I don’t like clubs. They’re hot, the music’s loud and boring, and being packed in against a bunch of dancing strangers really drives home how inescapably solitary the human condition is by contrast. All that said– I had an awesome time clubbing in Berlin.
There’s a stereotype of the Berlin club scene: everyone wearing all-black outfits with metal studs and leather collars, gathering in abandoned warehouses for a night of drug and techno-fueled debauchery. This stereotype persists because it is 100% correct, but it fails to capture what makes clubbing in Berlin so great.
Walking around Berlin there was always a faint techno beat in the air. After an afternoon of exploring the city’s cultural offerings and fraught history, I followed the sound from the Reichstag to a train station where protesters had gathered in support of immigrants’ rights. The demonstrators had brought several wagon-trucks with sound systems and were having a low-key rave in the town center. I was reminded of the scores of Colombians dancing salsa in Cartagena’s streets. The protest DJs seemed quite good, and they drew a crowd of fashionably dressed (all black and leather) young people arriving from the train station. I already felt I wasn’t cool enough for Berlin and resolved to buy some cooler clothes to help blend in with Berlin’s non-conformist fashion norms.
I found a street fair/open air flea market with a Woodstock/Burning Man vibe. After eating my way past a line of food trucks, I bought a black leather bracelet with metal studs and a black running vest that I hoped would seem punk in the proper context.
In the days before my arrival I’d reached out to acquaintances for recommendations on navigating Berlin’s club scene. Besides tips where to go, here’s what I was able to gather about how to actually get in:
Door policies are strict, unknowable, and capricious. Berghain (the coolest club in Berlin((There’s an argument to be made that it’s overhyped and over-popular with tourists, but by all accounts its three stories legitimately house the best sound system, hottest DJs, and best club on Earth))) is particularly infamous. Whereas a group of pretty models should be a shoe-in at most clubs in the world, it’s quite possible to wait in line for three hours only to be turned away for no discernible reason.((This seems very much in line with German philosophy.)) There are certain best practices that can improve your chances: dress in black. Don’t use your phone or talk in line. Speak perfect German/don’t be a tourist. Ultimately it all hinges on the whim of Sven.
Sven is the cyborg assassin from the year 2040 who’s been sent back in time to be Berghain’s doorman. He doesn’t speak, but if he indicates you’re not getting in, there’s really no appealing the point.
My Berliner friends were out of town, so I connected with an American expat and agreed to meet at “Birgit & Bier” shortly after midnight. I boarded one of Berlin’s always running, always on-time trains. The car was packed with drunk bachelorettes and a hundred British 18-20 year-olds drinking bottles of beer((open-container laws are a tyrannical American invention)) to pregame a multi-hostel pub crawl.
I got off with the teeming teen masses at Waushauer st. and walked toward Birgit & Bier. Every 20 seconds a stranger would greet me, “Hashkokveed!” At first I thought this must be a cooler way of saying “Good evening” that my language tapes had overlooked– until one added “Emdee emmay?” I realized they were offering me “hash, coke, weed?” and “MDMA”. My contact texted me that the line was “bigger than anything in America.”
I arrived and saw this to be an understatement. After gauging the line’s progress I determined it would be 2-3 hours before I reached the door.
Nothing in life is worth waiting 2-3 hours, especially given that 1/3 people were getting turned away. It’s not uncommon for people to enter the clubs Friday night carrying sleeping pads and food in preparation to party straight on to Tuesday morning, so the line’s progress was especially slow. I abandoned my friend and walked back to the train to try one of the other clubs I’d been recommended.
Google Maps led me to get off at a very empty train station that led onto a very dark and empty street. I noticed one woman dressed in black walking in the direction of the club, so I tried to follow her at what I hoped was an uncreepy distance so she might lead me there.
Sure enough, my sketchy gambit paid off and I arrived outside Kater Blau, one of Berlin’s top-tier clubs. Unfortunately the line was even longer than Birgit’s and stretched more than a block away. The thought of waiting hours by myself, with my phone off, and relatively sober was intolerable. I’d rather spend 4 hours looking for a club with a short wait than stand in line for 3 hours.((Psychology research shows this is a pretty common foible.))
It was already 1am, and I was pretty tired after arriving at 9am that morning on a bus from Amsterdam. “Maybe I’m already past the age where waiting in line to pay to listen to weird music and dance near strangers would be fun,” I thought. Maybe I’d be happier going home to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
I then noticed “Tresor”, another highly recommended club nearby on my map. A dedicated techno club inside a decommissioned power plant, it sounded so quintessentially Berlin that I had to check it out. I walked down some more dark streets into an industrial area. My traveler’s sense told me this was a bad idea, but my club-sense told me this was probably a positive indicator that the club would be cool.
Eventually I felt– then heard– a beat coming from the direction of a concrete smokestack. I knew I’d found my destination when I say the line spilling out the chainlink gates of the power plant’s immense courtyard. I decided to strike up conversation with the other people in line and give it a shot.
I ended up in line behind four north-English girls whose homes and accents were just on the comprehensible side of Scottish. Apparently they had flown down to Berlin for a weekend of clubbing- as apparently college students in Europe do sometimes.
After a little over an hour we approached the entryway, and the line fell silent. We could feel the eyes of the bouncers upon us- weighing, judging. My pulse quickened with each set of club goers admitted or denied. The couple in front of the girls got rejected. “But you let us in last night!” said the guy. The bouncers simply pointed to the courtyard exit.
The almost-Scottish lasses unbuttoned their blouses. I unzipped my vest– because who am I to assume the bouncers’ sexual orientation? The girls stepped to the front of the line.
The bouncers weighed them for a moment, then gestured inward.
I stepped up, resolute. The way in would come but once.
“Ein?” asked the bouncer. I nodded. It’s better to say nothing because 1. it’s cooler than talking, and 2. talking would give away my non-native accent.
The bouncer said some German words I didn’t know. Hesitation wouldn’t help, so I nodded in feigned understanding and walked in. Apparently this was the right thing to do.
I entered the power plant and masked my excitement as I paid the 15 euro cover.((Getting into Berlin’s clubs isn’t about being rich- it’s about fitting in and adding to the desired vibe.)) The ground level of the power plant appeared unaltered. The practically-Scottish lasses and I grinned at each other like giddy schoolgirls (which, technically, they were.) We didn’t know why we’d been let in, but the fact that we had been immediately made us feel accepted and cooler than the sad sots who hadn’t. The girls disappeared to the restroom and I abandoned them (I mentioned that I don’t like waiting.)
I followed the growing thud of the music to an unmarked stairwell, climbed a flight, and exited into a lively, but not overcrowded bar and dim lounge area. The crowd was mostly in their 20s, reasonably but not excessively attractive, and dressed mostly in black. Small groups lounged on couches or benches, drinking and chatting between dancing.
The back of the lounge opened onto a dance floor illuminated only by the lighting system tied to the DJ. The music was well audible, but I was able to order a “Hendricks und tonic” without raising my voice. I was delighted that my drink was strong and a reasonable 8 euro.((I’ve had cheap club experiences, but I have no desire to relive $1 tequila night in Panama.))
Drink in hand, I walked onto the dance floor to see if German warehouse techno is any different from when the DJ used to play Cascada at my high school dances.
The first thing I noticed on Tresor’s dance floor was the incredible power and quality of the sound system. The bass shook the hair on my arms and the air in my lungs, but the treble was clear without being painfully loud. In fact, I could speak and listen to people *on* the dance floor– an unnatural novelty analogous to taking one’s first breaths underwater as a SCUBA diver.
I tried to deconstruct what made this DJ better than the others. The music did seem catchier, more varied, more interesting. Several times I told myself I’d take a break “after this song” but the song never ends– it just evolves.
I lost myself in the lights and the beats for over an hour, but eventually I wanted another G&T. I found an empty spot at the bar between two women wearing leather harnesses that covered only the most strategic square inches of their bodies.
“Nice kandi!” one of them said, pointing to my wrist. I knew she had said “kandi” with a ‘K’ and ‘I’ because several years ago I read a Wikipedia article about “Rave Kandy”– referring to the various bracelets, glo-sticks, and other odds and ends people wear at raves to express themselves and make themselves more interesting to drug-altered senses.
“Thanks,” I said, and explained their international origins. Her attire was risqué, but not out of place considering the setting. It turns out she and her leather-clad companions were a sort of Burning Man family visiting Berlin. They’d just arrived from Berghain after some of their party had been turned away at the door.
There’s the saying that “an armed society is a polite society” (since the stakes of an argument are very high.) I found the same principle applied to a near-naked society- I saw a lot less unwanted groping on the dance floor compared to less-risque clubs I’d visited elsewhere.
I got my drink without much wait and exchanged tidbits about upcoming parties for the week. Berliners talk about clubs the way Bostonians talk sports or New Yorkers talk residential real estate- it’s a way of sharing common knowledge in a way that reinforces a mutual sense of belonging. “Wednesdays at that club are for gay orgies,” she said, the same way I’d tell you luxury rental rates are down in Brooklyn. A dude with a thick black beard like Odin’s recommended “Nuke” for viking metal.
I returned to the dance floor and found the English schoolgirls– they told me they’d just been dancing in the basement the last few hours. I hadn’t realized there were more inhabited levels, so I descended some stairs into a long basement corridor. A German man coming down the hall asked me with tremendous urgency if I’d been to Bavaria.
“It is my homeland,” he explained. “And the beer is the best! You must visit!” He gave me a friendly, MDMA-fueled hug, and continued on his way.
Fog rolled through the opening of the corridor, which opened into Tresor’s renowned “techno-dungeon”. Fog machines intermittently filled the low-ceilinged chamber with white mist, rendered absolutely opaque by flashing strobe lights. I saw millisecond glimpses of dancers frozen in the flashes. I often couldn’t see my own hands- a disconcerting sensation that made me very glad I was not on any drugs. At the front of the room I found another DJ separated from the dancers by a steel-barred cage.
I let the beat pulse through me and let go of normal sight. This was a place to lose oneself utterly in the music and simply exist. Normally I have a lot of trouble letting go like that, but everything about Tresor’s environment encourages you to experience the present moment- exactly the sort of experience my club-going friends tell me they’re after.
After a very long time on the dance floor I decided to call it a night. But I got lost and ended up back on the other dance floor, where a new DJ was playing. This happened a few times until at 7am I made a concerted search for the exit. There’s no natural light in the club, so stepping out into the morning sun was very disorienting. Sure enough, there was still a line to get in- Tresor’s weekend was still just beginning.((I proceeded to go out to the clubs two more nights and witness more things that, for now, shall remain just between Berlin and me.))