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

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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.
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."

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