I am in a hallway in a turn-of-the-century community centre with high ceilings; the patchy walls are decked with fairy lights, protest posters peel from the yellowing walls. Every inch of the scuffed floors is filled with the shuffling feet of a rainbow crowd.
Dogs weave through a crowd of black and white Rastas, hippies with pastel dreads and randoms with out-grown, razor-cut hair do's. Fresh-faced white activists & weary black men cross paths and chat. All around them, people are smiling & swaying in droves...
The ones squeezing their ways down the hall slow down as they pass by a group of Africans propping up the bar in the middle of the hall. They are dragged in by the exhibitionist banter, peppered with giddy outbursts of hilarity. People toss them a few words and get sucked into another yet exchange of stories, ideas.
Hip hop and reggae throbs out of a spacious room at one end of the hall. In a room at the other end, clean-shaven hardtek fans in militant gear mill around a smokey room pumping with adrenalized beats (also packed). Across the hall, Day-Glo patterns on silhouetted bodies jump out under the black lights on a second dancefloor, awash in psytrance (it’s standing room only in there).
A warm haze coats the throng that's moving like a single, continuous entity that's languidly sprawled itself across the space. The fugue of faces is flushed with goodwill; optimism is all that holds them together. Updates are given about the comrades in jail that we came here to support. Earnest banter about the ones who made it through their battle with the asylum system, and the ones who were deported (or died) trying.
This is how Berlin rolls: dozens of tiny social ripples converge, colliding with you in a tide that leaves you whooping with delight... or fury.
This was the dynamic scene at a benefit party that I went to earlier this year. How did I learn about it? Not from looking at any of the snazzy & sensational posters papering Berlin's crumbling brick walls, oozing borrowed grit like a caricature of the urban condition. No, I found out about it by reading a lot of low-key, black and white flyers... and going to demonstrations... and chatting to people... and checking out a lot of free websites. This is what you, too, must do if you want to enjoy 'authentic' Berlin nightlife.
The fact is, there is no one source for these kinds of spectrum-crossing parties. There are simply too many ways to get to them, for any one avenue to lead there.
You may find yourself in a place like this because you volunteer at a community center. Or because you read an article about the refugees, and you were casting about for a way to help them. Or because your punk mates live in the Wagenplatz around the corner, and you overheard the music as you were passing by; or because you were a fan of one of the many DJ’s there, and their allure pulled you here, out of your usual hardcore / psytrance scene; or just because you were hungry and there was free curry being served in the hall.
The benefit party was well-fueled by Berliners with a vested interest in its cause. So much so that it carried on till well past 8:00 a.m. in the morning. Serious dancing happened, enlightening discussions were had, fresh strategies were devised, taking shape all through the hours when mainstream institutions of entertainment, education and politics had switched off their ideals & put their aspirations to bed for the night.
‘New’ Berlin (that's what I call the Berlin that was created by the fall of the wall) is an idealist’s city, after all. That means it's also an activist's city. Well, we live in a far from ideal world after all. So it stands to reason that its most authentic nightlife events are classified, not by styles, but by ideologies. And the people living here carry those ideologies all around the clock. They carry them at the party as well as before it, and after, and beyond. They live them, basically.
To experience the real Berlin, then, you have to abandon the belief that fun and real life don't mix. Parties based in a real need, aim or cause, have a more authentic positive vibe than can be found at any of Berlin's escapist, hedonist clubs. Their sense of fun can afford to careen in ethereal directions because it's grounded in a solid one. And that is: to help real people who are dealing with real situations - yes, even at night, and even when they’re “supposed to be having fun”.
Newsflash: they are having fun: by denying that artificial ‘work-play’ divide, by laughing in the turbulent wake of the progress that they create and by being true to themselves, whatever happens. Even here. In the Alternative Disneyland of Europe. That is something that a person can take away from an event, unlike the artificial state of abandon that entices you to leave what you are behind for the night.
At the end of the day, authentic Berlin nightlife is just a nocturnal version of its day life... and that’s the real definition of a 24 hour city. It's a place that maintains, 24 hours a day, a single, undivided sense of self; a self that hasn’t been artificially segmented into ‘good’ parts and ‘bad’, ‘rich’ parts and ‘poor’, ‘professional’ spheres and ‘personal’.
All of this is pretty different from your conventional, commercialized city where the center has a ‘strip’ with two or three big, corporate clubs that are open fixed hours, cost a fortune to get into and drink at, and people lose all their inhibitions and act like ‘someone else’ for a few hours before going home and feigning shock at the depths of their own depravity (or blotting the memory of it out with a few more drinks).
To understand Berlin, you have to understand, in part, how that commercial nightlife has changed the way that you think about going out. We've all been at least slightly seduced into the idea that fun is something that can be ordered and paid for in advance - like a pizza. That’s not exactly the natural order of things though, and Berlin seems to take a sadistic pleasure in reminding you of that fact by going in the opposite direction, and leaving almost everything up to you. It gleefully leaves you clueless.
At those moments it's worth remembering that this is the largest part of the city's appeal. In other cities, there are always places where wealth craters the social landscape. it's scattered unevenly, pooling in depressions created by its own weight, amassing generation after generation, while leaving pinnacles of raw need exposed.
Is Berlin’s consistency artificial? Perhaps. It is a very Eastern Bloc city after all, and the communists were experts at staying ‘on message’ 24/7… But then again, Berlin is also less hypocritical, less split into the artificial dichotomies of a work-consume-die system.
So, one-off bursts of crazed enthusiasm are as rare in the day here, as they are at night. Everything happens in the security of a venue that seems as familiar as a living room, complete with flowery armchairs and sagging sofas, regardless of the time of day. Many clubs, bars and cafes in Berlin look like they are living rooms. Even the regular doses of alcohol, drugs and eccentric thinking are a permanent fixture in many Berlin flats.
The city's 24-hour, subtle weirdness can give rise to bizarre, unplanned ‘WTF?’ imagery, but anyone wandering around with a camera and hoping to catch them will have a long wait between ‘Kodak moments’. They’ll also be putting paid to any hopes of participating in those moments. Standing on the sidelines, especially in the name of ‘capturing Berlin life’ seems a tragic waste of potential Berlin life, if you ask me. It’s like going to Rome just to watch TV in your hotel. Or reading a tabloid paper in the Louvre.
In other cities, choreographed outlandish spectacles can always be found in super-clubs and mega-concert halls, and stadiums - the so called 'cultural' centers. Yet genuine experiences of local culture are rare. Learning experiences are rare. Here, they are to be expected.
Maybe that’s a source of frustration for some travellers to the city: they just can’t turn their brains off the way they are accustomed to doing, back home. But if this is the kind of Berlin that they'd like to see, perhaps they'd be better staying home. Sure, a number of venues here cater to exactly that sort of audience… but that's an audience of non-residents (or new residents that haven’t really settled in to the city yet).
A classic example of this kind of venue would be Bar 25, which closed in 2010: full of unresponsive tourists on ketamine, shuffling from the cheap bar to the packed dance floor like bloated diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Places like this lead to an understandable backlash, especially in clubs that had a similar concept (like Renate and Sisyphos - they rarely advertised, and gave foreigners a hard time on the door). Being inaccessible has often been Berlin’s defense mechanism, a way to avoid becoming impersonal and bland.
I've noticed that the way that Berliners resist the commercialization of the nightlife scene has changed a lot, in the last five years. In 2010, illegal open air parties here were pretty mundane... but hard to find. The challenge of finding them was what made them 'edgy'. I got the impression that, back then, Berlin equated authenticity with inaccessibility.
These days, the people doing free parties are much more "in your face." They're bolder, easier to find, and they seem to put more of their subversive energy into producing cutting edge sounds, a dynamic atmosphere, or radical ideas. The new 'underground' is probably more like the old one - the pre-gentrification Berlin. If the party scene is getting back to its roots, though, it's doing so the help of out-of-town crowd, not in isolation from them. Crews from the festival and rave circuit from France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and further afield seem to be playing a way more active role in the scene here these days, and their style is mixing it up with the local scene. I think that's a sign that the city’s passing out of its reactionary phase, and starting to embrace the rest of the world instead of .
This is necessary. At the end of the day, the squatters, the activists, the students, the starving artists and musicians that define Berlin are being driven out of it, not by foreigners, but by rich people who are from Germany and the rest of the world. The problem isn't their nationality, it's the flawed, universal business model that they bring with them. It comes with pointless hierarchies and unsustainable fantasies of exclusivity. The people displaced by that need to be replaced by fresh, new faces with the same egalitarian dreams as their predecessors. And those dreams have no borders.
So, before you launch into a rant about how 'overrated' Berlin is, or how hard it is to find the ‘cool' areal or how dead that area was when you finally found it, take a deep breath and remember: you’re not alone in your bewilderment. We’ve all been there. We've all felt lost in this city, at times. Adapting to Berlin’s unique style and rhythm may not be fast or straightforward, but it is the best way (the only way) to get a handle on its nightlife.
Figuring out Berlin’s nightlife is, basically, what happens as a byproduct of living here. You're not supposed to get it right off the bat. It’s part of the process of learning what makes Berlin tick, what kind of people you enjoy being with, and where you and your dreams fit into the grand scheme of things. That’s the mystery that drives people out onto the streets every weekend, to new places, to try new things. It's what drives them to fill up new venues with eager new audiences, lured by yet another mystery. Another promise of an answer.
People who live here have just accepted that uncertainty. We’ve made the leap, decided to lose ourselves in the bewilderment, learned to enjoy the sense of unexplored avenues, unfinished business trailing like torn streamers in the wind. Maybe you have to return to a structured, time-strapped world, where everything has to come to a conclusion on a fixed timescale.
Being here can teach you something about how to break free from that world, if you want it to… but first, you’ve got to put your camera down and get involved.
“Never mind if it’s ‘impossible.’ What else can we hope to attain but the ‘impossible’? Should we wait for someone else to attain our true desires?”