There’s something essentially kitsch about being labelled “best.” If “nice” is sanitary, “best” is equally sanitary. A tradition of labelling and categorizing things for the ease of access by humans. Besides, “best” stands in relation to its colleagues or fellow participants in the same category. To be named number one, you ought to be compared with those that came in number two, number three and so on. An essentially individual judgement is negated. Reviews, votes and ratings of the masses take the front stage. A tired, screaming voice, anti-best (not necessarily), is shoved off stage. In order to be number one, in the process of making this hierarchy, a stamping or subversion takes place. Perhaps, the worst trouble with “bests” is that they eventually come around to judge human experience, categorizing them once again, as worthy of having or not so worthy of having.
We get off at Ostbahnhof around midnight and meet a dark silence. Like most parts of Berlin, the sky is large here too. The sky is closer here too. Poles with lights, poles with names rise into this close sky. The roads are wide, even as wide as the industrial blocks lining them, in quiet negotiation between past and present. There is both a pull and a push here – sensorily overwhelming and electric. The metal taste in your mouth is nervousness mixed with the smell of the night. East Berlin, an old man with scars, wrinkled tattoos and a heavy cigar, smiles in sinister delirium. He’s known for a while now that we’d come, that we’d give in. But he didn’t know it’d be this soon. We walk for five minutes before we reach our destination. Berghain. No signs affirm our arrival or welcome it.
Berghain, an abandoned thermal power station began as a tribute to Ostgut which was a representative for all the post-war illegal raves happening in Berlin’s abandoned buildings and factories. Wanting to be true to this sense of isolation, this sense of the illicit and lawless freedom, Berghain operated one party after another with an authentic reverence to techno, soon becoming a Berlin counterculture of music, hedonism and the night. As most ravers’ recollections of Berghain go, there are somethings you see there you can never un-see. But as with most countercultures, word quickly spread, forcing Berghain to take a prominent position in the mainstream of Berlin. Perhaps Berghain never intended for this shift to happen but it was on top of most “best clubs in the world” lists. The argument against this stance by staunch believers of Berghain is that it does not care about this position, just as it would not care if it was placed on a list of the worst. This essay is less about Berghain’s rise to fame and its involvement in this mainstream fame but is more about its position of authenticity inspite of the mainstream.
The instructions are intolerable. Don’t dress up. At Ostbahnhof, enquiring for directions to what is known as the world’s best (techno) club, we’re told we won’t get in. We aren’t dressed for it. I’m in black, looking as close to what I think ‘cool’ or ‘nonchalant’ is. So is my friend. This wasn’t all. Don’t smile or talk or play in the line to the door. Look into the bouncer’s eyes with confidence. Know German. If rejected at the door, leave with grace. Don’t look drugged or drunk – at least not too much. Get to know whose playing. Questions will be asked. You can choose to either seem like a techno geek or be honest. Both can get you in. The in between can also get you in. All can make you go back to wherever it was you came from with just a disapproving nod from Sven Marquardt, the bouncer.
Sven, the man immortalized by a stencil in Kreuzberg and more so by his staunch stance at Berghain’s gates, is threatening even in shorts. In an attempt to preserve the inside of this techno cathedral, he restricts through years of expertise. This is the only explanation to the door policy. But we have nothing to lose here. We’ve participated in this Berghain repute just for the last three days. He looks at us for a second, asks us if we’re together and at my quick recollection of semi-formed German, he nods us in. Pockets are checked. Stickers are placed on both the front and back cameras of phones. Upon payment, you’re stamped. Something that many consider sacred. If you begin on Friday night, this stamp will let you go on till Monday morning. Then Berghain will gather the party dry bodies, put their Function Ones to rest and go back to other lives. Lives as photographers, music composers, students, artists and activists. But I digress from my chronological recollection of that night.
More than relief rings in our heads upon entering the club. If the consequent dopamine widens your mouth into a smile, – you kept it in complete control when you were in the line – the colours perceived by your rods and cones widen your eyes. It cannot contain the space. A statue of what I think is Poseidon or Zeus (or some other powerful mythological character) sets the tone for the night – everything is going to be mammoth here and not in the reductionist sense of the word “big” or “best”. The high ceilings, minimal furniture and an uncrowded, inconspicuous bar cast the attention not just on the dance floor but also on the elegant speakers and equipment used by the DJs. I turn off my phone and look first at the empty dancefloor, my friend folding his sleeves as if for a determined fight and then at the DJ smiling in a dark corner. We begin to dance.
My association with music has been of words that it carried. Music, to me, gave words a dance and a beat to jump to. As I write this, I realise my judgement of music has been a poor one so far – one that started and stopped at words. Wordless music – instrumental music, songs with minimal lyrics – meant I, with my mind, put my words to this music. Club nights meant so many other things apart from words and music. It was an unloading of emotions, it was a crazy lashout of events of the past or simply an observation of human behaviour. It was all in all an attractive, imaginative affair that I had with music but one that did no justice to it. Perhaps this stopped me from a true dance and movement of my body to it. After all, it was just my mind that made the most of music, reducing it to a literary exercise rather than a sensory-literary experience.
Berghain was just beginning when we got in. But it became evident soon – this wasn’t going to be like any other club night. This wasn’t about the alcohol, the clothes, the drag queens, the men, the women or those who didn’t identify as either. This wasn’t about having a random, good conversation in between DJs and cigarettes. This wasn’t about hooking up your gay best friend or even hitching yourself with the handsome but reserved man you bumped elbows with at the bar. This wasn’t about finding a crowded ladies room with women fixing their makeup. In fact the bathrooms in Berghain have no mirrors. Berghain was simply about the music.
Soon bodies began to occupy spots around us on the dancefloor. Bodies that simply marched, stamped or moved in accord to the music. Mine was moving too, in a negotiation between self-directed and dictated by music. There was no fight. There was no need to assert my mind or my words over the music. If my body led the way, the path was lit by the music. There was no time. I’d made haste after haste and come to the conclusion that I’d have to make haste and more haste in the times to come and that there’d never be a life for me without haste, there’d never be a life for me without being on time, in time, trying to be, losing or panicking after it as there’d never be gaining time, no matter how punctual or pre-prepared I was because there was simply no stopping time. With my marching to the drum of techno down my throat, flowing as easily as water does, time stopped. It did not simply stop, it ceased to exist. There was my body and other bodies and there was music.
The bodies around us were in daze. It wasn’t odd to see pills being passed around or joints being rolled or lines being drawn. But I was in a daze of my own without substance. I’d woken to something that had been around me for long but I’d never actually seen properly or experienced. And in the heat of the room, the red and blue lights, the semi-darkness, I was seeing it. I was seeing it in my shadow which was drawing my own features for me more clearly. I was seeing my eyes widen, my limbs move, my head bang, my feet stamp and my mouth and person smile in an elemental experience and expression of my body. Unlike many surreal experiences where I enjoyed the multiplicity of my self – I was earth and sky, I was fluid and stationary, I was man and woman – this time, I found my singularity. I was being the woman I was underneath all the dust, the makeup, the clothes, the degrees, the societal norms, the fears and anxieties of the future and the reservations because of the past. At Berghain, I saw what my body and mind, and music and words, can do when they came together with such authenticity.
We came out to see the Berlin sky lighten and regress out of night. I could not help but wonder if it was techno that did it all. But I’ve been to techno clubs before. Was it Berlin, I ask. Was it Berghain? I want to say it was a mixture of all these three, along with me. I wonder if I’ll go back to Berghain. I want to, that very night. I wonder if I’ll become one of those who identify themselves as “ravers” and know of the best techno parties around. (I’m still critical of these modern cultures that seem both exclusive and inclusive at the same time, seem both commercial and authentic at the same time.)
But something happened to me in Berghain that seems to be something that will happen only once for any lived life. It wouldn’t have the same miraculous effect the second time and it wouldn’t be miraculous if it had the same effect the second time. I’m no connoisseur of techno or nightclubs or of DJs but that night, was one of the “best” nights of my life. But then, one has to be precarious of words without music.
I sit in front of my hostel, at the Spree and smoke with the waking birds. “Berlin! Berlin! Du bist unglaublich. Du bist unendlich.”