Berlin is the untamed city. It is harsh. The people are not people-pleasers. Their attitude is direct, the rejections from clubs brutal.
I have been to Berlin five times; it may be my favorite city on earth. I love that it is wild, that it resists gentrification, that it oozes weirdness, that it is full of insanity and inanity everywhere one looks. I love that no one thinks of going out Monday-Thursday nights but takes clubbing on the weekend dead seriously. You go hard —dancing from Friday-Monday morning. I love that an ‘expensive’ meal out with a beer might cost you 12 Euros. I love their falafel; it’s the best falafel outside of Tel Aviv. I love that German trains run on the honor system. Can you imagine the NYC subway surviving one day on the honor system? It would be anarchy. I love that German trains run on time. I love that there isn’t much to sightsee or many pretty buildings to look at in Berlin; the best spots are underground, meshed into the Post-war remnants and repurposed bomb shelters. I love Tempelhof, the World War II airfield that Berlin turned into an outdoor garden. Where else can you ride your bike down an actual runway and pretend you’re a 747? I love the beer garden Klunkerkranich, with a spectacular view of the city that someone set-up without signage on the fifth floor of a Kreuzberg parking garage. I love the Berliners themselves — the people I’ve worked with, played with, danced with, made love with, with with’d.
And though I’ve been shaken to my core with wonder and joy in so many of Berlin’s brightest spots and scenes, I had never gotten into the legendary hellscape night club Berghain. I decided on this last trip, to change that.
It was my second attempt trying. The first time I’d gone with two friends on my first visit to Berlin — one Brit I’d met at a gay bathhouse and one Dutchman I’d met at the same gay bathhouse. We hung out together for the hour-long wait in line, got to know one another talking full-volume in English, smiled and cracked some very funny jokes, and even shared videos with each other on our phones! We were dead to the Berghain bouncers from a mile away.
Bummed out and unaware we had violated every rule of “shut up and look nonchalant” line etiquette, we made our way to the underground sex dungeon Laboratory, located in the tunnels underneath Berghain. I had heard that if one got a stamp from Laboratory, one could later on cut the Berghain line and have a strong chance of getting inside. We paid our Euros to get into Laboratory and entered the true Hell on Earth.
At the door, I stripped to my shoes and my underwear and threw my clothes in a plastic garbage bag with a 6-digit number on it. The bouncer then wrote this number in Sharpie on my left forearm, setting off all the Jewish alarms in my brain. “You order drinks with zis number,” he said, confirming I was in a boozy version of the Holocaust.
On entering, I thanked my intuition to keep my sneakers on because the stone floor was covered in grime and gum. I went inside, and I couldn’t believe what I found.
It was Piss night! I found men pissing on each other in nearly every room, in every which way — through grates, down stairwells, into cages. I tried to go to the bathroom and there were men in nothing but diapers sitting in-between the urinals, begging me to “Piss in here” (in German: “Piss hier rein”).
We stayed as long as we could bear what was truly behind the German iron sex curtain and around 4 AM stumbled back to the front of the line at Berghain. The new bouncer saw our Laboratory stamps and waved us through — success! We were almost inside when the original bouncer who rejected us came out from behind a corner and sent us packing home.
That was then, and I hadn’t changed my feelings on urine fetishes (more power to you if that’s your thing). I didn’t want to have to go through Laboratory again to get a stamp into Berghain. I wanted to do it of my own volition.
I was tipped off that the best way to ensure entry was to go on a Friday night. I was not tipped off by a Berliner but by a travel blog. Perhaps this is why my local friends in Berlin questioned why I would do this —Friday night is known as ‘Tourist night.’“Well,” I thought, “I’m a tourist, and this is the night I have free to do this!” So I went. Little did I know what was in store on this Friday night.
After pouring over my outfit to try and look like a vampire who lost a fist fight at his own funeral, I met up with my new local friend of a friend named Eight. Not Seven, Six, or Nine. Eight — pronounced like the number. My friend had introduced Eight to me, and she was generously taking me under her wing for the weekend. She was nonplussed at why were in line on a Friday but game to make the best we could of it. This time in line, I kept my head down, looking through the ground into the bowels of hell, willing my face to look like it couldn’t care less, and let Eight lead the way. I was elated when the bouncer nodded us both in. I would now see the true underbelly of Berlin!
Only one side-room in the entire massive complex was open this Friday. I wandered around what the available space and completed my walkthrough in about 30 seconds. Through the bars of our anteroom prison, I could just make out the giant white sex God statue of a man in the main Berghain foyer. Not even access to Panorama Bar upstairs was open, as is typical on Fridays, just this one room, what Eight told me was normally the “resting” room of Berghain. And it was packed full of stupid tourists, like myself, who were treated to…the craziest DJ I have ever experienced.
She did not play a single rhythmic beat the entire night. She leaned into her headphones and played ambient sound effects off some MIDI from hell, matching cued lighting effects. I was treated to a night of thunder matching lightning bolt LED flashes and extremely loud random thumps like a giant stomping in my brain. But there was no rhythm or beat to this — just musical torture, a blasting fog machine, and strobe lights. The only thing I can compare it to was an actor-less version of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST, set in NYU’s experimental theater wing. Just this wild DJ bobbing her head in time to nothing.
I could not believe it. I was cackling with laughter. Here we have a huge crowd of too-eager people standing there dumb-founded as this wizard woman plays her demented reverie of musical nonsense. No one knew what to do.
I believe that they intended for this to happen. This was no accident. This was Berghain punishing the horrible tourists, like me, who came out on the forbidden Friday night. “Welcome to experimental music hell, fucker!”
After two hours that could not have been more boring if they anthropomorphically tried to do so, a man comes out onstage. He is dressed like Fred Flintstone, wearing a Neanderthal onesie, with hair that is easily three feet long. He holds a Keytar. “Finally!” I think, “Some music!” Nope. He just writhes and moans in the flow of musical garbage and plays a note here or there. People started pulling out lighters and swinging them back and forth to create something to look at. I would kill for video footage of this insanity, but Berghain puts a sticker over both phone cameras when you enter the club.
It was truly the most insanely stupid thing I have ever experienced.
And, I was so grateful. I had gained entry to my darkest desire on the worst possible night one could enter. What a disaster! I found out the next day this was Berghain’s once-a-month “Experimental Music” night, which no one goes to and explained why it was so easy for an American tourist me to get inside.
But, I needed to go back and experience the true Berghain.
Eight and I made plans to re-attempt entry on Sunday afternoon and stay through Monday morning — the time frame the real locals go. I woke up early on Sunday, and Eight was still asleep. I had to work at 11 AM. I was full of confidence I shouldn’t felt, I decided to make a pit-stop first at Berghain— get in, get a stamp, and leave to teach improv classes (I am very proud that I managed to teach four hours of improv a day, while still clubbing all night, every night). I dressed myself up in the same outfit from Friday night and biked over to a very short line on Sunday morning. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit at 10 AM in the morning, and I was sweating through my black outfit. The bouncer made me wait at the front of the line for a good minute. He eyed my get-up and my attitude. It seemed like I fit the part. I was acting nonchalant and thinking about my favorite kinds of American pie. I held my black backpack I was carrying with a change of clothes for work just off to the side.
It was the backpack that doomed me — the bouncer saw it, pointed to it, said something angrily about it to me in German, and pointed me out of the line. I later found out from Eight that backpacks are a No-No at Berghain. “They make you look like a tourist,” she said.
“But they have a coat check!” I protested.
“No,” Eight replied, “They only want you to bring in a small fanny pack…not this monster bag.”
Dejected and humiliated, I committed to try again with Eight after my class. We met up out-of-sight of the entrance, where she made me over in her best Goth designs: a black see-through mesh top two sizes too small for me and black short short-shorts. Then, we stowed my backpack inside an abandoned cement block we found in the decrepit forest around Beghain, pushing the backpack all the way inside the block where it wouldn’t be seen.
It took the bouncer all of fifteen seconds to reject us. Eight seemed a bit outraged; she was rarely turned away from her club of choice. As it was happening, the bouncer leaned over and pointed at me and said to Eight with a sad frown, “Sorry.” It translated as, “This American fool is the reason for your rejection!”
I loved every minute of it. I loved the drama. I loved how nonsensical it was. There would be no fairness, no second opinion, no reward for my efforts. It was an arbitrary, exclusive operation, and I was not cool enough to ride this ride.
At this point willing to watch the world burn and dance on its ashes, I stumbled toward my favorite gay bar Schwuz, where I joined up with my fellow Ex-Pat, soul-mate Hannah, who also happened to be staying in Berlin. As we approached the bouncer lady, I thought, “She has kind eyes.” People were still being rejected though, and I didn’t think I had much of a chance. When I got to the front of the line, she asked me, “What do you want to do here?”
It was an insane thing to ask someone who was going to a club. Why are you at this club? But it seemed part of some cosmic chess game, and I made my strongest move.
“I want to dance in your Chapel.” I said, thinking I was referencing what Schwuz regulars called their main dance floor.
“It’s called the Cathedral,” she replied, stone-faced.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, calculating, “I was raised Catholic.”
“Hmm,” she said and paused. Then she said, “You’re funny,” and let me into the club, before rejecting everyone directly behind me in line.
It ended up being the best night of dancing in my life. I was smiling ear-ear as I danced to remixed pop hits until 10 AM the next morning, at which point I stumbled into a Burning Man-esque gathering nearby the club, with a Trans DJ in a rainbow onesie playing light Disco and bringing my heart to life. Someone had filled the dance floor with sand, and I moved barefoot in the cool May morning weather.
Wild, rude, untamed things remind me of raw potential. You are guaranteed nothing in Berlin. I crave constant comfort in NYC, nesting in apartment I keep hotel-clean and checking Mint.com to see if my credit score has updated. Not experiencing life. Not getting my frail sense of sense metaphorically middle-fingered by man-made forces that couldn’t give less of a fuck.
I wondered why I didn’t really love London or Bristol or Gothenburg or Munich or any of the other well-appropriated major cities I visited on this month-long trip around Europe. I believe it is because they were tamed; they were well-kept; they were properly-put-together; and they bored me.
Berlin scares me. It enlivens me. It is full of highs and lows. It is the nightmare city that wakes me up to live my most thrilling life.