I Got Into Berghain
It is my last day of work as an Executive Assistant at a makeup company in San Francisco. I have quit, with no plans other than to take a trip to Europe- my first time leaving the US in 10 years.
The job had sounded fabulous before I started with all the free lipstick and the chance, no matter how small, to meet Marc Jacobs or Rhianna. But on my first day when I went to the kitchen to get coffee and was elbowed in the head by an unapologetic manager, I knew that I was in for it.
After 5 stressful months, I am fed up with the mean girls and the 7-hours-a-day of calendaring. I wanted more out of life than planning someone else’s trips to Paris and Milan. I wanted to plan my own fabulous trips. And so, with a small nest egg, I do just that, inadvertently launching myself into a freefall.
Two days into my trip, while in Berlin, my master tenant in San Francisco emails us to say she would be moving in with her boyfriend at the end of the month. The owners will not be renewing the lease. She had been rent-gouging her subtenants for years while Instagram-ing the lavish vacations she took on our dime (#blessed). I don’t return to San Francisco until the 7th, which means I am short on both resources and time (#fuckmylife).
Looking to turn this bad luck around, I RSVP on Facebook for a Full Moon Ceremony at a yoga studio-cum-pagan cult called Spirit Berlin. I have just learned to make moon water and fancy myself a bit of an amateur witch, so I think this might be the perfect way to kickstart my new life. Maybe they will help me manifest a new job and a new apartment in 20 days? Max, a local I know from art school, gamely agrees to join me.
He texts, “I’m fascinated by genuine people. And I think they’ll be there.”
The next night we arrive at Spirit Berlin in the Wedding district and balk at the steep cover price. Max asks for a more detailed description of the night’s events, as the invite was vague. The Door Woman dressed in a midriff tank top and layers of gauzy fabric tells us there will be a female-led, full moon fertility ceremony followed by a Sadie Hawkins-style cuddling session.
“It’s women’s choice and the men are very passiffe,” she says looking at me with pride. “You choosse and they will cuddle with you, passiffly.” The woman behind her stirring a giant cauldron of soup agrees, “Yes, passiffe cuddling!” They might as well have offered us each a dead fish to caress. Max and I look at each other and politely leave to grab a drink in Mitte.
During our catch up session, he invites me to join him for his Sunday morning ritual: a hike over to Berghain. Assuming Berghain is a city park, I agree.
“Ok cool,” he says, “I’ll text so we can figure out logistics, but I usually go between 7 and 8 am.”
I imagine city-slicker Max putting on his metallic gold sneakers and taking a meditative stroll through Berghain, one of Berlin’s lush gardens, past swans and the occasional squirrel. “I’m not sure that I can rally that early with the jet lag, but I will try,” I say trying to be realistic about my motivation.
“If you’re here, you might as well go and get the whole Berlin experience. But no pressure,” he says shrugging.
I get the sense I have missed something. “What is Berghain exactly?”
Max laughs and explains that it’s a dance club.
“And you go at 7am?” It’s becoming clear that I am deeply uncool.
He warned that it can sometimes be tricky to get in, but he did his first time so it will probably be fine. “Just Google it,” he says casually.
That night I Google “Berghain.” I stare at my laptop as a long list of search results populates my screen. The club was originally created as a male-only fetish club, but has since evolved to include everyone plus an international program of DJs. Its ‘no cameras’ policy ads an air of mystery to the descriptions.
On the weekends, Berghain is open for Klubnacht, a party that lasts 36 hours straight from Saturday night until Monday mid-day. The best time to go, Max says, is Sunday morning so you avoid the drunk people from Saturday night, but early enough so you beat the rush that arrives Sunday afternoon.
While I’m now nervous about getting in, afraid of losing cultural capital in front of my friend, it is clear many people are obsessed. Enterprising club-goers have made ‘getting into Berghain’ a cottage industry. There are websites and apps like berghaintrainer.com where you can get tutored by “former bouncers” (in what exactly?), purchase Berghain-style clothing, check the weather or watch a live stream video of the line outside the club. There are articles with titles like, “These 11 Secret Things Will Help You Get Into Berghain” and “What People Wear To Get Into Berghain, The World’s Most Exclusive Nightclub.”
There are hundreds of Pinterest boards dedicated to the fashion: lots of black clothes, see-through shirts, bondage accents and patent leather — think Rayanne from My So Called Life, with a sprinkle of communism.
The common theme among these articles is that the Door Man reigns over Berghain like a Netherworld St. Peter, discerning the worthy from the unworthy with his supernatural gaze. On the surface you may look like you’ve done everything right, but still get turned away because he knows your soul is not pure. Or maybe he just hates your shoes.
I texted Max a few more questions about coat check and food trying not to seem too needy and set my alarm for 6 AM.
The next morning at 6:45 AM I wake up from the vibration of my phone. A text from Max, “Are you on your way?”
“Fuuuuck,” I text back. I am still in bed, head groggy from the never-ending jet lag. I throw on a yellow velour tank top and black, high-waisted skinny jeans. I say a little prayer and jump into an Uber.
I meet Max at his apartment. He is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and carrying a large hand fan. We small-talk our way down the train tracks to the club. I tell him I am nervous and again he says it’s no big deal either way, it can be totally random.
Except that I know it’s not. I have been turned away from an exclusive club before, and rightly so.
10 years ago when I was living in New York, my roommate, let’s call her Stacey, became fixated with getting into this West Village club she read about in Time Out. We even made dinner reservations for 10 PM at their restaurant because she read that it helped. I was dubious.
My doubt turned to incredulity when her and her friend who was visiting from Texas emerged from her room in full-length cocktail gowns, and Stacey with a platinum blonde, Halloween-store wig. The rest of the evening was like watching a slow-motion trainwreck. I wondered if I should tell her to take the wig off or maybe manage her expectations. But not wanting to be a buzzkill, I said nothing.
As we walked out of the restaurant after dinner and over to the club entrance, I braced myself for impact. Two Gossip Girl-extras sashayed in front of us in their jeans, breezing through the door with barely a nod from the bouncer. I tried to imagine what he was thinking as we approached.
He kindly concealed his judgment until we were at the door, then shook his head and said gently, “No,” almost to himself. Stacey was crushed. We spent the rest of the night drinking sad cosmos at a nearby bar.
I reflect on that experience as we near the exterior of Berghain, an ominous stone building that used to house an industrial power plant. Because it’s early, the line is mercifully short.
We watch as people are summoned to the Door Man and told to go left or right. Left is in, right is out. Little is said by us in line, no doubt in accordance with an unofficial rule: “Do NOT make a scene while in line for Berghain.”
Ahead of us, a small group goes up to the door. One of them, a goofy-looking guy with cargo shorts, is hunched and fidgety. Before he stops walking, the Door Man has already pointed right. The guy shrugs theatrically and the group moves off towards brunch, or wherever.
I feel bad for him, but I also relieved. While the better part of me doesn’t want to approach life as if it’s a zero-sum game, the freshly-bullied part of me is willing to sacrifice a few nice guys in cargo shorts if it means I get to be “in,” for once.
The German couple smoking in front of us get in and now we are next in line. My stomach is flipping, but I try to seem disinterested, occasionally lifting a finger to my mouth to chew on a fingernail.
Then in an instant, his gaze is upon us. I feel like I’m staring into the Eye of Sauron. The world outside his corona is quiet and dark. His light is cold as he shifts his eyes between Max and me. He turns his head to the right and, making a slight gesture with his hand, points to the left.
Electricity surges through my body as we enter the dark hallway to the coat check. Once inside, I follow Max through a maze of cement hallways and black-painted metal stairs. As we climb I start to worry about Berghain’s reputation for hedonism. While my general mentality is live and let live, when it comes to dancing I prefer a prudish bubble of space between me and the next guy.
We finally arrive at the Panorama Bar on the top floor and I am surprised by what I see. No one had told me that EDM dancing is the embodiment of sexual repression. I could not be more thrilled. There is sex off the dance floor, yes, but on the dancefloor, no one is grinding or groping. Dancers are left to themselves and the trance-inducing beat.
As the crowd moves methodically back and forth to the one-two of the house music, the DJ introduces a light, melodic track. At the same time, giant shutters clatter open to reveal tall, cathedral-like windows lining the back wall. Daylight streams in through the smoky air. Everyone raises their hands and cheers.
In that moment, all suffering from age zero till now has been worth it. Tomorrow I will go back to being single, jobless and soon-to-be homeless. But today I got into Berghain.