Everyone knows Berghain. That's a surprising thing to be able to say about a techno club, even if it is, as people so often say, the best in Europe.
Whether it's the endless line to get into the club, the bouncer with piercings and a barbed-wire facial tattoo, the legendary sound system on the huge dance floor or the debauchery that takes place in the club's "dark rooms" -- anyone who is interested in Berlin has at least heard of Berghain.
The club has become one of the most important symbols of the new Berlin, alongside the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Berghain represents the new allure that Berlin, the party capital, holds for Europe's youth. This, in turn, has something to do with the excesses they seek in the club's dark corners -- not exactly the things a city usually chooses to advertise as its selling points.
Berghain, the bleakly industrial techno cathedral in Berlin's Friedrichshain district, is the subject of a thousand legends. But that's only half the story.
The other half can be found by going around the building, past the door to the club and up to the main entrance of the former heat generating station. This is the purpose for which Berghain was originally built in the 1950s, providing heat for the nearby boulevard then known as Stalinallee for a few years before becoming a training facility for plant workers. The techno club, massive as it is, has always occupied only half of the building. The spectacular main hall where the boiler once stood remained empty and unused.
This Saturday, that hall will open for the first time to host a performance called "Masse" ("Mass"). A co-production between Berghain and the Berlin Staatsballett, the city's principal ballet company, it involves 30 dancers and three choreographers, with a set by Norbert Bisky, a star in the German art scene working in stage design for the first time. Five regular Berghain DJs and producers composed the music.
This will likely be the only time the new "Hall at Berghain" will open to the public, which is probably why the premiere and all 10 performances of "Masse" are already sold out.
For these few days, some eight years after it first opened, Berghain will form a counterpart to the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic. A former East German heating-facility-turned-nightclub and a concert hall designed by German architect Hans Scharoun as part of West Berlin's Kulturforum -- in a way these two venues, the two best places for hearing music in Berlin, have always belonged together.
The "Masse" project demonstrates first and foremost the many possibilities Berlin offers, the kinds of performance spaces the city contains and all the things that can be done with them -- but also those that can't.
This is not to say Berghain had no previous ties to classical art forms. The club has hosted ballet performances on its large dance floor, presented operas, classical concerts and experimental music in its "Electroacoustic Salon." The visual arts have always had a place here as well. Works by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans hang above one of the club's bars and artist Marc Brandenburg designed a few of the windows.
But no other project at Berghain matches the ambition and effort that have gone into "Masse," with the new performance hall itself playing the role of the tragic hero.
The space isn't easy to find. Getting there requires ascending several flights of stairs and traversing corridors, a journey that only amplifies the effect when the visitor finally steps into the hall. The ceiling, 17 meters (56 feet) high, is dominated by massive concrete funnels that were once used to pour coal into the boilers. With the boilers now long gone, the funnels now open into emptiness. This is Socialist classicism at its most holy.
The stage itself is large and black and gives the impression that some sort of dark, poisonous mass has leaked out of one corner of the room.
A Long Time in the Making
It's Monday and the final rehearsals are underway. Bisky, the artist, and Nadja Saidakova, one of the choreographers, are onstage clarifying a last few details with the production's technicians: How exactly will the light fall? Are we making any more changes? Later, the dancers arrive and run through their choreography, bodies flowing across the stage.
Techno and ballet are not natural allies. Techno is a music of excess, but its movements are reduced. Dancing through the night in a techno club is about letting go, about losing control. Precisely the opposite is true of ballet, perhaps the most disciplined art form in the world.
Here on this stage, though, where first Saidakova's group runs through its routines, and then choreographer Tim Plegge and his ensemble take over, the music and the movements join together, becoming at first powerful, then more expressive, at times almost classical, then once again something that could just as easily come from a modern pop music video.
"Masse" consists of three segments, which Saidakova, Plegge and a third choreographer, Xenia Wiest, developed together with the musicians. The three parts don't share any clear plot, but in their differences they form a triptych of sound and movement held together by Bisky's restrained set design.
The most important part of the set was already in place: the rear wall. In front of it, a bus Bisky obtained from Berlin's city transport company juts up from the floor. The city slogan "be Berlin" is still visible beneath the smears of grime the painter has sprayed on the vehicle -- "Masse" appears to take place in a Berlin of the near future, where some catastrophe has put an end to both public transportation and promotional slogans.
This project has been a long time in the works. When planning first began in fall 2010, it had little more than the title, "Masse." One way to understand that name could be found in the fact that weekend after weekend, Berghain opens its doors to masses of people wanting to be guided and manipulated. But the title refers to other types of mass as well. There's mass in the physical sense of the word, but also the inertia of the masses, or the way a mass of people devolves together into panic.
Requiem for a Dream
The two men who created Berghain, Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, initially had very different plans for the former boiler hall. The two tend to remain in the background, and little is known about them except that they never give interviews (this article being no exception) and they love dance and art.
Teufele and Thormann wanted to create a new performance venue in this other half of the building. "Masse" may not look much like that original vision, but then, the performance also serves as a requiem for that dream. When they bought the building from energy giant Vattenfall, Teufele and Thormann wanted not only to free Berghain from the whims of an outside owner -- they also wanted to give the club's heart a second chamber.
Their working name for the space was "Kubus" ("Cube") and it was to be a new and innovative venue -- a concert hall, theater and gallery all in one, with the concerts offering seating for around 2,000 people. The plans were developing well, the club hired a booker to create a program of musical events for the hall and a cooperation with a Berlin theater took shape. A space for grand new possibilities, alongside Berghain's regular operations as a techno club, seemed to be emerging.
Even at that point, it took some imagination to picture a concert hall inside this industrial ruin. Columns within the hall don't just support the concrete funnels in the ceiling, they also divide the space and block sightlines, and would have needed to be removed. Those columns are still there, a problem "Masse" gets around by using only half of the hall. Even so, it's an enormous space, in which 500 audience members will sit in steep rows of seats.
An Independent Establishment
The columns are also what killed the Kubus project. From a purely technical perspective, it would have been possible to redistribute weight and remove the columns, replacing them with a steel structure. But the construction boom of recent years caused steel prices to skyrocket to unforeseen levels. And since Berghain is in the private sector, unlike other current construction projects such as Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie or Berlin's Staatsoper, the rising costs couldn't be passed on to taxpayers. About a year ago, Teufele and Thormann called off the project.
The price of steel wasn't the only reason. Around the same time, GEMA, Germany's leading performance rights organization, announced rate reforms that could increase the fees paid by a club such as Berghain by as much as 1,400 percent. Meanwhile, Berlin tax authorities decided to cease assessing the capital's nightclubs at the reduced sales rate of 7 percent and apply the normal rate of 19 percent instead.
Berghain's operators have a curious sort of pride. During the planning phase for Kubus, Berlin State Secretary for Culture André Schmitz offered the club €1.25 million ($1.6 million) in funding for its expansion project, from a special fund allocated at Schmitz's discretion to "places of innovation."
Berghain declined the offer, partly because other local clubs threatened legal action, fearing unfair competitive advantages. But another major factor was Berghain's own sense of independence.
The "Masse" production hasn't used any grant money. It has no funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation or the Capital Cultural Fund or any of the other sources that support cultural projects outside the major institutions. The Berlin Opera Foundation, of which the Staatsballett is part, is covering part of the costs, as well as providing use of its workshops, conveniently located next door, and of its choreographers and dancers. But the rest comes from Berghain's techno club income.
Creating a New Subject
"Masse," of course, is not just a celebration of architecture, a declaration of a love of dance and a monument to a failed performance space. It's also a grand gesture of self-assertion: You don't believe this can work? You're putting obstacles in our path? We don't care. We'll do it anyway. Because we want to and because we can. Classical culture? Club culture? We're at home wherever we want to be and we'll combine whatever we like.
Is this the face of the future, in which every venue will be its own patron? Perhaps it is. This is how things began, after all, not only for Berghain but in almost every part of Berlin in the 1990s, a time when people sought out abandoned buildings, neither asking for permission to put on a party or an exhibition, nor for government funding to do so. Nearly every club in Berlin and many of the city's galleries as well trace their roots to this period.
This is unlikely to be a viable model for the future, though. The urban development opportunities that once existed in Berlin have disappeared. Time has left them behind and Berlin, the city that was once so open, is beginning to close. During their intoxicating two decades in existence, the city's subcultures have failed to form powerful institutions. That was never their strong suit anyway -- their strength lies in their fleeting nature, not in the accumulation of property. Berghain is an exception to this rule.
Interestingly, "Masse" has no official author, no name in large print on the posters Bisky designed. There is also no director listed, but rather the names of the many people involved with the project, in small print. The reason lies in the way the piece developed. "You can imagine it like a very long house meeting in a squatter house," Bisky says. There were many conversations and many votes. The techno DJs went to the ballet and the choreographers visited the DJs' studios. The painter worked together with the opera's set builders.
That same self-imposed anonymity is also part of Berghain's success. In an arts scene that lives from famous names, fusing the new rules of celebrity culture with the old ones of art world posturing, this club has created a new subject: the building itself.