I must have sussed what was happening when the clothes went into the bags; exposing bare flesh intertwined with leather (my oh my where did the leather begin and the skin end?) and arseless chaps.
Or maybe it was the nebulous “Gentlemen’s Club” sign with stated clearly that no photos were to be taken, no drugs and the less clothes the better. Could it have been when I discovered, initially to my delight, that entry was only €10 and did not consist of an interrogation but a mere gesture to just go in. “Hmm…way too easy” I thought. Or perhaps it was even earlier than that, when I saw the queue consisted of only men. Huh. No, it was definitely the clothes going into the bags where I felt the realisation of what exactly what happening here land on me like a tonne of bricks.
Context: I’m in Berlin for a trip with my classmates to explore the city which can be safely called one of the cultural hubs of Europe. Especially when it comes to music; I mean Bowie wouldn’t live here if all there was was Aldi and Currywurst. While the scene has evolved with the changing landscape of Germany (WW2-Cold War-Reunification), it is now celebrated for its thriving techno scene and its infamous clubs. From the stories you hear-and so much of it is stories and rumors, “I heard from a friend of a friend” kinda stuff as not many people from middle-class England have really experienced it firsthand- the clubs in Berlin are debauched and drenched in excess with no rules or restriction (I should stress the importance of these clubs also being safe spaces though, free from harassment) harking back to the days of Studio 54 and The Hacienda. It sounded amazing. These clubs are not grounded in any form of reality but hey who wants to live in the real world right now? They are also notorious for being impossible to get into which made the prospect of what was actually inside exciting and exclusive- a completely unique experience in a generation of dull, generic clubs. Berghain is the most acclaimed (for it’s state-of-the-art sound system and the caliber of DJ’s it attracts) and mysterious with its extremely strict door policy and elusive doorman, Sven. It has been the subject of games, T-shirts, conspiracy theories, many an article/blog post regarding how to get in and what exactly happens once you get there. It is a full blown phenomenon. So, being a lover of club culture of dance music for many years (If I had to go back to any time period? Second/third Summer Of Love- 1988/1989) I could not leave Berlin without even at least attempting it.
And I really tried. I dress all in black and casual clothing. I learnt conversational German and bullshitted that I wanted to see some DJ I had never heard of- “Ich bin hier, um Sammy Dee zu sehen” (“I’m here to see Sammy Dee”-I might start a course in how to speak German for Berghain hopefuls). I was hyped and ready, with every event in my teenage years preparing me for this. I heard about the long wait to get in, so I decided to get there slightly earlier. It’s not hard to find the building, it’s vast and looming. It looks where they filmed Texas Chainsaw Massacre having the appearance of an ominous industry estate. However, I actually liked the look and the vibe it gave off. It had character and reminded me of English warehouse raves. So yes it was not difficult to find Berghain, but it was difficult to find the right fucking entrance. Due to the fact of there being absolutely no one out front, not even one person waiting for when it opened, I assumed that what definitely looked like the entrance was in fact not. And where I saw an actual queue must instead be it. I knew it didn’t seem right. I thought Google Maps had lead me to the wrong place but alas it once again informed me that I had “reached my destination”.
So the bags. Everyone was in a different state of undress; some completely naked, some just in pants or leather , some just topless and the rest? Just dazed and confused (I’m the rest by the way). I mean, of course I went shirtless as well. I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself and if everyone else is doing it, you do slightly want to join in. Did I consider just leaving then and there? It was the easy route and would have been understandable. But two things: I had paid €10 so I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave without getting some kind of experience to validate it (I’m a poor student remember). The second thing was I’ve always wanted to truly live life to a visceral level, taking every opportunity I get rather than regret a youth wasted. It has I guess sometimes lead me to the wrong places or left me with no money (missing my flight to Spain for Benicassim festival this summer was an example; there were many signs that it wasn’t meant to be but I ploughed ahead anyway) but I believe one day I will view it as 100% worthwhile. Anyway, it could be life-altering. It could be great. Or at least a funny story. Well, least I got that. So I went into the literally dark unknown.
I remember reading a TripAdvisor review in which a clearly very straight man accidentally walked into sex-club section of Berghain. It was described in such comically over-the-top detail that it seemed too ludicrous to actually be real.
Everything he said was true. The first thing you notice is the smell of heat and sweat clinging to the air, as well as how truly dark it is inside. The outside mechanical aesthetic continued; with water pipes and intimidating architecture being reminiscent of a Village People music video or an S&M version of the Crystal Maze . Walking around at first, it felt way too surreal to process and so far away from my black and white adolescence. What would the people I grew up with on Canvey Island think of this?
I will put this out here now. Yes. There was guys having sex everywhere. Literally no place was unstained. Bathrooms were full of men sitting down by the sinks, waiting. Taking a wee seemed more like a spectator sport here. Elsewhere, if you were fortunate enough, you could find swing like contractions so you can have extra fun while you noshed off a randomer. Where the real action happened, for those for which this was not their first time at the rodeo, was what I christened the sex cage. Why you ask? Well, it literally was a cage full of guys having sex. While it was dim in the club, most areas were vaguely lit but the sex cage was in almost complete darkness. Guys were either strapped to the wall or just bent over a sofa while Chuck, Tom and Larry had a go. I, through no fault of my own, ended up in there at one point and this was the only time I felt my arse groped (I’m still not sure if I’m relieved or offended about this). No one was forceful or coercive. To be honest, due to how young I probably looked (I was definitely the youngest person in there which made the whole thing even more overwhelming), people left me alone. I just walked around in circles taking it all in. As in I went into sensory overload. I just couldn’t believe this was actually happening; it felt like I was on a film set for the new 50 Shades. There was techno music, somewhere. The dance floor was the only place where everyone was at the very least slightly clothed, in leather of course. A techno remix of Kelis’s Milkshake played for what felt like an eternity, taunting me.
I finally conclude I had seen enough. I must have been there for about an hour and half but trust me when I said it flew by. But ha it was silly to think it would be that easy to leave. I find myself attempting to find the exit, only to find more guys having a sex. Oh, it must be this little hole in the wall-oh wait nope there’s a penis there. I can see where Ikea got the layout for their shops now. There was a marker I made in my head so I had an idea where I was- ‘Tissue Mountain’ (don’t ask) which I kept ending up back at. I didn’t have the courage to ask where the exit was so I just hoped I would eventually stumble into it and not something else. I did eventually find it, only to be told I had to get some kind of receipt that proved I had paid to go in. I literally had a number written on my fleshy shoulder (that was so I could get my clothes back after) but nope I had to go back in again. Once I finally received proof of my ordeal from the bar, I left and never looked back.
Well in all seriousness, I was shaken up at the time. I identify as bisexual, but this is only something I have become truly comfortable with this year. Instead of dipping my toe in the water, I just decided to belly flop off the top diving board. I wasn’t ready. I can’t say I wouldn’t go back. I was in awe of the absolute empanication these men displayed; they really didn’t give a shit. With such a toxic past with regards to discrimination (not far from Germany is a country where people are being killed for something that is as natural as their eye colour) and AIDS, it was weirdly hopeful and heartening to see these men taking complete ownership of their sexuality. But, it was just too much too soon. However, I definitely recommend all men experience it at least once in their life – it must throw up some interesting questions.
So, I just wanted some techno and I couldn’t even afford to go into the actual Berghain non-sex section now. It was alright though, I truly saw the side of Berlin that everyone raves about and what can I say? It’s a lot of fun.
Words: Will Craigie