A descent into Berlin's Underground
03.04.2010 - 04.04.2010
Flashback, Spring 2000: My boyfriend has left, my job is on the brink, and I'm making no progress on my thesis. My friend David calls, and says I really need to come to LA and check out what's happening then on the club scene.
What strange roads that summer has led us both down. Tonight, I think, might be the strangest, as I trail two men through the shadowy side streets of an East Berlin night.
My destination: Berghain, the "world's greatest club," built out of the shell of an abandoned Soviet-era power station. I'm convinced these two know a short cut. They're dressed in black and walking fast, with a very Teutonic seriousness of purpose. They're either heading to the club or getting ready to carry out a mafia hit.
I can't really afford to be wrong since I have no map, no idea where I am, and the streets are cold and empty.
I think Mafia hit-men would be more relaxed than these two, as they disappear around another corner and I hurry to catch up. They must be heading to the club. Berghain, after all, is a very serious club. I've already been warned about the challenges in getting past the doormen. Go solo or in small groups. Groups larger than three won't get in. Dress the part, like you're there to dance and not stand-and-model. Don't laugh and joke and act silly in line. Silence is best. And whatever you do, try not to let them hear you speak English.
One more corner, and there it is, a giant hulking cement building surrounded by post-industrial waste. I could be back in Detroit. And it's not even 11pm, but the line is already an hour long. A good majority of the punters are in leather or rubber or combat gear; I'm relieved to see that there are still some who are dressed like me.
Very relieved. Easter Weekend is Fetish Weekend in Berlin. I didn't know that when I bought the ticket (honest), but when I found out I thought, hey, this could be fun and interesting. I've been to "Black Parties" in New York and Montreal, and had a good time at each. Those were more like costume parties, though, where all the boys dress up wild for the night. Berlin was serious about it. These guys wore their leather all day and all night, all weekend long. My hotel room was right in the middle of the bar district, and it started to feel oppressive - there were hundreds of men in the streets all weekend long, all in the same uniform, with the same shaved head, and the same goatee, and the same middle-age paunch hanging out.
They wore their gear to breakfast, and to happy hour, and at the museum. They even wore their gear to Easter Mass. I've just come from one of the most sexually-repressed places on the planet, and this is theoretically the most sexually-liberal town, and all I could think was, give it a damn rest already. We have our freedom in this city; why then create new prisons of conformity?
So it's nice to see people in-line wearing jeans, or with a variety of hair cuts, or who haven't forced themselves into any of the pre-approved identities for the weekend. But as I get closer to the door I realize with a sinking feeling that the people dressed like me are not getting in. Now I do have a back-up plan - I've got running shorts on underneath my jeans. I learned that morning that Adidas also counts as "fetish gear." I don't know how anyone gets dressed in this town, where every article of clothing is fetishized and symbolic .... but I'm at the door and it's time to focus.
The doorman glances down at the shoes of the two guys ahead of me. They don't make the cut. Auf Wiedersehen, homeboys. I step up. The doorman's gaze starts to move down to my shoes - Converse from the discount shelf at Sears. My weak point. But damn if I am going to be turned away for being a frugal shopper. I'm ready for this, and it's just a matter of timing. So as his eyes move down I flip my thumbs under my belt and hike my jeans down. His eyes stop, move back up, he checks my Adidas, and ... bitte. He nods. I'm in.
The music is dull. No surprises there. The DJ's are Boris and Victor Calderone, so I wasn't expecting much beyond monotonous beats all night long. A lot of people love this; it's just not for me. I like my house, and my Latin rhythms to shake my hips to, and my divas telling me to put my hands up in the air. But there will be no divas tonight.
Which is fine, because I don't think the men here tonight have much rhythm. People are marching more than grooving. It's robotic moves for robotic music. The dance floor is surprisingly small, at least by North American and Aussie standards. It might hold 1500 dancers. But it is set in this cavernous hall that really is fantastic. The ceiling disappears 18 meters above our heads, and a massive metal stairway leads below.
The music fits the space. And for this style of music I'll admit: Berghain might be the greatest in the world. But I go dancing to celebrate life. I like happiness and joy. This is all too serious. I can't imagine hearing my upbeat house here in post-apocalyptic club.
It's not bad, and in fact it's a pretty amazing scene, it's just not my style. The guys are maintaining better than they do on the west coast - I don't see the messiness, the tweakers and the ghb overdoses that are so common there. I hear rumors of a new drug called "plant food," but I have no idea what it is. It's easier to be solo here than on the Circuit. A solo dancer on the Circuit can end up being a pariah; you want to go with your family! Here it's acceptable, and almost common. And the night isn't interrupted by silly shows; the dj remains in charge. There are good things that the US Circuit could learn from.
I head down the stairs to see what lies below.
And down the rabbit hole I go.
And nine hours later, I leave.