Collective Excess Forty Years of Berlin Nightlife
In four decades, Berlin's nightlife has grown from a small scene of West German misfits into a global party mecca. By cultivating its underground mythos, the German capital achieved one of its greatest and strangest success stories -- but not without paying a price.
It's 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday and the party at Berghain has been in full swing for 16 and a half hours. The Berlin nightclub is as steamy as a ship on stormy seas.
It's a full house on the upstairs dance floor, where shirtless gay men pop pills, down shots, fling their glasses to the floor and make out with each other. It's a full house here in the belly of this dimly lit former power station, where at least 400 people are dancing, gyrating and gasping for air. From the bathrooms comes the sound of moaning. It's another 16 and a half hours until Berghain closes.
Berlin's nightlife is one of the German capital's greatest and strangest success stories, a modern postwar legend that has grown over the course of the past four decades, making the city an object of longing for those in search of nightlife adventure -- music, dancing, exhilaration, drugs and excess.
Of the 11 million tourists who visit Berlin each year, around one-third come for the nightlife, a study by Berlin tourism organization visitBerlin found. According to the Wall Street Journal, this brings 1 billion ($1.4 billion) in revenue into the city each year.
These visitors arrive like clockwork via budget airlines and check themselves into hostels, yet despite this neatly structured sequence of events, Berlin manages to sell its theme park of clubs, discos and lounges as a kind of anti-Disneyland.
The Eternal Underground
This made-in-Berlin fun shouldn't feel like that great evil, capitalism -- not the cold breath of money but the eternal underground: wild, exhilarating, dirty, dark and unpredictable.
"Berlin cleaves, self-consciously, to underground principles," wrote Tony Naylor in Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2011. "It is seen as deeply uncool to brashly promote yourself, commercialize your art, or chase the money, and Berlin's clubs are products of that ethos."
The clubs are the stars of this underground scene, which has transformed itself again and again over the decades. The legends that swirl around clubs such as Risiko, Tresor, Berghain, Bar 25 and Watergate have brought Berlin the fame that now draws a global hedonistic mass market.
The underground scene is now available in coffee table book format as well. "Nachtleben Berlin. 1974 bis heute" ("Berlin Nightlife. 1974 to Today") is the title of a new book of pictures and recollections published by Metrolit Verlag. It offers an exhilarating record of the evolution of this heaving contemporary form of collective excess.
'No Excuse for Sitting Down'
The story begins in the mid-1970s in a walled-in city full of retirees, German shepherds and young people on the run from the ceaseless commercialism of booming West Germany. It continues in a reunited city full of ruined and abandoned buildings transformed overnight into party venues. And these days, Berlin's nights take place in a well-managed underground environment populated by EasyJet tourists.
"Risiko didn't have tables and chairs, because there was no excuse for sitting down and resting. And there was no food, because you had alcohol and drugs," Hagen Liebing, former bass player for German punk band Die Ärzte, writes of those pioneering nights in Berlin's underground, in the new coffee table volume. Risiko didn't make money back in the 1980s, with the bartenders handing out 80 percent of the club's drinks for free. Most of the time, in fact, within a few hours of opening, the staff had to dash out to the nearest snack bar to stock up on beer by the crate. Drugs from speed to cocaine, on the other hand, were evidently easy to come by.
There were always people within this scene who managed to consolidate the atmosphere in the capital into something more tangible, providing a platform for the parties, the pleasures, the excesses. In the 1980s, that person was Gudrun Gut, member of the all-female band Malaria!, owner of the clothing store Eisengrau and proprietor of a venue called m-club. In the 1990s, it was Dimitri Hegemann, with his club Tresor. In the 2000s, it was Steffen Hack, known by the nickname Stoffel, with Watergate. These individuals brought new life into Berlin's nights and drove the underground scene forward. Their story is the story of how the city became the nightlife magnet it is today, beaming the dusky light of its appeal around the world.
Like most people who brought new life into Berlin, Gudrun Gut came here from elsewhere, escaping the boredom of West Germany, running away from the rural Lüneburg Heath area of northern Germany. "Berlin smelled of kebab and coal briquettes in those days, and people had loud conversations on the street. It was lively," Gut says, sitting on the patio of her home in a former manor house in the Uckermark region northeast of Berlin. She's baked a plum tart and the sun is shining.
From Big Eden to the Dschungel
Up until the mid-1970s, there was no particularly notable nightlife culture in Berlin, just a number of bars for older men and prostitutes. There was also Rolf Eden's Big Eden disco, where more or less the same things took place, only without money changing hands. Romy Haag was the first to offer a counterpoint, with her eponymous drag club. This was followed in short order by Dschungel, Metropol, Knast, Risiko and Ex'n'Pop, forming a new nightlife influenced by punk and new wave music and radically different from Big Eden, with its conservative, provincial patrons. "You just went ahead and did it," Gut says. "Better chaotic than boringly perfect. And please, no four-hour discussions over doing the dishes."
There wasn't much that Gut and those like her considered worth holding onto. They brought about a complete aesthetic renewal, with electronic music instead of endless guitar solos, neon instead of candlelight, angular shoulder pads instead of practical, hand-knitted sweaters and -- an aspect that was apparently quite important -- new hairstyles. "Long hair," Gut says, "was absolutely out. At any good party, there would be a hairdresser somewhere, snipping away."
Gut herself played in Einstürzende Neubauten and Malaria!, bands whose clear-cut, electronic songs formed the basis of a musical style that left a deep impression on Berlin. Gut also opened her clothing store Eisengrau because "all around us was a wasteland, nothing but C&A." She made clothes from plastic bags and in the middle of the store stood a knitting machine on which she produced asymmetrical sweaters. She modeled her nightclub, the m-club, after Area, in New York City.