A nightclub in Berlin that plays mostly underground techno music has become, as presented by worldwide media, unofficially the coolest club in the world, and it’s largely because few people in the media have ever been inside it. The club is called Berghain, and it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Major newspapers are soliciting anecdotes from anyone who has visited it in that time, and the club’s famously capricious bouncer has just published a memoir. This memoir – Die Nacht Ist Leben (The Night Is Life), so far only available in German – is bound to be a bestseller in Europe, mostly because people will read it for tips on precisely what look or behaviour would cause the tastemaker to open the velvet ropes.
Berghain is so stereotypically underground Berlin in every way, it could have been invented by a parodist. Its name is an amalgam of two bohemian quarters (Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain). It is housed in a vast industrial building – a former power station, of course. (Remember the German word for power plant?) It emerged from a gay male S/M scene. Its music is forbidding and electronic. It could have been invented by Mike Myers in his 1980s Saturday Night Live skits. (“Karlheinz,” shouts Myers to a guest on Sprockets, “You are beautiful and angular.”)
The club has been known to techno enthusiasts for years; it is only recently that it has come to symbolize the ultimate alternative cool to the wider world. The New Yorker published a thoughtful article about the draw of Berghain and techno in general last March. It was written by Nick Paumgarten, a clever choice as he is a complete outsider, in his own words “an American hockey dad,” who is baffled by the whole subculture and never really listened to the music. Paumgarten at first ridicules then comes to enjoy the most minimal of electronic beats, which he calls both “badass” and “absurd.” He coined the brilliant linguistic imitation of the four-four techno sound – “boots and pants, boots and pants” – a phrase that has in my household at least become a codeword for dancing.
About that bouncer: His name is Sven Marquardt and he is forbidding, in appearance, to the point of hyperbole. His face is tattooed and pierced, his beard is knotted, he wears leather. He stands outside the club in cold, nine-hour shifts. He lets in only the people he deems cool enough, and that doesn’t mean the richest or most fashionable. He can smell out who is truly alternative and who is a poser; he refuses teen club kids and investigative reporters alike. He has become a cult legend, a kind of techno superhero.
The mystery of what exactly constitutes underground cool is lucrative for some: There is a Berlin online men’s clothing retailer that will ship you an outfit that, it promises, will gain you access to Berghain. A couple of computer programmers have even tried to sell a phone app that will tell you what your chances are on any given night: You enter details your age, the weather and the time as well as the crucial details of your appearance. Insiders say that it helps to look gay, and not to speak while you are in line. (Perhaps except to declaim, on entry, “And this is the time on Sprockets when we dance.”)
I’m afraid I know only one person who has actually got in – the young Canadian novelist Martha Schabas, who said, “There were boys dressed like girls behind us, and a woman in Japanese anime costume behind them. Right before us, we watched a couple of frat-boy types in khakis get turned away by the bouncer with the tattoos on his face. We paid a woman who sat behind a metal grille. She looked like a boxer.” She described the crowd as all sneakers, no high-heels. She didn’t see any of the public sexual acts that the dark rooms are famed for. But perhaps she is just keeping the code of silence that seems to afflict everyone who has been anointed by this secret society.
Bloomberg TV did a short piece a few months ago on dressing for Berghain: International reporter Hans Nichols used the online company, Outfittery, who set him up with a personal stylist. The stylist’s choices were plain in the extreme: She put him in grey jeans, a white T-shirt, a black bomber jacket and a wool tuque (total cost: $495). “Basically,” says the reporter, “I look like I deal crystal meth.” (He does gain entry to the club, but he cheats a little – he goes at 6:30 a.m., well after sunrise, when there is no lineup.)
Of course there are no cameras or recording devices of any kind allowed inside Berghain: There are not even any mirrors or reflective surfaces, even in the washrooms. DJs who have had the privilege of playing there don’t even like giving interviews about what they see and do there, because they are afraid that if they contravene the club’s code of privacy they won’t be asked back.
Here we have the secret to success: the opposite of what every brand manager in North America would instruct you to do. No sharing, no public community, no interactivity, no democratic sense of availability or feedback. Complete and total silence. The exclusivity of a place that claims to be truly authentic, truly non-corporate, non-sellout seems to go against the age’s democratic spirit; exclusivity itself is not something the Twitter punditry could ever be seen praising. But really, what could be more valuable, in an age of constant documentation, than an absence of information? What could be more rare than secrecy?