Sunday night on Berghain’s main dancefloor can achieve monumental force. The magnificent darkness teems with hundreds of writhing near-naked bodies, each a lightning rod of intensity, each limit-human. At the Berlin club’s 15th birthday party on 16 December 2019, as it neared 3am, and as the bearded Speedy J in a baseball hat served up mountainous bass drum beats – each body-shaking sound decaying into the next – and as I shifted my shoulders in the smoke, the sweat, the heat, the blue and red strobe, amidst the naked tattooed flesh, the Max Max 2 harnesses, the dog collars, the masks, the dilated eyes, the green hair, at this moment Berghain felt transcendentally intense: a cross between a warzone and some gloriously useless mass ritual.
Berghain has changed since my first time there in 2006. Back then, the main room was mostly a space for gay men, whereas now its queer palette is more mixed. Back then Berghain closed at the end of Sunday afternoon, whereas now its delirium spills into Monday. Otherwise the club’s values remain the same: concealment, queerness and excess, channelled into the ex-power station’s chief feature, the main room, with its mix of cathedralesque magnitude, fathomless darkness, and unforgiving techno.
Geographically the area surrounding Berghain has changed dramatically. Upstairs at Panorama Bar’s windows, when the shutters are open and you peer through the body-heat condensation, Berlin’s corporate forward-march is clear: what was once a panorama limited to concrete allotments and railway lines now hosts the Mercedes Benz Arena, office towers, cranes, a rotating BMW logo, and the unspeakably hideous East Side Mall. The district’s third Starbucks opens soon on the nearby Warschauer Brücke. Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s Berlin epithet poor but sexy is a fading memory. The critic Karl Scheffler’s 1910 description of Berlin as ‘a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being’, on the other hand, continues to be borne out.
Berghain is housed in the ruin of a thermal power station, built in 1953 as part of the Soviet Union’s flagship Stalinallee development. The ruin’s architecture – a monumental exterior giving no hint of the inner dimensions – effects a strong cut between the outside world and the club’s space. Inside that vast network of rooms and floors and corridors, ordinary clock time can vanish and Berghain can feel like a palace of becoming. Nothing is fixed. Photos are prohibited and couldn’t in any case capture the sensation factory. On the dancefloor, faces flash up and meld into each other. In the toilets, creatures arise and request your bodily fluids. Strangeness is around every corner.
The environment’s intensity sparks Deleuze’s conception of becoming. Exaggerated versions of yourself emerge through unforeseen encounters: the morphogenetic experience of overflowing your bounds, becoming-animal, becoming-other. One of Berghain’s most distinctive artworks was emblem of this, a statue at the foot of the main staircase, a threshold guardian: an idealized naked, brawny, frenzied man, pointing a cornucopia into the infinite black above, swallowing all the energy and excess and filth and insatiably wanting more. (The statue is now buried in an ivy-fringed shallow grave in the club’s garden.)
As an entity, Berghain has proven itself adaptable. Its 15th birthday celebration both referenced its history and looked forward. The plastic armbands applied at the entrance were dotted with birds in flight, a reference to the artwork from Berghain’s first flyer in 2004 and from the club’s predecessor Ostgut’s final flyer in 2003, which showed birds migrating across the Berlin district of Friedrichshain. Fulsome bouquets of white lilies adorned the bars under the brutal concrete walls. Longstanding resident DJ Boris rounded off his Panorama Bar set with Cowley and Sylvester’s 1982 gay anthem ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk?’
As it does every five years, Panorama Bar unveiled new artworks by Wolfgang Tillmans. One of them, a photo reproduction replacing Mundhöhle (2012), shows an anatomically indistinct image of a hand pulling up red underwear to show the space between hairy thighs, the subject’s gender deliberately concealed or indeterminate. The image simultaneously invites and denies the gaze. Lit dimly throughout the party by swelling lights, this new Tillmans feels more in key with Berlin’s queer club scene entering 2020, where gender-fluidity is more visible than anything reductively binary.
Berghain’s name speaks to the club’s post-1989 identity, fusing west (Kreuzberg) and east (Friedrichshain). Berghain’s origin lies in the gay men’s fetish party Snax at the Bunker, an illegal club in Berlin’s Mitte that opened in 1992 in a former Nazi bunker (now home to the Boros Foundation). A 1996 Snax flyer shows a penis pierced to the point of mutilation. Berlin clubber Uwe Reineke recalled the Bunker’s crowd as being ‘the subculture within the subculture.’ Fast forward 20 years and the club that evolved from Snax is classified alongside Berlin’s opera houses as a cultural institution of significance. The politician and Berlin cultural powerbroker Klaus Lederer told Der Spiegel last year: ‘When Norbert [Thormann], who owns Berghain, has a problem, he comes to me, and when I have one, I go to Norbert.’ Nonetheless, if Berghain is to continue its balancing act between federally-endorsed instrument of the so-called experience economy and authentic node of Berlin’s various subcultures, its capacity for adaptation will be tested.
Moving into the new decade, Berghain’s management represents a continuation of the 1990s generation. The club scene’s new generation comprises promoters and parties like Buttons, Room 4 Resistance and Lecken. Where Berghain’s management is top-down and avoids communicating with patrons, the newer parties are friendlier and more hands-on and pursue an active non-binary and femme focus. And so it feels unfortunate that for Berghain’s 2020 New Year’s party, of the 17 DJs playing the main room, 15 are male (and 16 are white). Some of the most memorable sets I’ve experienced at Berghain in recent times – Yaeji, Eris Drew, Noncompliant, Honey Dijon – were refreshingly femme-focused, a contrast to the macho dominance that occasionally appears in Berghain on a Sunday night. While Berghain’s main draw for me remains the transcendental intensity of the main techno space, it can be the less phallocentric forces that feel most moving and subversive. Play, delicacy and sensitivity are often more potent than brute force.
Berghain’s longer history, going back to the initial Snax parties, is of the twin revolutionary potential of techno and gay sexuality. ‘[I]f sucking cock could bring down Rome, think what we might do to Capitalism’, as a 1970s gay polemic said, quoted in Patrick Moore’s Beyond Shame (2004). In this regard, that the 21st century’s largest subcultural institution is housed in a ruin of the utopian Soviet project, a supposed index of the post-1989 end of history, is apt.
Berghain as a space casts doubt on narratives of historical inevitability. Its name suggests that which is verborgen or concealed (cognate with ‘buried’). In this queer space, in the main room’s utter night, you can escape the vulgarity of the daylight quotidian; you can escape the 21st century West’s surveillance geography. At its most general, Berghain’s experience involves losing oneself in an ‘erewhon’: the liberating nowhere accessible within the scrambled here and now. It’s an experience that, whilst unrepresentable, is hinted at by a photograph of Berghain’s building post-power station and pre-club. The photo shows the post-industrial ruin with old lines for running coal into the building. Its chronology, however, is ambiguous; past or future, it defies being pinned down. It’s a photo in whose anachronism history becomes ripped open and new histories become possible.
Main image: Berghain club exterior, Berlin, 2012. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Shaun Bloodworth/PYMCA/Universal Images Group.
Liam Cagney is a writer and musicologist. He has written for the Guardian, the TLS, the Irish Times and other publications, and he is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Spectral Music (OUP, forthcoming). He is currently writing a book on Berlin’s club scene.