressed itself in a very aggressive, minimalist raw form of techno."
This sound became the staple of the illegal parties that sprouted up in the abandoned factories and warehouses after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then, over the following decades, in the more permanent clubs that eventually took their place. The names of these clubs are now a shorthand for the crazed party culture of post-reunification Berlin, when former East and West Germans found common ground in the city's hedonistic dance floors: The Bunker, E-Werk, Tresor, Weekend, WMF. In the naughties, Bar 25, a drug-fueled club that looked like a gypsy-acid pirate lair and had its own hostel became a high-profile symbol of the city's debauched nightlife and the subject of a popular documentary.
In the past two decades, the city's tradition of sexual permissiveness, lax drug policing and left-wing, anarchist politics blended together to create the most sexually adventurous, unconventional party scene in Europe. The city's historical poverty meant high unemployment and large numbers of people with no reason to wake up early on Monday, fueling the appetite for marathon-length parties and a dislike of closing times. "It's a fuck-off to the rigid capitalist version of time that is enforced in any other city in the world," says Wang. "They're truly saying that money is of secondary importance, that it's the experience that matters."
This stands in contrast to the big-business Las Vegas EDM scene and events like the Electric Daisy Carnival, which have introduced a new generation of young Americans to electronic music, albeit without the sense of danger and edginess that characterized the rave scene of the Nineties. In Vegas, superstar DJs like deadmau5 and Skrillex make millions of dollars a year, performing in controlled, meticulously set-designed clubs where table service can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.
By contrast, Berlin is scrappy, grimy and chaotic. Cover charges and drinks are still cheap, the venues look run-down and authentic, and you're less likely to see a celebrity than you are two people fucking at the bar. Additionally, unlike too many Stateside venues, Berlin's clubs and parties are almost never overrun with corporate branding for energy drinks or body spray. For Americans hungry for a taste of underground techno culture, the lure of this seemingly unspoiled scene can be hard to resist. "There's the legend of Berghain," DJ Harvey says. "It's a cross between The Lord of the Rings and the Stonewall Riots, and then there's the stories about the guy who turns up with frozen shit and uses it as a dildo."
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