The Myth of Berghain: The Berlin Underground


Berghain. Source:

As a fanatic of electronic dance music, my unwavering search for unique clubbing experiences has led to what is arguably the Mecca of what I shall loosely refer to as ‘techno’ music—Berlin. The city is well known for its tumultuous past throughout the twentieth century, and techno in the 1990s signified a shift in outlook and attitude from citizens who had been physically and ideologically trapped by the Berlin Wall. The enormity of the reunification of East and West Germany is well documented, but for the youth in Germany, the expression of freedom wasn’t limited to the joyous celebrations as seen on newsreels from November 1989. The fall of the Wall also heralded a new subcultural movement which, for three decades, has defined Berlin as a clubbing paradise for DJs, music producers, and the now ubiquitous raver.

The Berghain logo

The Berghain logo. Source:

Berghain, a capital in the global electronic music landscape, is a club infamous for its seemingly exclusionary door policy. The Berghain front door “…is reputed to be the hardest door in Berlin”Kulish, Nicholas, “One Eye on the Door, the Other on His Photography”, The New York Times, published 02 September 2011, (accessed 15 February 2013).and is representative of the uncompromising rules at many of Berlin’s top clubs. Through anecdotal experiences, I do not aim to reveal any truths or dispel notorious myths about Berghain, but rather to shed light on a clubbing phenomenon that has proliferated in Berlin over the last decade. Entering Berghain has come to represent the threshold between the known and civilised city and the unknown, transcendental, hedonistic clubbing experience.

Berghain location map

Berghain location map. Source map: Google Earth.

From Power Station To A Temple Of Techno

The name ‘Berghain’ is derived from the last syllables of the names of the two districts it straddles–Kreuz(BERG) and Friedrichs(HAIN). In this light, the nomenclature immediately refers to the divisions in the city. The building was erected in a socialist neo-classicist style as a combined heat and power station (‘Heizkraftwerk’) between 1953 and from the Swedish power company Vattenfall, the inevitable obsolescence of these power stations meant that the building was abandoned. As with many other infrastructural buildings under Vattenfall’s ownership, 30,000 square metersTzortzis, Andreas, “In Berlin, art among the ruins”, The New York Times,, published Tuesday 01 May 2007, (accessed 15 February 2013).of empty floor space provided a tantalizing prospect for what would be its new inhabitant—Berghain.

The ‘Heizkraftwerk’

The ‘Heizkraftwerk’ (heat and power station) as originally built.S ource:

Berghain was the offspring of Ostgut, a club which opened in 1998 and was home to Snax, a gay sex fetish night after the promoters decided to settle in one location. Despite being a fulcrum for Berlin partygoers and reinvigorating the waning techno scene in the late nineties, the club closed down in 2003. The building was subsequently demolished to make way for new development along the River Spree. During Ostgut’s short lifespan, gay crowds and parties were instrumental in re-establishing techno and its foothold in the city. Although there are no historical references to any architects who designed these buildings, Ostgut co-founders Michael Teugel and Norbert ThormannRapp, Tobias, Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set, Innervisions, 2010, p.132laid the template for Berghain and its club culture.

The Berghain front door

The Berghain front door. Source:

“I heard someone getting turned away from the front door by the bouncer stationed there. Although I'd seen a few similar episodes in my time waiting outside, this guy was trying to reason with the bouncer, perhaps in the belief that a skinhead unhinged bouncer who looks like he's had more birthdays than good nights of sleep in his life would appreciate some dude's logical reasoning making him look like the ill-educated thug he was? Regardless, in a completely unprovoked move, the bouncer interrupted him mid-sentence by pushing this bedraggled hipster around, until upon finally splashing down in a deep, broad muddy puddle he started to quite simply kick the shit out of his face.”
—Rob, entry granted, December 2012

Berghain’s zero-tolerance door policy, which has contributed to the club’s reputation and its intense appeal, means that many of those who queue up for hours leave empty-handed. Many of the stories about Berghain end at the front door. When the intimidating East Berlin-born doorman, Sven MarquardtKulish, 2011, (accessed 15 February 2013).decides on the fate of the hundreds that stand in line on any given night at Berghain, an unsettling and nerve-inducing feeling washes over as one edges closer to the front. The Berghain fraternity would never explain why they reject individuals at the first hurdle. Although many have written tips onlineDundon, Alice, ‘These 11 Secret Things Will Help You Get into Berghain’, Culture Trip, published 9 November 2017, (accessed 19 May 2019)(no talking in the queue, no groups more than three, no acting drunk or high off drugs, for example), even partygoers who have been successful multiple times have also reported failures to get in. The doormen seem to favour people residing in Berlin and those who have the demeanour of a Berliner, but as a definition it is too difficult and ambiguous to pin down.

Sven Marquardt

Sven Marquardt, the chief bouncer at Berghain. Source:

While these denials seem unfair and discriminatory, many Berlin club owners highly disapprove of groups of mainstream tourists and those too intoxicated to enter their nightclubs. Essentially, anyone who does not appear to be compatible with the ethos of the Berlin subcultural scene cannot be allowed to contaminate the party.Real Scenes: Berlin,, published 06 September 2011, (accessed 18 February 2013).As Tobias Rapp aptly states, “Whether you’re a queen or a farmer, it really can happen to anyone.”Rapp, 2010, p. 144. The resultant anxiety that everyone in the queue only serves to heighten the anticipation of what lies inside. And even when one is granted entry, one can still be ejected for falling out of line with the unwritten etiquette inside, never mind the explicitly stated rules. One high-profile incident at Berghain in 2009 involved the minimal techno DJ and producer, Richie Hawtin, who cut short his DJ set and left early as security threw his private guests out for improper conduct.'Hawtin vs Berghain, Pt. 2’,, (accessed 23 February 2013)

Berghain is a crème brûlée. Perfect consistency, and comes in a smaller pot than you had imagined. From the pure bass beat to the smoke rising in the bar and mixing in the haze, to the elegant industrial windows. It is a gem – a dark diamond. Friday night and most people are standing around. A sense of waiting. But in a few hours, no one will be still. Maybe because of the perfect sound system, the music resonated with me, it was in complete harmony, something hard to describe, and I could ride its energy and not get tired. Time doesn't matter in there.”
—Dan, who partied from Friday 1st February to Saturday 2nd February 2013.

Entering Berghain is cathartic, especially for the first-timer, which is then channelled into an outpour of energy and emotion with partying stints that can last up to 48 hours. Along with the strict door policy it is forbidden to take any photographs insideAdapted front cover of Tobias Rapp’s book, Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and The Easyjet Set,, (accessed 26 February 2013); devices can be deposited for safekeeping to eliminate the risk of getting caught on the dance floor and being evicted. This has shaped Berghain’s pseudo-mythical status as any experience or story inside is only retold outside through word-of-mouth. Popular stories that circulate include openly gay and straight sexual activity, which occur in dim alcoves, at the bar and on the dance floor itself.Rapp, Tobias, “Saturday at Berghain”,, published 21 October 2009, (accessed 09 March 2013)

No photos


Any form of pictorial evidence of the interior fails to accurately capture the extraordinary aura and presence of the music resonating within the 18-metre-high “cavernous main room.”Sherburne, Philip, “Techno”,, published 09 May 2007, (accessed 15 February 2013)On Karhard Architektur + Design’s website—the studio responsible for designing Berghain—the cleanly shot photos of the interior,Photographs taken by Janni Chavakis and Stefan Wolf Lucks,,(accessed 05 February 2013)untouched and unoccupied, belie the untold fantasies that are lived out weekend after weekend. The industrial aesthetic of the insertions into the ruinous exposed concrete structure adds to the mechanical, driving beats emanating from the Funktion-One speakers. It is plain to see that no other nightclub interior in the world can rival the monolithic and awe-striking main room in Berghain.

Berghain’s draconian restrictions are not new. They recall the famous clubs in New York in the mid-to-late 1980s when house music was emerging as a music genre.“Maestro: The History of House Music & NYC Club Culture” on youtube The clubs’ policies aim to safeguard the euphoric atmosphere generated from open-minded clubbers subject to the power of the DJ. At the heart of DJ culture, pundits share their knowledge of non-mainstream music genres in the most communal of environments, the dancefloor. Over the past decade, Berghain has been the vanguard for the electronic music scene, and in many ways, is the zenith of all club experiences.

BER / GHAIN / LIN: A City of Borders

It’s ironic that the East Side Gallery, the last remaining standing section of the Berlin Wall, whose presence physically and psychologically demarcated life in the city for twenty-eight years, was the subject of protests against its partial demolition by private developers in 2013.Angelos, James, “Protests Over Wall Widen in Berlin”, The Wall Street Journal,, published 03 March 2013, (accessed 08 March 2013)Its current purpose as a memorial to reunification supersedes the political division it represented previously, and it is this that Berliners wish to preserve above all. The threat of demolition is a potential blow to the culture that emerged in the city after the fall of the Wall. The same culture that city authorities supposedly champion when promoting the city to visitors is undermined when they permit private developers to displace sites of nightlife. Further irony arises when this culture is misappropriated as marketing material for new developments.

“Is culture not worth anything anymore?”

“Is culture not worth anything anymore?” Source:

The techno parties that have developed over the past three decades were the playgrounds absent in East Berlin before the Wall came down. Berlin’s unique brand of cultural freedom was borne from and a reaction to the straight-jacketed reality its citizens lived through. In many senses, the city today acknowledges the need for its inhabitants to truly let themselves go.

Berghain, despite opening at least a decade after the fall of the Wall, has been almost talismanic for a generation’s previous hardships. Berlin’s nightclubs have been the galvanizing, communal havens of freedom for these hitherto repressed subcultural groups. As Rapp remarks concerning the queues outside Berghain, “…it’s as if these people are queuing to get into another country”Rapp, 2010, p. 142.–highly evocative of the scenes on that historic night in November 1989. Berghain’s doormen are the gatekeepers to the freedom that Berliners have yearned for and continue to perpetuate.

“According to a study by Berlin Tourismus Marketing GmbH, the clubs are now in second place behind museums in a survey of tourists that asks which cultural institutions have drawn to them to the city–well in front of opera and theatre.”Ibid, p. 51.Moreover, in 2016, a court ruling legitimized Berghain’s status as an official cultural venue, alongside the city’s museums and concert halls, thereby allowing it to pay fewer taxes than when it was classed as an entertainment venue. The club’s cultural contribution to the city, along with the plethora of other venues of the same ilk, cannot be understated.


MediaSpree, a proposed telecommunication and media district and urban renewal development along sections of the banks of the river Spree. Source:

Development projects like MediaSpree, “a new city district with offices for media firms,”Ibid, p. 35.present a serious threat to this freedom of expression and continues to undermine the integrity of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s counterculture. Berghain’s predecessor, Ostgut was just one of many clubs that fell victim to this redevelopment. The underground community have voiced their resistance officially through the founding of the Berlin Club Commission (an organisation which lobbies for the protection of Berlin’s nightlife) in the late nineties.Ibid, p. 48.As Christoph Klenzendorf (co-founder of the infamous but now-closed Bar25) observes on the history of run-ins between the state and the underground community: “Berlin has not turned out as people imagined it would, it has remained what it always was, a capital of culture. A city for creatures of leisure and free spirits. These development plans are destroying a lot of the spaces which, for many people, are places to live their lives and express themselves. This is what we are fighting against.Ibid, p. 45.

Keeping the party alive

How the clubbing landscape will unfold in the coming years will be largely influenced by the cooperation between the city-state, private developers, and the clubbing community. In London, the numerous attempts to close down the internationally famous Ministry of Sound‘Ministry of Sound faces closure next month; launches petition to block nearby housing development’, 31January 2013);and fabricRosney, Daniel, ‘'Culture of drugs' at London's Fabric nightclub causes licence to be revoked’, BBC Newsbeat, (accessed Sunday 19 May 2019)have been met with stern opposition from the underground music industry, who mobilize when the support has been needed. In such high-profile cases, the clubs’ reputations and best practices in security and drug use prevention tend to favour their causes. However, not all clubs in London have been so lucky and many less high-profile venues have fallen victim to gentrification.

In contrast to London, the camaraderie between clubs in Berlin has enabled significant resistance to profit-driven urban regeneration projects. Berlin’s clubs continue to pressure city officials to revise their policies to allow club spaces the breathing room needed to develop culturally and to find their place in the city’s economic ecosystem. Without this freedom, how are alternative strands of culture supposed to thrive? If there is too much regulation and top-down prescribed programming, creativity and originality suffer—the end product is diluted in the name of being easily categorized, quantified, or more profitable. At the same time, there is a consensus from the bohemian residents of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg that anything shiny and new is a detriment to the area’s integrity and desire for a different way of life. What is needed is a balance between upzoning areas which require regeneration and can lead to economic opportunity without compromising the values that initially established Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg as a cultural hub.


Graffiti near Berghain’s entrance © Robert Herrmann

“Berghain is like taking a break. Like, for example, a lunch break. It's like you're taking a break from your routine. And then, when you get out from Berghain, you're coming back to your routine. At some point, this break is becoming the routine itself. Some people are doing this for years, going to Berghain almost every week, then they're just doing their break as a routine. At some point, the boundary between the break in the routines disappears. That's Berghain, it makes things disappear. It's a special place where you can do whatever you want. There's a lot of freedom. No one judges you—well, the bouncers judge you first! But, if you're a part of Berghain's ‘society’, it's easy to be yourself. You don't have to express yourself that much because everyone in there can do whatever they want. But these days, what I would say is that some people take Berghain seriously, and try to make Berghain into something more like a fashion show. In the end, it's tourism so that's why, for me, Berghain nowadays is just a club.”
—Mard, a one-time regular at Berghain

If you’re fortunate enough to get into Berghain, the environment inside presents an antithesis to the rigid codes and behaviours that are upheld in mainstream urban life. The egalitarian ethos underlying such venues reinforces the dance floor as the equaliser for a city’s diverse community. The dance floor does not attempt to subvert existing societal hierarchies and boundaries, but rather temporarily dissolves them for individual expressions of freedom.

Marghanita Laski, who has written extensively on the ‘ecstasies’ of the nightclub setting,Laski, Marghanita (1961 and 1980), quoted in Malbon, Ben, “Moments of Ecstasy: Oceanic and ecstatic experiences in clubbing” (1999) in Gelder, Ken (ed.), The Subcultures Reader (Second Edition), London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 491-509.laments at how, in city crowds, one can experience a “full sense of loss of self and reflection.”Laski, M quoted in Malbon, Ben in Gelder, 2005, p. 494.Similarly, from being in crowds, the dance floor offers a kind of microcosm of these city crowds in which characters fluidly enter and exit, yet whose social codes blur and equality is engendered in the pursuit of a collective, present-tense sense of existence. Berghain, arguably more than any other nightclub in the twenty-first century, offers escapism of the highest order.