“I hope some of you are in Berlin for more than parties, alcohol, and drugs!” My first lecture at the Freie Universität Berlin was opened with an all-too-familiar sentiment. Who could blame any academic, teacher, or adult with half an insight into youth culture for making such a connection? Naturally one of the many appeals of Berlin for a lot of the exchange students here is the nightlife; a nightlife which literally does not sleep. While many try and hide their interest under a guise of culture and academia, it is all too clear to our professors that the pounding of monotonous techno pulled us to the city. For it is a well known fact that no Berlin resident needs to worry when he or she feels the sudden urge to dance in a smoke-filled room with mind-numbing electronic music and a stereo system which is bound to cause tinnitus after the first beat.
“Ibiza would be afraid of Berlin” is one of my favourite remarks with regards to the city’s status as the party epicentre. Every old factory, every underground space is home to new and exciting clubs, parties, and people. The underground movement of the late eighties and early nineties has been transformed into a mass commercial success, with thousands of tourists travelling to the German capital solely for the nightlife. One can certainly understand the pull that the capital exerts. I can say with no uncertainty that since my arrival here I have experienced a clubbing hedonism unknown to me before. Tripod would quiver in its boots if confronted with the mammoth that is the Berlin club scene.
While many spots can demand a waiting time of up to, or in excess of, an hour, the reward is certainly worth it, as you enter a world without rules or inhibitions. Gay men dressed in nothing but skimpy leather shorts, accessorised only with a fan to keep them cool. Outdoor spaces with swings, bonfires, and infamous ‘confession boxes’. Each club is like a still from a David Lynch film, without the threatening undertone and with just a hint of the perversion.
A friend of mine, Markus, who was been living in Berlin all his life, told me that Berlin is the home of the freak. It is the city that accepts those who were accepted nowhere. I can rest fully assured in the fact that those outcasts of society have found their place in Berlin. Not only have they found their place, they are displaying it and indulging in it, for all those who stay up past 2am to see. Markus himself typifies the Berlin scene; part of the electronic movement of the early nineties, he has indulged in pleasures and delights too scandalous for our Irish-Catholic ears.
Characters such as Markus make the scene what it is. Naturally the structures of the clubs themselves help create a special experience, but it is the people within those clubs that truly set Berlin apart. Liberal would be too weak a term to describe a scene that begins on
Friday and ends Monday morning. These people come from all walks of life; gay, straight, transsexual, rich, poor, young, old. Within the walls of Berlin’s legendary clubs you find a spectrum of society that you would never find anywhere else. My latest experience in a club in Berlin included meeting a tour guide, a student, an old barman from the legendary Studio 54 and one of Lady Gaga’s dancers. Just another night in Berlin.
Of course my professor’s words are important to consider and Berlin should not be seen solely as a clubbing mecca. Both sides of Berlin are significant. The cool culture of the daylight hours is perhaps the better of the two, certainly the more sustainable. However the other side of Berlin, the side that comes out once the sun has gone down, is at this moment the more fascinating. Perhaps that appeal is a reflection on the relative conservatism of Irish night-life, although I would be hard pressed to think of another city with such a level of sexual, expressive, and personal freedom.
Berlin night-life is multifaceted, and caters to every need. Naturally not all the clubs of Berlin are hedonistic hideouts, with leather-clad body-builders on copious amounts of drugs. The night-life also consists of mild-mannered establishments, pleasant and docile. Of course these are naturally the majority, however they do not make the stuff of exciting newspaper articles.
My professor’s words of hopeful optimism, naive or otherwise, have stuck with me, however. As I reflect on the pull that is Berlin night-life, I am reminded of hearing my friend recount how he failed his exams in Berlin as he was having too much fun. At the time I was astounded by the idea that a night-life could be so tempting. I am beginning to realise its danger.