“I am possessed by mysterious forces,” said the wild-eyed man in a thick German accent. Ecstasy, I thought, peering into his dilated pupils.
It was Sunday evening, a transitional time in Berlin. The party into which I had unwittingly stumbled could just as easily have represented the final stages of last night’s bacchanalia as the beginning of tonight’s fresh round of revels. I had been disabused of my old-fashioned conception of “bedtime” at 8 a.m. on a Saturday a few weeks prior, when I encountered a patronizing doorman with a mosaic of tattoos covering his arms and chest. “Do you know what this is?” he’d asked me, gesturing toward what looked like an abandoned apartment building. “This is a techno club. For ten euros you can stay here ‘til Monday.”
At 6 p.m. on this particular Sunday, in an unassuming warehouse I had correctly identified as a techno club, I found myself at the tail-end of Blank Generation, a weekend-long party held at a nightclub called ://aboutblank. Roughly 60 hours after the event started, the remaining revelers comprised a high energy, if bedraggled, crowd. I watched as one of them, a ghostly man clad in pajama pants and a mesh shirt, was carried out on a stretcher, mumbling unintelligibly at the paramedics. It was drizzling, but nobody showed any signs of fatigue or malaise. When I left to catch my 11 p.m. train home, 50 or so remaining dancers—the wild-eyed man among them—were still going strong, presumably possessed by mysterious forces.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, twenty-five years ago, techno has been voice of the city. Worming its way into the ruins of a disjointed metropolis, spilling into abandoned buildings and vacant lots, techno capitalized on the general atmosphere of good-natured chaos that prevailed in the afterglow of reunification. Squatters colonized empty apartments and artists occupied houses, founding the famous (and no longer extant) Kunsthaus Tacheles, a radical, collective art space. Graffiti sprung up on the remaining fragments of the Wall, and the city’s dull façades acquired murals overnight. The once-deserted train station at Warschauer Straße became a jumble of brightly painted restaurants and music halls. And the aesthetics characteristic of East Berlin became a full-fledged badge of honor when mayor Klaus Wowereit famously deemed the city “arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy). Berlin was transforming into a testament to its ongoing evolution—colorfully inscribing its changing self onto the ruins of its past.
At first, techno was less inscription than ephemera, less chronicle than myth. The scene was nomadic, consisting primarily in pop-up parties advertised by word of mouth. Promoters, DJs, and dancers came together in East Berlin grocery stores or apartment complexes for a night or a weekend before packing up and moving on to the next vacant building. It was an incongruously ahistorical phenomenon for such a historic city: The bass resounded powerfully throughout the night or the weekend, only to dissipate the next morning.
But Berlin is a city of monuments, intent on memorializing itself, and techno soon carved out a lasting place in the capital’s bleak geography, seeking not to obscure its origins but rather to subvert them. An empty bank became a nightclub called Tresor, which means “vault.” An old salon was rechristened as “Friseur.” And an abandoned power plant was reborn as the Berghain.
Widely regarded as the best techno club in the world, famously fun and infamously depraved, the Berghain is the apotheosis of the Berlin house and techno scene, a veritable temple to the reverberant minimalism of the Berlin sound. It is immense, imposing, rapturous—and notoriously difficult to get into. The logic guiding the decisions of the Berghain bouncers, the gatekeepers of the city’s underworld, has flummoxed everyone from travel journalists to natives. (A How to Get Into Berghain App launched last year, much to the chagrin of righteous techno purists.) A few blogs have half-heartedly suggested that wearing dark colors may help, adding that tattoos and dour expressions can’t hurt. But ultimately everyone admits that there are no answers to the questions the Berghain poses. It’s like something out of a Kafka story: An unnamed protagonist waits in line indefinitely, confused as to its mysterious workings, tantalized by the incessant pounding of an unseen bass. Maybe the nose piercing was for nothing. Each Saturday, hundreds of hopefuls congregate in reverent silence, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of the fabled world inside.
More a legend than a place, the Berghain is the ultimate equalizer. Here at the intersection of East and West, past and present, cool is coded differently. Unlike New York or London, ritzy cities where clubbing often functions as a showy affirmation of wealth or celebrity, Berlin allows into its clubs only partiers dressed for twelve hours of spasmodic body-gyrating. It is not just un- but actively anti-pretentious, a vindication of the city’s distinguished history of grit and grime. The no-cameras mandate is not only a precaution designed to protect clubbers in compromising positions but also an injunction to be where you are: not performing fun for the benefit of an external audience, not flaunting your wealth, but in the moment, in the wake of all this history. Before the Berghain doorman, the ultimate arbiter, we are all equal.
I was determined to find the Berghain. Bedeviled by false starts, my American friend Derek and I wandered past a desolate parking lot where no one ever parks, turned left, and made our way through piles of discarded trash, guided mostly by intuition. We stepped gingerly over the piles of shattered bottles, following a series of sonorous vibrations. Out of the rubble, the Berghain materialized, a visual and auditory monolith.
“I’ve been rejected twice,” I told Derek as we approached. “So don’t get your hopes up.”
At 11:30 p.m., the Berghain was already graced with a line a mile (a kilometer?) long. We waited in silence, trying our best to look nonchalant as we scoped out the competition. Doc Martins abounded. Faux-leather apparel and half-shaven heads glistened in the colored lights that periodically flashed from the club’ massive windows. The opportunist desperately trying to peddle beers and candy-bars was resoundingly ignored. We watched in dismay as hipster after hipster faced rejection at the door.
“You are how many?” asked a man with face tattoos when we stepped up for our assessment.
“Zwei. Two,” I croaked.
“And you are how old?” asked his coworker, a beefy man with a Mohawk.
“Ein und zwanzig. Twenty-one.”
“Okay. Viel Spaß. Have fun.” With a wave of Face Tattoos’ hand, we were in.
For East Berliners, techno was the soundtrack of liberation from an economically and politically repressive regime. For West Berliners, it was an affront to the relentlessly mainstream Coca-Cola commercialization of the city. For marginalized communities, especially Berlin’s growing gay population, it represented a haven of tolerance. The music itself wed unlikely bedfellows, sampling soul and pop, new wave and jazz. The atmosphere it bred was one of happy heterogeneity, uniting East and West Berliners in the intimacy of a dance. On the dance floor at 5 in the morning, to the beat of an almost monotonously persistent bass, divergent cultural traditions could conspire to create—well, a really good party, if nothing else.
When Derek and I would make our way to the café and bar on the top floor of the Berghain at 11 a.m. the next morning, we would find it populated by men in leather chaps wolfing down bananas. “Potassium,” one of them would explain. “It is important for, how you say, keep to dance.”