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   Berlin
Stefan Hoederath/Getty Images
Berghain nightclub in Berlin, Germany.
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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. (PHOTO: 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."

 

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."

Berghain's exterior during the day.
Berghain's exterior during the day. (PHOTO: CC Image Courtesy of peterulrich.net | Berlin Webdesigner on Flickr)

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."

 

At 4 a.m. on a recent Sunday, a constant line of a few dozen people was braving a wind chill of minus 11 Fahrenheit — the coldest night of the year so far in Berlin — to patiently face the club's notorious bouncers. The three enormous, stern, black-clad German men were turning away about as many people as they were letting in, with little discernible pattern to their decision-making. One couple, seemingly in shock about being rejected and unsure about what to do next, stood shivering next to the club's metal entry barriers until a bouncer yelled at them in German, and then in English, that it was time for them to get off of private property.

Berghain's door policy is almost as famous as its A-list roster of DJs. The club's main bouncer, Sven Marquardt, a bearish East German photographer with a face covered in barbed-wire tattoos, is a minor celebrity in Germany and referred to in newspaper headlines as "the lord of the night." Blogs and Twitter are filled with advice for potential visitors on how to get into the door — "don't go as a large group," "don't speak English near the door," "act gay, but not too gay" — but most people admit that there is no way to know the rules. Famously, and perhaps apocryphally, Britney Spears is said to have been denied entry. 

Given that, it's understandable when people take the rejection at the door personally. Sanai says she once witnessed a woman who couldn't get in pick up broken glass from the ground near the door and begin cutting her arms. (For what it's worth, she says there are no firm rules for getting in the door, and that it's up to the individual bouncers who they let in).

The strict door policy is partly meant to protect Berghain's alternative identity from drunks or gawking businessmen in suits, but also more recently from the flood of tourists that has surged into Berlin. On this day, as on most others, it seemed moot — most of the people walking up to Berghain's doors were speaking English or Spanish or Italian, not German.

An inside view of Berghain. (PHOTO: CC Image Courtesy ewar woowar on Flickr)

Luis-Manuel Garcia, an ethnomusicologist with Berlin's Max Planck Institute for Human Development studying the city's techno scene, claims the massive recent popularity of EDM in the United States has "accelerated" the scene's touristification and brought in a younger, less-bohemian crowd. He compares it to the vaunted Chicago rave scene of the Nineties, which suffered from the massive, sudden influx of newcomers and then rapidly died out. "Something similar is happening in Berlin and Berghain, specifically," Garcia says. "Berghain is changing, and sooner or later it's going to be over." 

To hear him explain it, the life cycle of a techno club is similar to that of an island ecosystem: "Something I have observed in many different scenes in many different cities, is that for a scene to be lively and coherent, it requires turnover but also a certain amount of stability." If a scene becomes too insular, it tends to stagnate, but if it is suddenly overwhelmed by newcomers, the elements that created it begin to dissolve. "When you start getting huge turnover in a club," explains Garcia, "it becomes more and more difficult for those who have been there for a long time to teach the newcomers how to behave."

In the case of Berghain and its cult-like devotees, this anxiety is overlaid with the city's often schizophrenic relationship with tourists, who are thought of, on one hand, as economic saviors and, on the other, as unwelcome intruders. In the last several years, the issue of tourism has become increasingly prickly in Berlin. 

If you bike around the recently gentrified neighborhoods of Kreuzberg or Neukoelln, you can't escape the anti-tourist graffiti which marks many of the walls —"Eat the tourists," "Fuck tourists," "Touristen Fisten." The anger stems, first and foremost, from economics: In Neukoelln, for example, rents went up 23 percent between 2007 and 2010, and, although tourists carry only a small part of the blame, many people associate the increase with the rise in foreign visitors and new arrivals.

In the nightlife world, the rise in tourism has been similarly controversial. Tobias Rapp, the author of Lost and Sound, a book about Berlin club culture, argues that the rise in visitors has actually invigorated the city's clubbing scene — bringing more knowledgeable techno fans and excitement into the clubs. "The bigger problem is the Berliners," he says, who have become blasé about the local techno scene and "have an arrogance that is out of place."

But many locals see the threat as deeply existential. The rise in visitors from London and New York and San Francisco means not only swarms of non-German speakers getting drunk in Berlin parks, but the encroachment of globalized mass capitalism into Berlin's anarcho-bohemian bubble. It means rising prices for locals, and, therefore, the need to work more, and, ultimately, less opportunity for three-day long partying.

Rapp paraphrases the late German theater director Christoph Schlingensief, who was himself nodding to Samuel Beckett, when he describes the city's philosophy: "Fail again, fail better."  Now the city is grappling with what it means to become a success.

According to Berlin's senator for economics, the city's economy is expected to grow at three times the rate of other German states in 2014. Tourism, of which techno is a large part, brought over 10 billion euros into the city in 2011. Klaus Wowereit, the city's mayor, regularly meets with the owners of Berghain, and four years ago, the state offered 1.2 million euros in financing for the club, so it could expand its cultural offerings (the club did not accept the offer). "Berghain is a lodestar in Berlin," says Wang, "whether you like what the club has to offer or not, it is an attraction that gives life to its satellites."

 

According to Sanai, large numbers of tourists started coming to Berghain around 2009. In 2007, Pitchfork had already described it as "quite possibly the current world capital of techno." In 2009, DJ Mag crowned it the "top club in the world." At that point, the rise of discount airlines had made it affordable for people in Europe to come to Berlin for a weekend, party for two days and then fly back home. "EasyJet started doing offers," she says, "and you would see that one week the people would be Spanish, the next week Italian, the next England."

Leroux says the change came "very slowly, little bit by little bit." She said gradually the visitors became more uptight, and then would start trying to take photos of her with their iPhones or ask her if she was a real woman. "I'd never had this question asked at the beginning," she says about the interlopers. "There was this attitude of we are not really living here, so we can shit all over the place, because tomorrow we won't be here."

"By definition, subcultures are fleeting," Rapp says. But in recent years, the rise of the Internet and social media has accelerated the process. When Berghain opened, there were no smartphones. Now over 85,000 people have checked in at Berghain on Facebook and despite the club's no-photography policy, a search for #berghain on Instagram reveals nearly 12,000 posts. "With social media in the underground club world, everybody who wants to know about something knows about it," says DJ Harvey. "Berghain isn't headline news anymore."

Gradually, Garcia says, Berghain regulars stopped coming Fridays and Saturdays because those nights became dominated by tourists and now, if ever, only come on Sundays during the day. On techno sites, like Bodytonic, locals complain that the club has become an attraction "filled with Irish techno tourists on ketamine." (Last year, Berlin electronic band JETS' Travis Stewart called Saturday nights at Berghain a "tourist trap"). One long-term German Snax party regular complains that even the sex parties are becoming more tame: "It's become less extreme — now you go to present yourself, and consume the music and maybe have sex, but it's not as experimental."

Garcia, who has been going to Berghain since 2007, says he prefers going on Sundays to avoid crowds. When the New York Times published a travel guide this fall claiming the "insider secret" was to come to the club at noon that day to "avoid the wait," Garcia says that "On Facebook all of my friends who are connected to that scene said, 'Oh fuck, now do we have to go Monday afternoon?"

Other recent developments have gradually chipped away at Berghain's elevated reputation: In October, Lady Gaga held an album release party on Berghain property (Apparat, the German electronic star, tweeted that this was "sad.") A few weeks later, a video pitch for an app called How to Get Into Berghain made the rounds on social media and in Berlin newspapers. In it, a programmer describes an app allowing users to find out the lineup and connecting them to an online store to purchase the perfect Berghain apparel (the example: 340-euro Alexander McQueen sneakers).

Lady Gaga poses for the press prior to the prelistening fan event of her new CD 'Artpop' at Halle Berghain on October 24, 2013. (PHOTO: Anita Bugge/WireImage)

In a possible indication of broader future intentions, the owners of Berghain purchased the building from the Vattenfall power company in 2011 and last year opened a new space for events like ballet performances. Plans to expand parts of the building for other cultural uses have been in the works for years, but have yet to be financially viable. The club already hosts concerts and various arts events during the week, and has grown to include a biergarten and another concert venue.

 "There might be a moment, which may be happening right now already, where Berghain isn't cool anymore, but it is already an institution, like the philharmonic, for electronic music," says Rapp. If the club plays its cards well, and doesn't compromise its programming choices, then it will continue to play that role for years to come. If not, it'll be "a spiral into the abyss." 

But whatever happens to Berghain itself, the club's biggest legacy might be its effect on the city as a whole, as a magnet for a class of young, educated culturally inclined people who come to visit the city and then move here and throw new parties of their own — even if it attracts its share of clueless American tourists too. "Clubs open up and close down," says Rapp, and if Berghain closes, "it wouldn't be the end." 

In London, Chicago and New York, underground electronic music scenes appeared and then faded away, becoming a quieter part of the cities' identities and then resurging in different moments. In the far future, Berlin may well follow those cities' leads, becoming a more expensive, and boring, version of itself, where clubs close at normal hours and beers cost as much as a small meal.

Karsten believes the city's clubbing culture is going to become more upscale and conventional "because more international guests are coming, who expect to go into a club and order a table with champagne." Together with his partner, Alexandra Erhard, he recently designed Avenue, a new club in the formerly hip Berlin district of Mitte, which boasts table service and caters to a more upscale clientele. 

A new term, "Clubsterben," which translates as "club death," was coined by owners to describe the spate of recent of club closures, allegedly due to gentrification, but, as Rapp points out, the city still has lots of "places that are undiscovered," and the club mile is simply gradually moving eastward, towards the districts of Lichtenberg and Neukoelln, where there are still empty spaces, and plenty of scuzz. There, clubs like ://about blank and Salon zur wilden Renate host marathon parties of their own. 

Dancers of Berlin's State Ballet perform the play 'mass' (Masse) at 'Berghain,' on May 2nd, 2013
Dancers of Berlin's State Ballet perform the play 'mass' (Masse) at 'Berghain,' on May 2nd, 2013 (PHOTO: Kay Nietfeld/AFP/Getty Images)

By the afternoon on Sunday, Sofia, the visitor from New York City, is feeling better about her Berghain experience. She managed to get some drugs in the club's bathroom, and is scouring the club for a "hot" woman with whom she and her husband could have a threesome. "I've spoken to four women, and none of them were interested," she pouts, staring glumly off into the distance. Then she decides to keep trying and walks off. 

At this point in the day, the party-shifts are changing — people who have been in the clue for a full day are fading while newcomers, who came after eating breakfast, are trickling in. At the bar, a gaggle of clean-cut British tourists from London are looking at their iPhones, and marveling at the time. "We should be eating lunch right now," one says, amazed. On the dance floor, a middle-aged man is rubbing his crotch against a blonde woman's thigh and fondling her boob like he's testing the ripeness of a cantaloupe.

The party will continue until the evening and into Monday morning, at which point the tourists will return to their Airbnbs and the locals will go home, most likely to rest and prepare for normal life to resume. Outside the club, the winter sun remains hidden behind Berlin's usual thick cloud cover, and the city's elevated train rattles by. As people stumble out the front door, dazed by the muffled light, a constant trickle of newcomers trudge up the dirt path to confront the stonefaced bouncers, unsure if they'll be turned away or be allowed to climb the stairs and disappear into the noisy darkness of Berghain.