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Photo Gallery: 40 Years in Berlin Clubland

Foto: Johannes Eisele/ picture-alliance/ dpa

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.

'Everyone Was More or Less Broke'

"Berlin wasn't a global city then," she says, "but more a center where the underground scene could take it easy and experiment -- filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, gallery owners. All the important things happened at night. It went so far that eventually my skin developed a sensitivity to light."

The cash registers at Eisengrau and m-club, though, stayed mostly empty. Commerce belonged to West Germany, and people in Berlin felt shielded from the capitalism of Hamburg or Munich in part by the Berlin Wall, which protected the new boheme and kept the cost of living low. "Everyone was more or less broke," Gut says, "but things worked even with very little money. Drinks were free, we wore clothes we sewed ourselves, rent for a one-room apartment with a shared toilet was just 110 marks and I didn't pay for electricity because I'd stopped the meter."

But youth and enthusiasm alone weren't enough to keep people going for nights on end. For that, they needed other fuel, found in the form of speed, cocaine and beer. "Speed helped all the activism," Gut says.

It was a lifestyle that took energy to maintain. Some artists, such as Spliff, Nina Hagen and Ideal found success as part of the Neue Deutsche Welle, while others burned out. Gut herself considered moving to Barcelona. But then the Berlin Wall fell, bringing with it salvation, although at first it felt more like the conquest of a walled-in island.

Buried Treasure

Dimitri Hegemann is sitting in front of a former power station on Berlin's Köpenicker Strasse. This is the new location of his club Tresor, the most important club in the past 40 years of Berlin nightlife. Hegemann is no longer interested in money. These days he's interested in healthy eating, having switched to a raw foods diet three months ago.

But in the early 1990s, Hegemann had other concerns. The Berlin Wall was gone and the old calm, manageably sized Berlin was gone as well, replaced by a city like an enormous anthill. Ruined buildings, barracks and bunkers everywhere transformed into clubs, but he, Hegemann, the self-styled "space researcher" had nothing, not even a dilapidated basement room somewhere.

Hegemann had been among the pioneers of Berlin's counterculture, ever since first washing up here in 1978, from Münster in the far west of West Germany. He had started a club called the Fischbüro in a former shoemaking workshop and in the 1980s set about finding out about the scene in the eastern half of the city. When the drinks ran out during a party, Hegemann would go out to get more. One time when there was nothing else on hand, he emptied out an aquarium and used that to transport beer. Hegemann also wrote about the punk movement in East Germany and about the East German police, who slapped black paint over the "no future" slogans many young punks wore on their jackets. Hegemann's writings got him banned from entering East Germany.

Yet despite all that, Hegemann found himself penniless and without direction. Then one day, he was stuck in traffic with two colleagues when they spotted an old shack near Leipziger Platz. The three got out of the car and went up to the building. They saw a door, so they marched inside. They saw a dark staircase, so they descended it. And when they reached the bottom, they discovered the vault of a former department store called Wertheim, preserved just as it had been since World War II. This was the crown jewel among all the lost places brought to light with the end of East Germany.

'The Hour of Eccentric Intelligence'

"I had a real hit with that basement," Hegemann says. He named his club Tresor, the German word for "vault." The euphoria of a reunited city, two decades of West Berlin counterculture and now the East Berlin scene as well -- night after night, all these things melded together in the former department store vault.

"It was the hour of eccentric intelligence, of cultural movers and shakers who thought in nontraditional ways, who didn't have a dollar in their pockets, but were prepared to take on these open spaces," Hegemann says.

Hegemann had already discovered, in Detroit, what he called "the sound for this new freedom" -- cool, reduced, electronic disco music. Imported to Germany by Hegemann, this style metamorphosed into a success story known by the name of techno. It wasn't just the sound that was new to Berlin. So was the concept of collaborating with partners from the business world, something that was previously scorned. Hegemann got the 20,000 deutsche marks he needed as start-up capital for Tresor from a manager at Philip Morris. "At the time, he was the only one who believed in our idea," Hegemann says.

Tresor became the most important influence on the Berlin nightlife of the 1990s, leaving its mark on clubs such as WMF, the Bunker, Cookies and E-Werk, as well as on the Love Parade, the street festival that would soon exceed all previously know dimensions, with well over 1 million attendees and sponsorship from the kinds of companies and individuals that Gudrun Gut and the staff of Risiko would never have shaken hands with, even after a crate of beer and a whole bag of speed.

Following a series of short-term rental contracts, the building that housed Tresor was eventually demolished and a faceless office building erected in its place. Hegemann, meanwhile, had built up a food service empire of bars and restaurants, ambitious projects that cost a lot of money and from which he has since moved on. What he still has is the former power plant building on Köpenicker Strasse. The building costs him millions to maintain, which Hegemann does using both usual and unusual methods. He plans to open a bar there soon as well, on the top floor. He recently had the space, which is as high-ceilinged as a church, ritually purified by Buddhist monks, who diagnosed an accumulation of troubled souls.

Clubland's Branded Third Wave

Many clubs suffered the same fate as the old Tresor, ground down by the rising real estate prices of a reunited city. But in their place, a third wave of Berlin nightlife grew up: Weekend, on the uppermost floors of a high-rise near Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin; Berghain, in a former power plant near Ostbahnhof, once East Berlin's central train station; Watergate, in two stories of an office building in Kreuzberg, part of the former West, with a wall of windows looking out on the Spree River and a terrace on the water.

Steffen Hack opened Watergate in 2002. A former squatter convicted of throwing stones and hitting the outside of a Deutsche Bank branch building with a sledgehammer, Hack has been running Watergate for 11 years now.

It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday and eight security guards are attempting to manage tonight's onslaught of club patrons. "Watergate is an international brand," Hack says. In the early years, he tried out a rotating program of reggae, hip-hop and other styles, and the club almost went broke. Then he switched to house music. "People want to go places where the things they expect to happen, happen," Hack says. "It's sad, but true."

Many evenings, he sees much of Europe, the United States and Asia represented on his two dance floors. These partygoers come to experience the service Hack and his team offer, and they come seeking that legendary Berlin underground, of which there is often little left to find beyond a joint smoked on the street, a couple beers enjoyed while walking around outside and walls drenched in graffiti. It is only when compared with truly regimented cities such as London, New York or Paris that Berlin can still be seen as an island of freedom.

As an added benefit, Berlin remains cheap compared to other major cities. Prices here still meet the standards of the "socialist nightlife culture" Hack prides himself on having achieved, although nowadays he also talks of "pyramid marketing," and Philip Morris, Red Bull and drinks conglomerate Anheuser-Busch Inbev, which pay him for the privilege of having their umbrellas on his terrace and their bottles in his refrigerators.

Sometimes it seems to Hack as if he's created a "monster" with Watergate, one that helps fuel the hype surrounding Berlin and draws people who destroy the very things that once made things in the city seem so easy -- the free spaces, the cheap rent and the feeling that being part of the underground here meant always being a few beats ahead of cold capitalism.

These days, when Hack does stay in for the night, he sometimes sleeps badly. He worries about his rental apartment in Kreuzberg and is bothered by the traffic noise. Then there's the matter of the rental contract for his club, which runs out in 2018. Investors keep bothering the building's owner, Hack says, wanting to tear it down and build a new one in its place two stories higher. "That doesn't exactly make it easy to plan ahead," he says.

Planning ahead -- another term no one ever expected to be a part of Berlin's exhilarating nights and freedom.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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