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

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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.
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
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. 

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