In Berghain’s entrance hall there’s a statue. The male figure is enormous and thick-set — he looks like a protein-loving Bacchus, arm raised and head tilted, poised to glug from a goblet. Around the statue a purple-lit staircase winds towards the club’s dancefloor, where the thud and hammer of house music descends to Bacchus’ surrounds.
Our acquaintance with Bacchus follows hours of preparation — strategic napping and fortification for a long night of dancing ahead. A trip to the supermarket to pick up beers is extended when hundreds of protestors and riot police block my return route. (We’re told by locals that it’s a clash between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists, but it turns out to be a protest over squatters’ rights.) This incident — police in full-body suits and masks, armoured vans parked top to tail — sets a noirish, slightly dystopic tone for the night that Berghain will maintain.
Our preparation is also partly comprised of research. Berghain is notorious for rejecting as many people as it lets in, and although there’s no official admission policy the internet is rife with guides on how to make it inside. Wear black, speak German, avoid large groups, look sullen, know the name of a DJ playing that weekend, don’t look at your phone.
We do our best to adopt these tips (the German’s a stretch) and make for Berghain. There are at least a hundred people in line before us, and the shuffle forward begins at midnight. While punters await judgement, a couple in their sixties march back and forth either side of the line, collecting abandoned cans and bottles. At the club’s entrance the rules we’ve read seem to loosely hold, but there are exceptions. I’m pessimistic, but when we reach the front we endure a few seconds of silence and scrutiny — and then we’re in.
Before entering into the club proper there are pat downs, payments, and neon stickers adhered to our phones’ cameras to temporarily disable them. (Mine will eventually fall off with sweat and friction.) And so, finally, we meet Bacchus — and leave him to enjoy his wine.
Upstairs the main dancefloor is hazy, both from cigarette smoke and the output of what must be dozens of smoke machines. The ceiling, beaming lasers that never penetrate the crowd, is impossibly high. It’s a cavernous space, the acoustics of which heighten the physical impact and dynamics of the music. The instrumental house, to my ears, is anonymous but entrancing. People dance with a vigour and abandon I’ve never witnessed — women make obtuse angles with their limbs, while their boyfriends live out their podium dancing dreams.
We join them, and don’t stop for some hours. It’s difficult to keep track of the passage of time — the addition of a single hi-hat, or the gliding in of some new synth, can prompt a new wave of adoration from the crowd, and it’s hard to tell whether songs go for five minutes, or 25.
At some point we go exploring. The club is filled with dark nooks and crannies, and the unisex toilets clearly serve many functions. There are no mirrors, and each cubicle is entirely sealed off. As we return to the dancefloor, I wonder: do the DJs test their sets in a sober, a drunk, and a high state to cater to all comers?
At six o’clock in the morning I’m enjoying a second dance area called the Panorama Bar. It’s tiled like a suburban bathroom mid-renovation, with small white squares reaching halfway up the walls. This space is small compared to the main dancefloor, and feels friendlier. The music is less relentless — there are twinges of disco and occasional vocals (including, gloriously, a burst of ‘I Feel Love’ that takes me back to Glastonbury).
It’s summer in Europe, so of course by now it’s light outside. The blinds of the Panorama Bar (I recall them as Venetian, though this may be incorrect) are briefly flung open, presumably by the flick of a hidden switch, to celebrate our stamina. Cheers ring out. I feel pride, tinged with mild shame.
With six or seven hours’ of dancing under their belts and sweat on their skin, many have removed their shirts. Dancers find respite on sticky leather lounges, cigarette butts collecting at their feet. Their bodies are silhouetted against red, yellow and blue glass panels. It’s time for me to go.
On my way out — down flight after flight of stairs, back past Bacchus — I stop to have a new stamp administered by the door staff. I’ve sweated so much that the original is now an indeterminate, black-blue blob, and I want to ensure that I can return if I want to.
It’s eight o’clock on Sunday morning when I leave Berghain. Patrons are clustered in twos and threes in the vicinity of the club’s compound, smoking and drinking and talking and pondering. As I get further away, these groups slowly become outnumbered by locals walking dogs.
After four or five hours of sleep, I drag myself to a local market to peruse old brooches, blouses and camera lenses. It’s very hot and I pay too much money for a mildly invigorating smoothie. Afterwards I sleep some more. This rest, in combination with a donor kebab, gives me the requisite energy to return to the club.
The music remains the same at Berghain, but the space has changed during my absence. Seventeen hours of human habitation and body movement have filled the dancefloors with a stench that is equal parts bodily fluids, cigarette smoke and booze. The heat renders the wearing of shirts (and, for some dancers, other clothing) impractical. Men clad only in short, short shorts fan their fellow ravers in the misguided hope of finding a pocket of fresh air, and I dread to think of how sticky those lounges have become.
The current crop of dancers seems split; while some are clearly winding down for the weekend, others are intent on bringing their Sunday night (or, perhaps, their Monday morning) to a new crescendo, stomping and jumping with urgency. I do my best to keep up, and I have a great time doing so, but my energy is flagging by ten o’clock. My unreliable iPhone pedometer will tell me that I’ve taken nearly 65,000 steps — the equivalent of 45 kilometres — in the last 24 hours.
I take a final lap of the club. The flow of people in and out of Berghain means that, even as the working week looms large, the space remains packed. Still now, dancers move proudly on podiums, their contortions exaggerated by the backlighting of yellow panels. Apart from the stench, it could still be Saturday night.
I leave Berghain’s main dancefloor, passing Bacchus for the final time. Near the exit there’s a merch stand — even at Berlin’s temple to house and hedonism, you can pay 20 euros for a branded t-shirt. I’m not sure why you’d want one, though. I barely wore a shirt the whole time I was there.