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The night I conquered Berghain Berlin's psyche breeds a perfect party

(Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

(Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


May 30, 2024   5 mins

There are few things in life more satisfying than hearing your own voice blasted out of a giant sound system in the bowels of a German sex club. What a glorious scene to soundtrack. People being tortured in public for kicks. People having molten wax poured all over their genitalia by leather-clad pain merchants. Threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes, slave markets, dwarf love and fisting. And you’re a part of it all. You get to be in on the action, omnipotent, God-like. I was up to no good in the bogs with a pal of mine last summer at Berlin’s notoriously shame-free KitKatClub and through the walls a familiar bass line began to seep: it was the sound of “Roberto’s Tumescence”.

Berlin is my favourite city. I relocate there every summer now. It always bothered me that the groups I’d been in found popularity in Paris, but not Berlin. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it left me feeling like an anachronism. Paris is where you go for fashion, for very long walks, to read or write, to have affairs and to eat red meat. It’s architecturally ill-equipped to support nascent music scenes. A nascent music scene requires a populace long neglected by their government, living in a kind of post-industrial tabula rasa, a DIY-or-die kind of pressure. Detroit, Manchester, Sheffield, New York before they cleansed it. Even though it’s been several decades since the reunification that spurred the city’s techno explosion — an explosion now sanctified by Unesco no less — Berlin still has that unfinished energy.

It doesn’t have a curfew either. There’s no infantilising call of “bedtime” from on high. If a club stays open for days, you can sort of “move in” over the weekend. You can learn a lot about yourself if you try this for a few days. Especially if that club is a throbbing, homosexual techno dungeon. Ironically, this governmental act of faith in the good behaviour of its populace came about not long after the fall of the Third Reich. Before the erection of the wall, a tit-for-tat extension of opening times had ensued between the western segment of the city and the Soviet.

In the west, last orders had been 9pm; in the east, 10pm. The moment the west upped the ante, the east responded in kind, until a hotelier named Heinz Zellermayer grew sick of the stand-off. Over a bottle of whiskey, he’s said to have told the commandant of the western sector that “mayhem only comes when the bartender has to say ‘closing time’”. He insisted that zero curfew wouldn’t just be good for business, but would also make for a fine demonstration of liberal values.

The Western powers voted 2–1 in favour of never-ending nightlife: France and America for, Britain against, claiming it would render the city “too rowdy”. I wonder how that same freedom might pan out here in London? For the most part, ours is a culture of post-pub living-room cocaine binges. We are one-room adventurers. Maybe that’s for the best? We lack the inherent love of “order” that underpins the German psyche. Where drink and drugs are concerned, we sprint. We cannot be trusted with a marathon.

The stakes are high in Berlin if you’re looking for a good time. It’s death or glory. You might stumble into transcendent communion with a group of strangers in a warehouse somewhere; you might just as easily stumble into a plague of self-doubt and misdirected recriminations. If you want to play, you also have to accept getting played — by the music and by the heroically cynical door policies.

At a good club everyone is the front person, and no one is the front person. Right at the moment you feel like you’re at the centre of the universe, you suddenly disappear. Through this barely human machine music, social atomisation is inverted, or repurposed, made good somehow. In Berlin, clubs aren’t just places you go to get out of your box — they’re like extra-moral zones where nature’s lack of design is put on trial. It’s fun, but it can also be kind of like graft. Taken too seriously, does pleasure become work? Nowhere is this question more pertinent than at Berghain.

“At a good club everyone is the front person, and no one is the front person.”

To an extent, Berghain paints its self-portrait in the misery of its rejects, its mythos carved in a never-ending succession of random refusals. The door policy — much like the music played within — is an ode to ephemerality. It is EasyJet-set-proof. You never know when or if you’re ever going to set foot in the place again. The club, an isolating concrete monolith, looms over a stretch of wasteland shrouded in an aura of regal indifference. Its only code of conduct: hard glamour.

I’ve seen people turned away from Berghain who looked like they were born there, head to toe in tattoos, leather and Balenciaga, people who had just queued for three hours. Certitude is passé. The sovereignty of the club precludes all solidarity. It’s easier to think of the place as a kind of tyrannical decades-long immersive art experiment than a night spot. Once beyond the gauntlet, you’re met with a sense of “anything goes” that exists nowhere else on earth. You are met with perfectly tuned German chaos.

The door staff all but extinguished my “youth” on a Sunday afternoon at the tail end of the summer of 2022. A fifth rejection in a row all but broke my heart. It’d been 10 years since my one and only visit. All I’d wanted was for them to turn me into a techno androgyne again: an android allergic to anxiety, a machine that can process nothing save raw enthusiasm. I had it on good authority that my music was being played inside and had gone down well with a few of the residents there. My geisha-gimp alter ego was welcome; I was excluded.

But then, a year and half later, my band was booked to play the club’s 19th birthday party. This booking became the end point of my imagination: the title fight on the horizon. After this gig, I could retire or die or start writing pompous essays full-time. The gig meant closing the loop and paying my dues. Since my only visit, I would forever try to find my way back to a Berghain state of mind while up on stage. But things weren’t nearly filthy enough in the world of London indie.

I wanted to pay my dues, but of course, I also wanted vengeance. They had cast me aside with barely a shrug time and time again. They’d briefly pitted me against my dear friend Rob, whose resemblance to a demonic Phillip Schofield I blamed entirely for the mass rejection. They had taken a part of my dignity, and sent me back to London pregnant with shadow and self-doubt. I loved them; I had no choice but to love them. But now, it was their turn to love me. Sprawled semi-spread eagle across a monitor, wearing nothing save a half a tub of Vaseline, with one hand wrapped around a microphone, the other searching my own cavity, I think I won that love. I emptied myself entirely.

One great thing about getting asked to play Berghain is that you can bring a posse. They normally don’t let you in if you show up with a posse. They want you to show up alone. To be alone together. By showing up alone you can more readily disappear. Disappear into yourself. Which is where the first skirmish of their war on banality has to take place. That being said, on this occasion, I got to bring my laddish big bro, whom, by his own admission, “ain’t ever getting let into that fucking place”.

He couldn’t contain his excitement on the main floor later that night. He kept singing sped-up Cat Stevens lyrics over the world’s most elegant techno, much to the chagrin of the hot-pant-clad muscle Mary’s adjacent. When we got home to England, he summed the place up perfectly: “I miss it like a person, Lias, that club. My heart aches for it. We don’t want safety. We want salvation.”


Lias Saoudi is the frontman of Fat White Family and the Moonlandingz, and the co-author of Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure

FatWhiteFamily

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Chipoko
Chipoko
17 days ago

What a revolting first paragraph! It epitomises the West’s descent into self-obsessed filth.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

Ugh, please…

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I agree!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

Please, UnHerd, no more of this –

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
19 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I share the sentiment, but more of it is precisely what we need. Look, just look, at what we have become. If this is not a clue, what hope for us is there?

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
18 days ago

I only read the first paragraph, and had enough. What have we become? Last year, we stood in front of an abyss, then we took a big step forward…
If we keep going, we shall have to start digging!

Rhys Ehlert
Rhys Ehlert
19 days ago

Christ, Lias, you’re like a broken record. Can you actually write about anything else?

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones
19 days ago

Pray for this man. He needs it.

Y Chromosome
Y Chromosome
19 days ago

Very odd. Some essays on this sight are brilliant. And then this…

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
18 days ago

I loathe Berlin. Even more than I dislike New York Sh!tty. This article confirms why I find the place so distasteful: overrated, dirty, and full of self-important narcissists and others who make up the dark triad of psychology. No thanks! I am not a city person to begin with, and am happiest if I can walk through the gentle hills of Dorset or along the coast looking out onto the blue water, and listening to the sound of waves and seagulls.

If I desire city life, which doesn’t happen often, then I prefer Vienna or Budapest with their elegance and gentility. I dislike clubs, and prefer the grace and grandeur of a Viennese ball or an opera performance where I am surrounded by well-dressed and usually well-mannered people. I hope to never have to set foot onto Berlin territory ever again, and if that place were to disappear tomorrow, I would simply shrug.

dave dobbin
dave dobbin
16 days ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

You didn’t read the article but feel it worth sharing what you like…

J Bryant
J Bryant
19 days ago

I enjoyed this essay. All I read nowadays is young people in despair: low paid jobs, no chance of buying a house, no chance of starting a family. And Western governments have taken to legislating our every act and pleasure.
Meanwhile, guys like the author, and the patrons of Berghain (which I’d never heard of), are having uninhibited fun. It’s a lifestyle I associate with the 1970s/1980s and I thought had died out after that.
I was never the Berghain type, but I’m glad there are still people out there chasing that intense feeling of being alive.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
19 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Lol. Next time I feel like some “uninhibited fun” in public, I’ll certainly be giving the ol’ Vaseline enema a go.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
19 days ago

“Vaseline enema” is an oxymoron, silly; it’s far too viscous and sticks like shit to a blanket.

Might I suggest a weak coffee solution – then you can tick the alt-health box at the same time.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
19 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Having another man’s organ rammed up your exit port might certainly create an intense feeling of being alive, but not my cup of tea.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
19 days ago

The description of Berlin is reminiscent of the seedy side of Berlin described by Christopher Isherwood, back in the early 1930’s. That ended well.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
19 days ago

Oh, jeez, what now, UnHerd?

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
19 days ago

“Disappear into yourself”. This whole essay is an exercise in that.
“Extra-moral zones where nature’s lack of design is put on trial”. Sounds cool; philosophically incoherent. You contradict yourself when describing techno as “elegant” and the chaos as “perfectly tuned”. So let me get this straight: the club is beyond morality, but somehow not beyond aesthetics? Why one and not the other? Is all art not just the product of undesigned beings, without any objective value? You’d probably agree with such a statement eighteen hours into a drug binge.
However, your essay is an attempt to say why this culture “matters” in some kind of mystical sense. You oscillate between nihilism and pseudo-religiosity depending on when it suits you. In your worldview, nothing is cool, least of all being accepted into an orgiastic nightclub by some other random ball of matter and energy. So why try convincing anyone that this lifestyle has a shred of a shadow of meaning?
“You might stumble into transcendent communion with a group of strangers in a warehouse somewhere; you might just as easily stumble into a plague of self-doubt and misdirected recriminations.” Those are terrible odds.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago

Fully agree with you on this. I’ve experienced clubbing in Manchester (no drugs involved, or even necessary, a couple of drinks excepted) and look back fondly on those times. They were a form of release at the weekend after a hectic week at work; also, a great fitness workout. That’s where the significance ended.

The author of this piece takes it all far too seriously. He should, to coin a phrase, “get a life”.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
19 days ago

The activities of consenting adults in private are for them to decide.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
19 days ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

When did I suggest people shouldn’t be free to decide?

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
19 days ago

You didn’t, but you appear to not approve of or understand club culture. You can judge it any way you see fit but it’s unlikely to be a fair assessment. Those occasions where the music, the crowd and yes, the drugs, are in a state of balance are indeed something like a transcendent experience. Nearly anll who participate enjoy it and then return to ‘normal’ life without any harm done.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
19 days ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

I’m aware of the culture. I’ve been off my tits on MDMA in basements so sweaty that it condenses on the ceiling and falls as rain.
I get why you call the experience transcendent; I too have felt the “balance” you describe. It does have a religious element to it, in the more pagan, shamanistic sense.
So I’m no stranger to this essay’s line of argument; I’ve heard it expressed in smoking areas across London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and more. My comments weren’t meant to be mean-spirited, but rather to explore some of the contradictions as I saw them. I would encourage anyone to examine the foundations of their worldview, together with its fruits, and see where it leads them.
For me, club culture wasn’t ultimately fulfilling – not in the deepest spiritual sense. My view (and as a consenting adult, you are free to disagree) is that the “salvation” that Lias’ friend “aches for” comes through Christ.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
19 days ago

It’s a mistake to think clubbing can fulfill your deepest spiritual needs but that doesn’t diminish its value. Your closest personal relationships and to some extent your work/contribution to society are the place to look for that. It’s an insight so many people have at the end of life but everyone ignores it while living their own. As for religion, I’ve always preferred facts, they’re more reliable.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
19 days ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

I agree that personal relationships matter most. I suppose the difference is that I include communion with God at the top of that list.
As for your point about “facts”, I’m glad you reject nihilism and believe in some foundational reality.
Some questions, though: what gives facts their substance? What makes truth true? How can we have a rational conversation in a universe without an ordering principle behind it all?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
18 days ago

“I’m aware of the culture. I’ve been off my tits on MDMA in basements so sweaty that it condenses on the ceiling and falls as rain.”
Hah, I’ve been to a few of those back in late 80’s/early 90’s – good times.
Looking back, I think it was a celebration of youth, vitality and zero-responsibilities as much as anything (although the ecstasy might have helped too 😉 )

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
19 days ago

“Sprawled semi-spread eagle across a monitor, wearing nothing save a half a tub of Vaseline, with one hand wrapped around a microphone, the other searching my own cavity, I think I won that love. I emptied myself entirely.”
Nuff said!

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
18 days ago
Reply to  Mark Knight

Mate, not my thing. But you do you. Bollocks to the doubters.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
19 days ago

Now that us Gen-Xers are clocking up the half century, a much more appealing form of ‘clubbing’ is the all-dayer. All you need is a function room with a bar and a PA system. Plenty of seating, decent pints and hopefully some pub grub on offer at dinner time. All done by 10 pm and you can toddle off home for some cocoa and a nice, long kip.

In any case, I doubt that I’m cool enough to get past the Berghain bouncers these days, even if I was a bit of a ‘face’ on my local techno scene in the 90s.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
19 days ago

I used to frequent Trade at Turnmills in the 90’s. An after hours gay sweatbox and for my money the wildest and most welcoming dancefloor the UK has ever seen. They were great times. Formative times for me and many others. Unfortunately with the war on fun carried out by prudish and spiteful organisations (like Islington Council and their crusade against Fabric a few years ago) that has crippled our nighttime economy it’s difficult to have that kind of uncivilised fun in the UK anymore. I’m sad that further generations won’t have opportunities to go to these strange places full of strange people and find them welcoming.

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones
19 days ago

[Posted in error]

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
19 days ago

Being charitable, this guy can be mildly fun. But he also clearly doesn’t really have anything of substance to say, and spends most of every article trying to conceal this with various pretentious self contradictory flourishes

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
19 days ago

His tragedy is that the NME is no more.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
19 days ago

“The door staff all but extinguished my “youth” on a Sunday afternoon at the tail end of the summer of 2022. A fifth rejection in a row all but broke my heart”

Boo-hoo. Get over yourself, you big wet blanket. Go somewhere else. Probably plays the same music and most likely not full of self-regarding narcissists.

Another tip: take a lesson from history and check what the door policies were like at Studio 54 in the late 70s. Plus ca change, eh?

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
18 days ago

I loved Berghain, I got in on my second attempt wearing t-shirt and sad dad jeans. I think trying too hard is a thing. Everyone has a theory about the Berghain door people.

1st thing to say is that the music is f*****g awesome. 2nd thing to say is that the music is f*****g awesome. I was never a fan of super heavy, super dark, pounding techno before. I’ve never heard anything like it since. If being repeatedly hit over the head with a baseball bat, could ever be described as being profoundly erotic and viscerally transcendental all at once, that would be it.

3rd thing to say I’d that Berghain is a gay club, nobody mentions this as to do so would be gauche. And as it’s a gay club, it’s shirts off as soon as you get in. Consequently the door policy feels like an elaborate hoax. This also means that if you are an attractive man, You get hit on relentlessly. And if you are straight (they can tell,) it becomes a feeding frenzy. f**k. Did I say the music is awesome. The safest place is in the middle of the dance floor which is seriously ‘avin’ it all the time.

The ladies are only there to rubber neck. Hum.

I didn’t see any fivesomes or any fisting for that matter. Then again I’m not gay so I wouldn’t, but wasn’t keen on leaning on any flat surfaces either.

But I did see a couple of big hairy guys, I think the are called “Clones” do an elaborate mating dance. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Serengeti, replete with lots of roaring, strutting and chest beating. They looked like they were having enormous fun. I was jealous.

Not gay, hum, my life could have been so much less complicated.

Berghain is one of the few places I need to go back to before I die. India would be another and I’m not even a techno fan. Yowsa!