I last went to Berlin when I was 19. Just a poor nerdy history student trying to hitchhike to Latvia and the only things on my Berlin bucketlist were Checkpoint Charlie and at least 4 types of sausage. This time, all I heard whenever I mentioned I was going was a variation of the same question:
“You have to go to Berghain.”
“Are you going to try to get into Berghain?”
“Good luck getting into Berghain!”
I like to think I’m reasonably cool. I read GQ whenever I’m waiting in the barbers and I can pretty much recite the film Gladiator word for word. But I had no idea what a Berghain was. Of course I didn’t let this on, and I’m pretty sure I definitely got away with presuming it was just some hipster burger joint rather than, of course, being a former power plant that’s now often described as “The best club in the world”.
Now, I’d definitely read things about a famous superclub in Berlin – probably whilst reading GQ in the barbers – but I’d never bothered to commit the name to memory. Doesn’t every capital city have one or two famous megaclubs? I’d naively presumed this was yet another place for middle managers to sip 15 euro vodka redbulls whilst they shuffle to David Guetta and grope whoever walks past in a skirt.
Then I heard the words “24-hour gay fetish techno rave” and was bluntly reminded that Germans don’t quite play by the same rulebook as everyone else when it comes to partying.
If there’s barbed wire, it must be good.
As it turns out, most of my friends enthusiastically plugging Berghain weren’t exactly 100% sure what it was either. They’d all heard a great deal about the infamously exclusive Berlin nightclub, but very few of them had even got as far as the queue, let alone ventured inside. And with the club’s strict no photo, no video and no media policies, knowledge of what is it like behind the broad shoulders of the world’s pickiest bouncers comes almost purely from hear say. (Not the band. They’d never get in).
The rumours surrounding Berghain are rampant and vary wildly. When one person told me that it was the world’s biggest hardcore gay fetish club, another would contest that it was no more than a Teutonic Fabric. Some said the queues last for hours, and others that you zip to the front in minutes because of the speed at which the bouncers dismiss prospective clubbers. I was warned by several people not to take nice shoes because you’ll almost certainly get jizz/piss/lube/shit on them, and that you can’t even order a bottle of Heineken without seeing someone being brutally fisted at the bar, others contested it was really quite tame nowadays.
I kept an open mind.
What everyone did agree on however, was that the club is obscenely exclusive. Not exclusive in the wanky British sense, where flabby power-mad skinheads get their only boner of the week by denying other blokes entry to the bar they’re paid to stand outside. Instead, Berghain appeared to be exclusive in an unusually respectful ‘this guy must know what he’s talking about’ sort of way.
Nobody seems to kick up a fuss when their told “No”. It’s rare that anyone even contests it or pleads. Possibly because they’re high as a fucking kite, but probably because unlike other clubs most people go to Berghain expecting to be turned away.
It helps that the guy making the big decisions here is Sven Marquardt. Not only the most famous bouncer in the world, but a highly respected photographer. Sven is probably the only bouncer in the world who’s done a menswear collaboration with Hugo Boss. And this gives someone a little more authority on ‘cool’ than Fat Baz from Liquid in Rochdale.
Sven is an imposing figure. He is in his mid 50s with a deep tan and thick silver hair. The parts of his face not covered by beard are scrawled with barbed wire tattoos and enough piercings to make airport security a pain in the arse. Sven rarely wears anything other than black – although he once worked the doors in an all white suit “just to fuck with people” – and no matter what time of night or day, is usually sporting sunglasses. It takes more than a well-ironed Ralph Lauren to get into this club.
In the world of Berghain, nobody’s bigger than the door. Even being a celebrity isn’t a shoo-in, which has caused some wonderful tantrums in the past. Britney has apparently been turned away at the door, and legendary house producer Felix Da Housecat famously had an embarrassing meltdown on Twitter after not getting in.
Getting into Berghain…
How to get into Berghain? That’s the killer question. There are hundreds of rumours, online guides and even an app on how to get past big Sven, such is the desire to be deemed worthy. They advise you, amongst other things, to wear black, wear fetish gear, act gay but not too gay, don’t speak English in the queue, don’t speak German in the queue, don’t speak at all in the queue, don’t joke, don’t look nervous (easier said than done), don’t use your phone, don’t be drunk, don’t be sober, go at certain times (between 8am and 4pm on a Sunday seems a common suggestion – Berghain usually stays pretty much open from midnight Friday until Monday morning), and there’s no doubt some logic in them all.
But the truth is, even according to the big man himself, there’s no set rules here. The bouncers each have their own preferences and styles, and it all depends on who’s been let in already, and how they feel at that very moment you step sheepishly into their gaze…your hastily bought strap-on quivering in the cold night air.
THIS is the secret to Berghain’s success. This is why it’s regularly voted one of the best clubs in the world. It’s the mystery, the unpredictability, the sticking up two fingers to the usual nightclub snobbery, glamour and plastic luxury. But not even Berghain can put its leather-gloved finger on exactly what ‘Berghain cool’ is. If Sven thinks you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and you get in quickly before he changes his mind!
Getting into Berghain is like finally passing your driving test after the 3rd attempt. It’s that hot girl in the year above bizarrely agreeing to go on a date with you. It’s receiving the ‘all clear’ text from the sexual health clinic, which if you go full Berghain you might be lucky enough to experience a week or so later. It’s a nerve-prickling nauseous anticipation slowly building over what feels like hours (and may well be, depending on the queue) as you watch group after group of people in front of you turned away with little more than the shake of a tattooed head. A nausea that is washed out of your body in an instant by a tidal wave of dizzying relief and giddy elation when inexplicably, you get the nod.
Anything as long as it’s black
That is the best thing about Berghain. That’s what makes it one of the best clubs in the world, and that’s what people travel from all over the world for. Not the world class techno, not the debauched atmosphere, not even the chance to get jizz on your shoe. It’s that moment right there. The acceptance.
How did WE get into Berghain?
So, let me tell you how I got in. Oh, sorry didn’t I mention that already? That’s right. I fucking got in! 9 of my friends tried over the course of the night, many objectively cooler than I, but only 3 of us walked into the dry ice.
So how did we do it? I hear you ask. Well, if I’m entirely honest, I’m not sure. But here’s what happened:
The lucky three were myself, and my two mates Neil and Gez. It was 3 am on a Saturday morning and we’d just been turned away from a bar called Rosi’s in the middle of an industrial wasteland, as many things seem to be in Berlin.
We’d had to get a taxi there, all our other mates had gotten in, and we were feeling bitter. More so after we’d gotten caught sneaking round the side and trying to climb over a wall. Reluctantly defeated, and drunk, not that the two were connected, we lumbered back up the road bitterly telling everybody walking our way that Rosi’s was closed due to a dysentery scare. “Faeces in the ice cubes, apparently. Shocking.” Petty? Very. But satisfying.
We flagged down a taxi but it was too early to go home. “Berghain bitte” was the only German anyone could remember. After I’d casually suggested it to our group a few months before, the idea of attempting to get in and what we’d discover behind the doors somehow managed to weave itself into most discussions. So it was on our minds somewhat.
The taxi pulled up in yet another industrial wasteland. There were several large, bleak concrete buildings in the vicinity but only one had lights flashing in the windows and a queue of people snaking out of the front. It looked a bit like the abandoned shoe factory from Jumanji.
One “How to get into Berghain” tip that is constant amongst everybody, is to ‘wear black and dress alternative’. Sven famously only wears black and as the club’s origins lie in the gay fetish scene, this seems a pretty safe bet. The other Berghain hopefuls must have read thought this too, as almost everybody in the cue was dressed head to toe in shades no lighter than what the Dulux paint colour chart would probably call ‘Icelandic Despair’.
So let’s get a breakdown of our outfits.
- I rarely stray far from monochrome anyway, so was reasonably prepared. I was in skinny black jeans and a black t-shirt under an open grey denim shirt, all topped off with some rather nice black suede Chelsea boots with a zip up the side. A safe-ish outfit, nothing offensive but nothing that exactly screams ‘fist me’.
- Gez also has great taste in Chelsea boots and black skinnies, but topped his torso with a grey t shirt under a dark brown leather jacket. And boldly for a nightclub, a black woolly beanie on his head.
- While we’d been in Berlin for a day already, Neil had met us straight from the airport that night and hadn’t heard the whispers of Berghain as we were getting changed. Therefore he was boldly queuing up in brogues and a fancy polka dot shirt.
The line was moving pretty fast, but not with people getting in. The waves of rejections were plodding dolefully back up towards the road thick and fast. It seemed like the only people going through the doors were those techno enough to come on their own.
We were a three, which goes right in the face of How to get into Berghain Tip #78 – ‘Never go in groups of more than two’. We were excited, but we were nervous. Not necessarily because we were desperate to get in, or because we had nowhere else to go, but because we wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and mostly, because we wanted to be chosen.
“I’m dead nervous”, Gez kept muttering. “We’re definitely not getting in”.
“Not with that attitude we’re not.”
“I’m not sure about the hat. Should I take the hat off? Who wears a hat to a nightclub?!”
“Exactly! It’s bold! It says ‘Hey, I’m wearing a hat, and I don’t care who knows it’.
The conversation back-and-forthed in this vicinity until we got into the zig-zag of metal barriers and in view of the bouncers. At that point we decided to stop talking and try and act cool. Unfortunately we’re not great actors and we’re not that cool. I started chewing gum, and in my head I looked just like James Dean. I went to lean on the barrier, all nonchalant, but it instantly gave way and started to fall. Luckily I managed to steady myself quietly before we both went clattering into the floor at the bouncer’s feet. That wouldn’t have got us in.
Three small groups in succession were quickly turned away in front of us, leaving just one wiry looking kid with a backpack between us and the jury. He looked like he was going to school but in German the kid said he was on his own and after a a moment of judgement he was ushered in.
There were two bouncers at the door, both bald, large and dressed in black, but no Sven. I was disappointed because he’d become something of a celebrity to us in the weeks leading up to the trip. They glanced at us before one asked in a gruff no-nonsense voice “Wie viele?”. I only know a handful of German words, and they mostly revolve around ordering kebabs, but I could tell he was asking a question, and bouncers only ever really ask one question that they want an answer to, “How many?”.
“Drei” I growled, attempting to match his gruff no-nonsense tone, and then quickly held up 3 fingers because I suddenly wasn’t entirely confident about my German numbers. He looked us up and down each in turn, studying us, measuring our ‘coolness’. Expressionless.
We tried to look cool. We tried so hard. This whole moment probably only lasted one or two seconds but it felt like minutes. I wish I could’ve recorded our faces as we avoided staring at the bouncers whilst waiting for some flash of acceptance out of the corners of our eyes. All casually gazing off in different directions, finding intense interest in the door frame or a bit of brickwork. We were practically whistling with nonchalance. In the end I couldn’t contain myself any longer and ended up flashing the bouncer a big cheesy “one of those days, huh?” grin. I may have even winked.
I think this threw him because he then beckoned someone from inside with a jerk of his head. In slow motion, his hair and jacket billowing around him as if in front of a wind machine in a Mariah Carey video, out walked Sven in all his tattooed, silver-haired glory.
Sven took one quick look at each of us from behind his massive sunglasses – Gez’s woolly hat, my rather nice boots, Neil’s polka dot shirt – and, for some reason, nodded us through. Louis Walsh and Tulisa might not have been sure but Simon Cowell put us through, and let’s face it, he’s the only one that matters. To this day I believe Neil remains the only person ever to have gotten into Berghain wearing a polka dot shirt.
We were briskly escorted into a security area where we were patted down and tape was put over both front and back cameras on our phones. Photos and videos are forbidden, and far more attention was paid to this than the vague half-arsed search for drugs. At some point during the process I presume I remembered to start breathing again. We then paid, were stamped, and walked out into a large atrium area where we instantly shared big grins, high fives and leapt into the air and kicking our heels together like Gene Kelly. Then we remembered the bouncers could still see us and scuttled upstairs to pretend like we belonged.
Now, I’d heard a lot about the inside of Berghain, but I shan’t give too much away. Not because of some secrecy pact, but because the place is a fucking maze and I couldn’t tell one room from another.
There were two rooms I’m certain of, the huge cavernous main floor, which I think is known as Berghain, and and upstairs area called Panorama Bar.
Walking into Berghain was like the rave scene from The Matrix Reloaded, only much darker and more industrial. Perhaps if they’d had a rave scene in Mad Max or The Road it’d look like this. A rave scene in The Road would probably perk it up a bit actually.
The entire floor was a sweating, bouncing, black mass pulsating with the thunderous omnipresent bass beat. Solo ravers, grouped ravers, lost ravers, guys kissing girls, girls kissing girls, guys kissing guys, all totally absorbed.
The techno in here was intense and as industrial as the setting. The famous stacks of Funktion One speakers providing the heartbeat for those too fucked or tired to use their own. It really is an outstanding sound system, and it only operates at about 10-20% of its full capacity to give a much cleaner sound than the abrasive buzz of a lot of clubs. Fun fact: this cleaner sound also helps clubbers stay awake during marathon weekends. And definitely just this sound.
Upstairs you can view the pulsating throngs below from the Panorama Bar, which tends to have a more minimal set. I preferred it up here, mostly because it was easier to see my hand in front of my face. Luckily, blanks in my memory about this room can be filled in by this handy diagram I found.
Credit to whoever drew it, although apparently this means I was ‘Young & Gay & Hip.’ I’ll take that.
Aside from these there was apparently a garden somewhere, several bars, and toilets that I think may have been unisex, it was hard to tell.
And what about the weirdness? The fetishes, the debauchery, the famous ‘darkrooms’ where people slink off to play a bit of how’s your father and the old one-two?
Well frankly, it’s hard to imagine darkrooms being any darker than the regular rooms. Any darker and they’d be impractical. Dangerous even. The last thing you’d want to do is rim an uncovered plug socket. Corridors led off into blackness so thick and smoky it was hard to tell if they ended anywhere but a wall. There were alcoves tucked away in the Panorama Bar that may or may not have been used for romantic liaisons. Of course these could equally be Friend Cloakrooms; a place to store your mate for a while if he’s going terribly west. Or weird chairs. Who knows!
Then again, one of the first people we saw in Berghain was a man walking round in nothing but a flimsy black leather harness strapped over his torso. His penis, of course, was dangling out for all to see. He was alone, casually dancing with a gin and tonic in his hand, but he seemed happy enough. Not too happy, thankfully. I’m sure like us he was just very relieved to have gotten in. It must be even worse to get turned away when you’re wearing nothing but a leather harness. Where else would you go? You’d struggle to get a taxi.
Unfortunately, we saw this same guy about 3 hours later his night had taken something of a turn. He was in a terrible state. Sweating profusely, swaying from side to side, and with the saddest expression on his face I’d ever seen. I imagine he’d gotten to that point in the night where he was really wishing he’d brought some jeans.
*Not an actual ‘darkroom’
Other than that it was all disappointingly light on the weirdness scale this night. Berghain does still run regular ‘speciality’ nights that you definitely wouldn’t want to wear nice shoes too. Or any clothes you wouldn’t be happy to burn when you got home – the club nights “Sewer System” and “Scat” sound particularly messy. But this particular Friday night was reasonably low on the eye-watering scale. Of course, it was very dark, so maybe I just couldn’t see all the fisting going on.
In fact, probably the most erotic thing I encountered was when I came back from the bar to find Neil and Gez sat with their arms around each other on what appeared to be a bed type platform swinging on chains about 2 feet off the ground. Next to them were a delightful gay couple I’d chatted to earlier at the bar sat in much the same way. However, only my friends were topless.
Eventually, we left as you should all good clubs, blinking into the bright morning light at the unrecognisable world of the day walkers.
Berghain is obviously overhyped. The buzz around it far outweighs the actual ‘club experience’ once you’re in there. Maybe if you’re super into your techno, which I’m not, it would objectively earn its accolade as one of the best clubs in the world. But this overhype, the buzz, the mystery, the ritual, the ridiculous exclusivity, the undergroundness of it all, that IS a major part of the experience. It’s what makes Berghain Berghain, and I’m not ashamed to say I fell for it hook line and sinker!