‘I’ve made a mistake’ I thought while looking at my new Martens and the guy kneeling down in front of me wiping his beard with my scarf. As I was about to say something he got up. The tall tattooed mountain of muscles was not the kind of person I wanted to confront so I gave him my scarf and silently went towards the bathroom to wash his not fully digested dinner off my sparkly shoe. Waiting in line to get to the bathroom took me long enough to let me go through my bad life choices, going to Matrix is in the top 5. At least the music was not too bad.
Berlin is the stop for Techno Tourists, music lovers, party goers and people who want to see the Berlin Wall, the Museum Island or the Brandenburg Gate. The German Capital is a beautiful, commercialised place where everyone can find something for themselves. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city unified thanks to the music scene – abandoned buildings were turned into temporary nightclubs where the youth of two formerly separated German states danced and celebrated. Clubs in Berlin became something more than places with loud music, alcohol, and drugs – they became the emblem of freedom. I’ve spent two years away from Berlin and now it’s time for me to go back to rediscover the city by night and experience the famous freedom. Berlin’s tradition is based on partying in the ruins which are surrounded by the rough, underground vibe. After I was told by my former flatmates, Olga and Ernest, how different the clubbing experience in Berlin is from any other clubbing scenes around the world it did not take me long to get on the plane and fly over to Berlin in search of the escape of reality and independence while dancing in the dark.
Before deciding to go out in Berlin you need to know one important thing – Berliners take partying very seriously and go by the rules of a specific club with no excuses. To party in Berlin you have to blend in. ‘Dressing according to the theme of the club, obeying the dress code is a very important part of going out in Berlin’ says Angus, an Australian DJ who moved to Berlin fifteen years ago in order to pursue his career in a techno wonderland as he calls it. ‘There are three major dress codes. All black if you’re going to a techno night, multicolour glitter madness if you pick a kind of psychedelic clubs and obviously fetish if you go to a sex club or to a fetish night’. Dress codes don’t seem to be a problem. The fact that there is no information about it on any of the clubs’ I have visited website is an obstacle for many tourists in search of a night out. ‘Nobody is going to tell you to wear this, wear that. There is no point in doing that. If the outfit wears you bouncers are going to see that and you won’t get in anyways. You’ll make an effort for nothing.’ says Angus. Looking through social media searching for clues and tips before packing my bags came in handy. Pictures of people going out in Berlin assured me that I shouldn’t pack anything else than black clothes and sneakers.
Boarding the plane early in the morning I spent the almost two hours’ flight sleeping, charging my batteries before embarking on the two days of music experience with two students – Olga and Ernest. Our plan was quite simple, as for a group of three, short on cash psychology and art students in search of the famous freedom that one can find in the dark underground of Berlin clubbing scene. Two clubs per night, going only to places which according to them were worth visiting. KitKat – the first on our list, and the one where we were supposed to go more as curious tourists rather than eager party-goers, offered us a club tour on the day of one of their fetish nights as none of us wanted to dress in a kinky-leather costume. In the other three destinations, we would dance and saufen bis zum Verlust unsere Muttersprache – a German expression that comes in handy when going out, meaning that we would drink until we forget our mother tongue. Only if we manage to get into all of the spots on our list, which according to Ernest was quite unlikely. Great start to the trip taken only to find a space where I can forget about social media, daily responsibilities and drink till the next morning.
Olga greeted me at the Schoenefeld airport, a bottle of Schnapps in her hand, car keys in the other. We quickly got to her studio-flat situated in the Prenzlauer Berg district where we were about to meet Ernest. As two people who have lived in Berlin for over a decade, they know their way around the night scene of this historical city. Ernest, twenty-four-year-old psychology student, is one of the people who starts their night out on a Saturday evening and comes back home on a Monday morning. ‘To be a proper Berliner means that you have to become a functional party-person. You have to learn how to study and work after not sleeping during the entire weekend.’ explains Ernest. During the two days, Olga and Ernest were about to show me what freedom in Berlin means. The sight of Berlin by day is breath-taking. Old buildings blend in with the modern-age architecture, tourists rush through the city centre to yet another museum, waves of bodies flowing in and out of U-Bahns accompanied with cheerful laughter and conversations in various different languages. Berlin would not be the same open space as it is today if not for the number of tourists coming to visit the city. It is hard to imagine that this tourist and family friendly spot has an exhilarating, dirty, dark and unpredictable eternal underground which we were about to explore.
Preparing to go out in Berlin differs from going out somewhere else in Europe. Berliners don’t consider putting on high-heels and a lot of make-up before clubbing. ‘There is no dress code.’ writes Bianca Ohannessian, journalist and a blogger, on her personal page the Rockskippers ‘There is one word that always pops up when it comes to Berlin style, and that’s “casual”.’ Everything here is about feeling comfortable in the outfit you’re wearing and most of the people choose to go for an all-black-everything kind of vibe. It is important not to overdress as many clubs don’t let people in only sometimes explaining that the outfit should compliment the personality because it is not about the clothes but people. Usually, instead of an explanation, you’d get only ‘nein’ and once you get a ‘nein’ there is no going back for a ‘ja’. Even though most of the clubs don’t have an official dress code during the non-themed nights it’s still important to fit in as an appropriate outfit is a very important part of going out in this city. Clubs thought of as the space of freedom have strict rules.
In Berlin, the nightlife awakens after 10 pm. There is no use in going out earlier than shortly before midnight as arriving at the club you are going to be welcomed only by an empty dancefloor. We had an extra five hours before going on a techno journey in search of freedom and a place where you can have fun and not just look like you’re having fun on all of the selfies you took that night. When Olga was trying to find something not covered in glitter in her closet, Ernest decided to once again remind me of the rules of clubbing in Berlin. He didn’t make it seem to be fun. Dressed all in black we were ready to start our techno-freedom adventure. Before going to the first club from our list we decided to see the main mayhem of the Berlin techno scene. Although we knew it is almost impossible to get in there we had to give it a shot. A place surrounded by myths and people who did not get a chance to experience the untrammeled drumbeats and bass lines in the former power plant – Berghain, also known as Panorama Bar. Berghain is considered by young Berliners as one of the best places to go to on a night out. Having arrived at the Ostbahnhof station it was impossible to miss groups of people heading towards the Berghain. The building in which the club is situated does make an impression, tall grey walls, windows covered with black curtains guarding everything that happens inside Berghain. ‘What happens in Berghain, stays in Berghain’ says a tall blonde woman in a black dress and grey sneakers queuing to get into the club ‘that is why if you are on the phone while waiting in line you will never get in. They will spot you and tell you to go home’. ‘If you’re on your phone it means that you’re not sufficiently excited about the awesome club you’re about to enter.’ writes Bianca. Although I get the point of this rule I don’t think that the fact that you message someone while waiting for hours in the queue makes you any less excited. Clubs in Berlin are removed from the omnipresence of the social media. Phones, cameras or any type of recording devices are strictly forbidden at most of the places so that people don’t have to worry about something being published after their night out. They go out to have fun and forget about their day-to-day responsibilities, not to take selfies. Once again rules like this one are explained as maintaining the freedom. ‘You shouldn’t even waste your time waiting.’ says a young man with an enormous septum piercing and a tattoo on his forehead after looking at Olga, Ernest and me for a while ‘They don’t usually let people who speak English in’. After a short conversation with the guy looking like a gang member trying to explain that we actually do speak German, we decided to move further away from him. It was like talking to a wall. Some of the people waiting in line didn’t seem to be the kind of guys I’d want to spend my night out around. Tall, intimidating, dressed only in black, tattooed, examining your every move. They couldn’t do much more really since looking at your phone is strictly forbidden if you want to get in. There was something off about the place. The vibe surrounding Berghain was not even close to what I regard as the sign of a good fun. Everyone seemed to be tense, waiting to be either let in or have their night ruined. After we circled around the concrete, grey building we decided that it was not worth the hassle. Our search for the freedom and the best techno experience in Berlin had to continue.
Next stop – Suicide Circus – a midsize techno club in Friedrichshain. The venue from the outside looks like an abandoned building surrounded by a park. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in there looking at the metal square without any windows. It reminded me of a homeless shelter more than anything else. The only entrance to the club is through the long staircase right by the loose piece of fabric which seemed to be a German flag. The other door is locked, still visible but hidden behind bins. ‘It helps us to monitor everyone getting in and out of the place’ explains Henry, a twenty-eight-year-old bouncer who has been working at the Suicide Circus for over five years ‘the neighborhood isn’t particularly safe with all the junkies and drug dealers around so we want to keep an eye on that’. The building doesn’t look welcoming. Graffiti that looks nice during the day becomes more of a warning sign during the night and the number of people looking like they are on a completely different universe is astonishing but at the same time horrifying. In front of us in the queue was standing a group of British tourists ‘Don’t say anything in English’ whispers Olga shortly before three young English speakers get refused the entry. ‘It is not a tourist spot, go back to museums’ says the tall, tattooed bouncer and boys are quickly made to leave. Thanks to Ernest our names were put on the list for the night as Henry is his old friend so we had no problems with getting in even though the bouncer was not pleased seeing that a non-German person is going to enter the club after seeing my ID. ‘We are all about freedom, no matter who you are, where you are from, how you look like’ says Henry showing us around the Circus but his words don’t sound sincere ‘that’s why most of the walls are covered in pictures and graffiti, there were some artists coming in and taking part in redecorating this place but mostly we are about people so everyone can leave their own tag on the walls of the Circus’. Maybe the club is mainly about freedom but people with a foreign IDs shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. What was obvious from the moment we entered, the Suicide Circus doesn’t have a strict dress code. There were people dressed in bright colours, leather, latex, casual all black and some in drag. The club consists of two areas. The bunkerlike dancefloor where you can’t see anything because of the smoke and loud music may cause an eardrum injury and a second more chilled area where you can sit down next to a guy offering you drugs, doing cocaine on a table or vomiting on his trousers. Even though Henry told us that the staircase was supposed to keep the junkies and drug dealers away from the club it doesn’t seem to be working. In the end, the Circus is all about the freedom you can get for €8 a night. ‘That is the real, raw Berlin club scene’ says Henry before we left the drug-driven place. What was astonishing to me is the fact that the staff didn’t seem to care that most of the people were doing drugs in the club, not even trying to hide to snort coke somewhere in the toilet. A great example of a ‘German-engineered self-destruction machine’ as a Cornwall raised, Berlin based writer Dee Cunning described Berlin nightclubs in one of her articles.
Going through the Warshauer Platz we saw more kebab stalls opened than there were signs guiding people to the city centre. After six minutes of walking around street food vans, we arrived right in front of a long, red-brick building. ‘I’m coming here every week’ says Patrick, an ex-DJ working in PR now with a few clubs in Berlin, while finishing his chicken wrap in front of Matrix ‘You have here everything you need at a night out. Themed dancefloors, if you don’t fancy techno go to the Hip Hop part or RnB, just have fun, go around, explore’. A Friday night of exploring seven different dancefloors at Matrix costs €10, again promoted as the place of freedom. ‘Every night has its own theme, Fridays are all about dancing till you drop, no limits, no set hour when you have to leave, an explosive night’ says Patrick. Once again right before facing the bouncer, I’m told to speak German only, just in case. This time the bouncer didn’t comment on my nationality after seeing my ID, having politely greeted us let us in. We found ourselves again in a bunkerlike setting with barely visible dancefloors. In the main room, there were three cages on the dancefloor opened to people who prefer dancing behind the bars. Next, to the DJ, the two half-naked dancers were bouncing to the rhythm of techno, entertaining the drunk crowd or at least trying to. ‘That’s my boy G playing!’ says Patrick pointing at the DJ rocking his head back and forth as in some kind of a trance. Matrix is fairly bigger than the Suicide Circus, even though we got a chance to see only four out of seven dancefloors. The crowd was as mixed as you can get in Berlin with the majority of locals hanging out in large groups. ‘Those are the regulars’ says Patrick pointing at a group of German-speaking guys sitting on a black leather sofa ‘they have been coming here since I can remember’. A trick to get into Matrix during a busy night is to fool the staff that you are one of the regulars, if you pretend well enough you get in, otherwise, you may end up on the club’s blacklist. ‘It is rather easy to fool them now’ comments Patrick ‘Most of the bouncers have started working here not that long ago, there aren’t many people left from the staff that I remember’. The club seemed to be a place of freedom for some, but it still was not what I was looking for. Even though at this point I wasn’t sure myself what I was expecting to find. Having drunk four shots of tequila with Patrick I could still easily notice guys in the corner having a kind of weirdly looking seizure. ‘Don’t look at them, they popped way too many pills.’ says Patrick ‘drink up and zone out.’ continues and passes me triple vodka coke. Matrix is nothing more than a temple of mediocrity from which the only vivid memory I have is the guy vomiting on my new shoes. Quick tip for people who still want to check out Matrix – don’t wear anything that you don’t want to get completely destroyed. This male-dominated space was more about hooking up and snorting cocaine in the toilet than enjoying the night out. At least this time people were trying not to be noticed by the security while doing drugs. I left early with Olga to get rid of the vomit stains left on my shoe leaving Ernest and Patrick behind to enjoy themselves while we were about to stop by one of the kebab stalls.
Slightly disappointed but ready for another night out in search of the famous freedom in clubs in Berlin it was the time to see what KitKat and Tresor have in stock for us. KitKat is a fetish-techno club opened by an Austrian pornographic filmmaker in 1994. Since then it attracts clubbers who want to dress in fetish, leather, kinky costumes or even dance nude to the rhythms of techno. Olga’s friend, Sue, works as a head of the bar and a bartender in KitKat and she agreed to show us the club before the Saturday’s fetish night. Red leather sofas were everywhere, surrounding dancefloors, hidden in the dark corners and in the middle of an area without speakers where you could just hide away for a bit. Or take part in an orgy apparently. ‘We’re cool with everything if it’s consensual’ says Sue. Iron dragons were already turned on before the party blowing fire dangerously close to the walls and later on also hair of the clubbers. The bar was small. ‘People don’t come here to drink, they come here to experience the sexual freedom’ explains Sue, ‘the club doesn’t mind if you have sex with someone or masturbate in front of everyone. In the end that is what KitKat is about’. The general rule is that you have to be very open-minded entering the club as there are eye-popping goings on. It’s not something for everyone. The place in the middle of the town center, with a beautifully arranged interior at the first glance doesn’t look like a sex-dungeon club. ‘We promote sex positivity and freedom. But it isn’t for everyone, our guests are usually the kinky, alternative, sexually confident people’ says Sue ‘Also people working here aren’t your typical bartenders, we usually work topless or dressed in latex, some costumes bought in sex shops. It’s a good fun’. Ernest claims that it’s Berlin clubbing experience at its best but the tour didn’t convince me to stay there for the party even though the leather sofas look extremely comfortable and the Sex on the beach drink I got from Sue was one of the best things I have ever tried. While we were leaving there was already a long queue formed of half-naked people, men with their bottoms freely bouncing with their every move and women with tiny stickers covering their nipples. ‘Why are you guys leaving Kitty?’ screamed a man with a leather mask and black flip-flops ‘Saturday is the smash day, come have fun, don’t be boring!’ he continues as we silently pass him and the rest of the latex covered clubbers.
To Ernest’s disappointment we didn’t go back to KitKat but instead after stopping at a kebab van, we went towards yet another grey, concrete building. My last chance to taste the freedom in Berlin and to finally forget my mother tongue was right in front of me. Opened in 1991, regarded by Berliners as one of the main freedom temples – Tresor. This original icon of Berlin is situated in an abandoned power plant. ‘People dance here between bank safes to the unique sound of techno. It’s something you will never find in any other club.’ says Ivan, a DJ who works not only with the club but also with the record label established by the owner of Tresor. The club is a veteran of the Berlin club scene, you can sense this right from the entrance. The tall pierced bouncer in a bright yellow t-shirt who let us in was American ‘We are about the variety and safe environment in which everyone can have as much fun as possible. Come on in and see for yourselves’. Concrete corridors, long bar, dancefloor filled with people jumping to the rhythm of raw techno sound screaming ‘from Berlin to Detroit’. ‘True dirty underground delight!’ says Ivan on our way to the bar ‘just don’t forget to go home’. Tresor’s dress code was visible in every corner of the club – alternative, punk, all black. The only people wearing other colours were the bouncers in their yellow t-shirts. Fairly cheap drinks were exactly what you pay for – a bit of alcohol mixed with soda ‘no ice, no lime, no straws’ says the bartender asked if Olga could get her vodka coke on rocks. ‘That is the place of the successful reunification, freedom, love!’ says Ivan before leaving us to explore the underground for ourselves. As in every club in Berlin in the dark corners you can come across people snorting coke, taking acid, MDMA, ecstasy, but this time no one was trying to sell me any sort of drugs. I was not feeling unsafe because of junkies or pushy dealers. The dark and dingy atmosphere with DJ’s playing behind the bars where only true techno lovers can find their space of freedom. Tresor is about deeply enjoying the music, DJ’s did not play anything else than heavy techno and the dancefloor was filled with crowd bouncing in the same rhythm on the smoke-filled area with flashing strobe. Tresor is a typical, good Berlin clubbing experience but only if you are into jumping for three hours to heavy techno tunes alongside people with their pupils bigger than the rings of Saturn.
Berlin is still partying in the dark, dingy ruins, turning abandoned buildings into club spots, which are removed from the social media presence. Clubs in Berlin are promoted as spaces of freedom for everyone but the truth is that not every single person defines freedom in the same way. Thanks to the number of clubs in Berlin everyone can be sure that one can find a fun space for themselves. It may be a drug-induced night of intoxication and hooking up with strangers, dancing naked to the rhythms of techno, jumping in the cage filled with smoke or enjoying dark and heavy techno in the dirty underground. Even though you can find at least five clubs situated in the same district they are very different from one another. Berlin is the people’s city, it is about finding your space and exploring. It is hard to believe that just around the corner, a few U-Bahn stations away from the weed smelling clubs filled with people covered in tattoos and eight drink in their hands, there are people buying expensive goods, walking around Unter den Linden area.