The invitation comes via e-mail. A few names, one date: Saturday, from 4 p.m. until sunrise. It includes a link to Google Maps: a vacant lot, somewhere in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, near the commuter train lines.
We cross the grounds of a freight company where a few men are loading a container with boxes. You already hear it there, the pulse of a bass drum. The fence at the warehouse area has a gap, then it’s just a bit further, and you are there, at the illegal party in the middle of Berlin, wedged between the rails and industrial sites.
Two hippies are sitting at the camping table, greeting newcomers warmly. They have a few sheets of paper lying in front of them. “Hi, nice of you to come.” Then they ask the question of all questions: “Will you sign into the contact-tracing list?”
Is this one of those parties that Chancellor Angela Merkel has been warning people about? One of the events that once again shows that this country only has limited abilities to defend itself against the uncontrolled spread of the virus? One of those events gambling away the relative security of the past few months?
As of Oct. 10, a curfew has been imposed on the vast majority of bars and restaurants in the German capital. Even gas stations and the famous “Späti” late-night mini-markets have had to close off their beer fridges. That hasn’t been the case since 1949. No matter what happened, whether the Berlin Wall was being built or left-wing extremists and the police were fighting: The freedom to get drunk 24 hours a day was holy in Berlin.
But science can be merciless. A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found two measures to be particularly effective in countering the coronavirus pandemic: the wearing of masks and the closing of bars.
Most clubs in German voluntarily closed their doors back in March even before the Berlin state government imposed contact restrictions and social distancing on the city. It was an attempt at reason by an industry responsible for unreasonable behavior – albeit in a fairly organized manner.
And now this. Something seems to have gone terribly wrong.
“In a crisis, the first thing to be done is to impose a night-time curfew – in other words, to abolish the freedom to move around in the dark,” says French geographer Luc Gwiazdzinski, who specializes in night studies. Night isn’t just a time of day. It’s a space and a space for freedom, a place where social mixing is possible and otherness and trial and error are possible, a place where you don’t have to check if you’re breaking the law before every gesture you make. A society needs these places, which is why Gwiazdzinski and others are calling for a “right to the night,” a civil right to controlled transgressions, in their “Night Manifesto.”
But control is one of those things. A number of inner-city districts in Berlin have already been declared high-risk areas for COVID-19 infections. It’s young people, above all, who are being held responsible. Besides the official nightlife, which police and public order officials already know about, there’s also another night, a secret one about which little or nothing is known.
And now this: Contact-tracing lists? Curfews?
As the sun goes down, the first people start to dance at the party in Charlottenburg. Others sit on wooden planks and beer crates. Joints are passed around and one couple shares a pill. Some might be snorting lines on their mobile-phone screens and others might be squeezing into toilet cubicles in groups of four, only come back out 15 minutes later. Some things at night remain hidden.
The night is also the subject of disputes, for a variety of reasons. Right now, politicians and virologists are concerned about the high number of COVID-19 infections in Berlin districts like Neukölln, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Mitte and Tempelhof-Schöneberg. Club owners, in turn, are worried, too, fearing that they won’t survive the crisis.
Almost everyone agrees that regulations are vital. But so is freedom. Are the two even reconcilable? Don’t the two need to fit together in an enlightened society? And if so, how?
Contrary to all the overblown reports about corona parties in the media, Berlin’s world-famous nightlife has gone quiet. Back in March, the city was home to over 140 nightclubs. On Fridays, the airports were packed with guests who were flying in on budget airlines with plans to return on Monday morning.
Currently, only one-fifth of the city’s nightclubs are operating. The ones with patios have reinvented themselves as beer garden-like establishments that sell drinks outside. A club called ://about blank in Friedrichshain has rechristened itself as a “champagne garden,” and dancing isn’t allowed. The first “sit-down discos,” where people listen to music while seated, are already being staged in cities like Oberhausen or Ludwisgburg, with reminders that there is “no dancing.” It seems reminiscent of the Prohibition or Catholic youth groups. Berlin’s legendary Berghain nightclub has been temporarily converted into an art gallery. Bar staff have been retrained and are now conducting tours of the exhibition. No one wants to lose staff.
But even though the clubs are missing, people’s desire to get intoxicated hasn’t disappeared. There are altercations almost every weekend between drunk students and police in the outdoor areas at Berlin’s Museum Island, sometimes with bottles being thrown. And in Hasenheide, a park located between the Neukölln and Kreuzberg that gained notoriety over the summer as the site of large raves, the authorities have confiscated so many sound systems that district Mayor Martin Hikel has joked that the police could soon open up their own club.
That’s not likely to happen. The closure of the clubs in March is now being followed with restrictions on bars, which were recently ordered to shut by 11 p.m. to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The colder the weather gets and the more uncomfortable it is to sit outside, the quieter the cities are getting. It’s the same in Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart and every other German city. The innocence is gone. It’s as if the night were withdrawing from the public, crawling into its own four walls, into the corners of the sofa, between the headphones. Is the end of nightlife looming?
The Night Is Threatened
Steffen Berkhahn, alias Dixon, is one of the world’s most successful house music DJs, with around 100 gigs a year before the pandemic. Now he talks about a performance in Basel, about prepaid tickets like a visit to the opera, about QR codes and calls from the authorities and triple door checks.
“Is this the future we want to allow?” Berkhahn asks, sounding astounded, resigned, but also somehow confident. At least it would be a future. Better than nothing, right?
The Berlin Club Commission has provided organizers with a checklist that reads as if it were formulated by a court. It’s a desperate attempt to save what can still be salvaged. The virus caught the night exactly where it is most vulnerable, at its core: the desire for human closeness.
The development isn’t affecting some marginalized group, either. The event industry is Germany’s sixth-largest economic sector, and it began ringing the alarm bells months ago. For those who are unable to obtain state funding, a half-empty concert hall isn’t just a hollow pleasure. It’s an existential question.
The private sector is still bearing 100% of the risks. They complain about the bureaucratic hurdles that have to be cleared to obtain coronavirus aid and the personnel costs that low-income earners can’t always afford.
“The night is chaos, the scene of dreams.”
Many organizers say they already lost a lot of money in the summer. In contrast to other countries, there were few outdoor events in Germany over the warm months. The music festival season, which usually brings in the money with which artists, musicians and organizers get through the dark season, was cancelled.
Now, event organizers are facing fall and winter. Daylight savings time ends on Oct. 25, after which the nights will get longer. But they won’t be the same, because they will not only be dark, they’ll also be empty.
Unpleasant Night Stories
Right from the very beginning, the night has always had a bad reputation. “And God saw the light, that it is good,” it says the story of Creation. And so it remained. The “dark” Middle Ages were followed by the “Enlightenment.” At the very latest since Nuremberg electrician Sigmund Schuckert flipped the switch on June 7, 1882, to create the first permanent electric street lighting, nighttime has been in a state of retreat in Germany.
Clubs and bars are unique, special places. They have lured people from the provinces to the cities for ages. “The nightlife that has developed since the 18th century in major European cities (became) one of the characteristic phenomena of modern urban civilization,” Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote in his book “The History of Artificial Light.” The court festivities of the nobility gave way to bourgeois amusement parks and later the anti-bourgeois techno-bunkers.
As German Health Minister Jens Spahn put it, the barriers of everyday life are lifted “a bit” at night. People don’t look as closely at what is happening. It’s easier to talk to people you might otherwise prefer to avoid.
“In the symbolism and myths of most peoples, the night is chaos, the scene of dreams,” writes Schivelbusch, “it teems with ghosts and demons, like the sea teems with fish and sea monsters. It is female, just as the day is male, and like all things feminine, it holds both tranquility and horror at the same time.”
Artificial light has changed Western civilization as much as steam power and telegraphy has. For years now, not only astronomers, sleep researchers and chronobiologists have been complaining about the consequences of light pollution. The cities are driven out of their dimness.
On the shortest night in the northern hemisphere, June 21, of all days, night showed its ugly face. In central Stuttgart, several dozen mostly young men engaged in a violent, at times brutal brawl with police. There was looting, cars were demolished. It was hot, crowded and loud.
It had been triggered by a police patrol. Baden-Württemberg state Governor Winfried Kretschmann was shocked by what he called an “orgy of violence.”
Marcel Roth, a member of the Stuttgart city council with the Green Party, believes the COVID-19 restrictions were a main reason behind the rioting.
He believes toxic masculinity explains the brutality, but not the timing. “These people had been without their nightclubs and youth centers for months, without the usual places to have a drink and dance the night away. So, they went into town with their own vodka cokes.” The photos from the protests over the killing of the African American George Floyd by police in the United States were still fresh in people’s minds at the time.
“The search for intoxication is inherent in youth,” says the 28-year-old city councilman. He says he also misses the night, the trance-like state when everyone stands around the DJ close together and is lost in their own universe.
“Well,” says Roth. One of the first measures taken after the night-time riots was reconnaissance. “The state, which owns the land, had recently introduced a new lighting concept.” It pitted the young men against the floodlights.
Johann Heinrich Jung’s book “Textbook of State Police Science” from 1788 states: “Anyone who submits to an unusual time, place, and without light must submit to the strictest scrutiny.” That applied no less in 1788 than it does in 2020 in Stuttgart and in the wastelands and parks of Germany. Under the dictate of the virus and under the guise of health enforcement, the state has again become the night watchman. It is robbing the night of the uncontrollable.
This is because the “night” is a strange mixture of darkness, taboo, the dissolution of boundaries, intoxication and sexual promise that can hardly be produced artificially. At least not by any city marketing department.
There’s no formula for it, either. “The point of these places is to forget yourself for a while,” says Norbert Bisky, a night owl who also happens to be one of Germany’s most famous living painters. “You seek transcendence. You want to escape yourself and enter into a state of release and ecstasy.”
Intoxication with Rules
It’s Friday night in Hamburg’s St. Pauli nightlife district. Two days after the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak at Katze, a bar in the neighboring Schanzenviertel neighborhood, the club Grosse Freiheit is gradually filling up with party guests. The first members of a bachelor party stagger across the legendary 350 meters (1,100 feet) between the Reeperbahn, the neighborhood’s famous nightlife street, and Paul Roosen Strasse, dressed in angel costumes by their friends and wearing white wigs and pink tutus. They say they’re IT workers from Lübeck on a company outing. “You’ve got to live a little after all this whole corona episode,” says one.
The neon lights from the Dollhouse strip club and the Safari Bierdorf bar color the night sky just as promisingly as they did before the coronavirus. Music spills out of the bars and mixes into a mash of hits, techno and 1980s hits. And yet something is different. The intoxication is still there, but the new rules, and this is tangible, have put things on a leash.
It’s happy hour at Shooter’s bar. “All cocktails for only 5 euros,” a sign reads, with names for cocktails like the “orgasm,” “the Mexican” or the “BMW.” If you want to have a drink, you first have to register with the doorman, where you are informed that you are required to wear a mask, and that you can only drink at your table. “And there’s no dancing. Have fun,” says the witty doorman.
Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is playing inside. Every few minutes, an employee has to walk from table to table like a kindergarten teacher to remind people they can’t dance. But as soon as he walks away, they start moving their bodies again.
Regulating pressure is a balancing act. Private gatherings can get out of control – that’s both the attraction and the risk. Private parties also mean no nagging from the authorities. Freedom. But it also means unpredictability, a lack of control and anonymity. And that’s probably what has been driving Germany’s COVID-19 infection rates up in recent weeks.
A Controlled Loss of Control
The secret of nightlife is its balance between wildness and order, its spaces allowing a loss of control that are themselves reasonably controlled. But it’s unclear how that’s supposed to work in the midst of a pandemic. Masks that are passed out as fashion accessories? Hoping that people won’t get too close? Right now, Berlin club operators are pinning their hopes on rapid coronavirus testing they can use at the door. And that parties could still be held for people who test negative for the virus.
Steffen “Dixon” Berkhahn has played at clubs in Shanghai, India and even in a rap mogul’s bathroom in Miami. DJs tend to get around. For several years, he was the resident DJ at one of the most important clubs in Ibiza, and he once transformed London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall into a techno club.
“You can’t just turn off the desire to let go,” says Berkhahn. He says it’s the same everywhere. What’s different are the windows of time available and the expectations. He says that a party that lasts all weekend has a different dynamic than a party that only lasts for a few hours. But if parties aren’t allowed, then they veer into illegality. And if the authorities crack down on parties taking place outdoors, then people will just meet up privately. From an epidemiological point of view, he believes it would definitely be better for parties to be held in clubs.
He notes that club owners know how to deal with drug-related accidents, but that amateurs often do not. In September, a 16-year-old girl died in Hamburg from a high-dose “super pill” she had taken at a friend’s house.
And at some illegal “quarantine raves” in the Manchester area, it was drug lords who organized the sound equipment and the DJs. Sales of cocaine, MDMA, ketamine, cannabis and nitrous oxide chargers (“whippets”) ensured the event was a profitable one. Rapes and at times life-threatening stabbings were reported at similar raves in Brixton and Carrington.
But the conflict over how to deal with the situation also runs right through the scene itself. Most club owners are responsible because they don’t want to risk having their establishments become hotspots for infections. But the bartenders and cloakroom attendants, the barbacks and their friends are pushing for a reopening.
“The street may be called Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom), but our wings have been clipped,” says Christian Fong. He climbs onto one of the platforms inside Dollhouse, Germany’s most famous table-dance bar, and pulls up a transparent shower curtain he has wrapped around himself. Fong, 52, is the CEO. He runs four other businesses on the street, including Safari Bierdorf and Shooters, a bar located kitty corner to the Dollhouse.
Fong says the shower curtains are part of his COVID-19 health safety plan. The establishment also has several disinfectant stations. Now he wants to show people how it’s done: stripping in corona times, without direct contact and with spit protection. “It’s no longer possible to put your head between someone’s legs and pass the bill to them with your mouth,” Fong says. What you can have, however, is contact-less stripping, wearing a mask. Guests now slide their bills under the shower curtain. It usually works, but one member of the waitstaff says that some guests try to tie knots into the curtains, at which point, they are forced to leave.
“People no longer want to be constrained. People are getting cabin fever,” says Fong. And the young people are impossible to stop anyways, he argues. “They tell themselves: If I get this virus it’s not so bad. Then maybe I’ll have a little fever, headache and that’s it.” He says he has never had as many conversations with guests as he has had in the past weeks. By the end of his workday, Fong says, he can barely talk.
He says they had to close for almost five months, and now they only have 30 percent of their normal business, mainly due to the lack in tourists, like the “especially hard-drinking” Scandinavians and the English. “If this continues for another six months, it will be lights out,” he says. And it’s the same for many others in the neighborhood.
A society needs valves for releasing pressure in a controlled manner. This quasi-hydraulic understanding of the world is especially widespread in the red-light world, and Stephanie Klee has been in business for too long to have any kind of illusions about the country’s habits. “Where there’s partying, there’s fucking,” she says, “whether it’s carnival or Oktoberfest. What doesn’t happen in the beer tent is compensated for in a brothel. That’s how it is.”
Klee is one of the spokespeople for BDS, Germany’s Federal Association of Sexual Services. In every city, she says, “there are clubs with rooms or corners where you can get down to business with a complete stranger. Which is a lot of fun.”
Then suddenly, it was all over. Klee is seriously worried about the country’s drives. She works as a sex therapist in senior’s homes and institutions for the disabled. The customers, she says, are totally desperate. She talks about a client who was doing well with her visiting him every 14 days. “Now, the man harasses residents and staff. The management has already threatened to sedate him. Assault and battery!”
She says the client is 94 years old.
Stephanie Klee’s association follows a best practices policy. Hygiene concepts that work for podiatrists and hairdressers, she argues, can also be implemented in brothels: ventilation, disinfection, even masks and contact-tracing forms. Safe distances, Klee says, can even be maintained — “with appropriate positions.” She argues that it would be absurd to allow family celebrations to take place with 50 participants while declaring the bar counter at a red-light district bar a problem.
“Many businesses have given up because of the overregulation,” says Klee. People are required to list their address and ideally also their home phone number?
“Large, well-run businesses like (the brothel) Pascha in Cologne have filed for bankruptcy,” says Klee. “Although they have a lot of staff who are on the Kurzarbeit work furlough program, the government money covers only part of the operating costs.”
She suspects the rules are partly being driven by philistinism. In Berlin, where the red-light industry has more of a seat at the decision-making table, brothels have been open again since early August, and there have even been a reasonable number of customers since September. “We are known and appreciated in Berlin,” says Klee, and that is in contrast to regions she describes as middle-class and bourgeois, like the states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg.
Most of the sex workers from Eastern Europe went home during the crisis, she says. Others, she notes, placed ads on Tinder or began working the streets. “The market has changed,” she says. “The good customers have stayed away, what remains are the disrespectful customers who have pushed down prices and demanded services that were not OK before. Or who they have been abusive. The women don’t report it because they shouldn’t have been working.”
Klee fears that part of her industry will go underground and stay there, like during Prohibition, with all the corresponding risks. A privately organized sex party in the Mitte district of Berlin, she says, became a super-spreading event in late August. Well, Stephanie Klee says, that’s what happens if things are pushed underground.
The boundaries between brothel and party were never sharply drawn. In recent years, “nightlife” has even played a prominent role in city marketing. Touted in brochures, it became an indicator of urbanity and proof of subcultural, tolerant coolness.
Amsterdam was the first city to appoint a “Night Mayor” in 2012. London followed with a “Night Czar,” and now more and more big cities (and the those that want to become one) have comparable positions.
But few cities have made nightlife as central to their brand essence as Berlin. Nightlife has replaced the Berlin Wall as a city landmark. Sometimes literally. When Dimitri Hegemann was being guided through the remains of the old Wertheim department store by a janitor shortly after reunification, the desolate space in front it offered a view of the remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Hegemann, a typical Kreuzberg slacker who had fled from the provinces to West Berlin, loved music and organized festivals, discovered the former entrance to the department store’s vault.
It is one of the mythical moments of Berlin cultural history. Because what started here has not only shaped the image of the German capital in the world, it helped turn techno into a worldwide phenomenon. “Tresor,” the name of the club Hegemann founded here in 1991, and German for “vault,” quickly became world-famous, and invented a new kind of nightlife.
Last year, the door of the safe, half a ton of used steel, was brought to the Humboldt Forum, the new museum located in a reconstruction of Berlin’s city palace, where it will be a central part of the future Berlin exhibition. Sitting in his office, Hegemann takes in a deep breath and says: “What actually happened here over the past 30 years? The longer I think about it, the harder it is for me to understand. But it’s clear that it’s over.”
Hegemann, one of the great Berlin movers and shakers, a man who always has plans, for whom failure is just a reason to try again, is more shaken than ever.
His office is a small room in the so-called Kraftwerk (power house), a former heating and power plant that once supplied East Berlin. After it was decommissioned, Hegemann and acolytes filled the space with art and music. That is, until COVID-19. The new Tresor club is in the same building, where it moved to in 2007. Now everything is standing still.
“I find it unthinkable to open Tresor now. How would that be possible? Partying with masks? Fearing infection? That’s not possible,” says Hegemann and shakes his head. A club, says Hegemann, is a shelter. A safe space. How, he asks, can you open it if you don’t feel safe?
Hegemann is often called a “space researcher” because of his interest in discovering and developing new spaces.
It is one of the narratives of Berlin in the past 30 years that these free spaces then attracted people, and these people changed the city. “Where do you want Europe’s shifting intelligence to go,” says Hegemann. The fact that Berlin is on its way to becoming a global city has more to do with techno and art than with politics and business. Some who came to the city to dance stayed and founded companies. The startup district on the Spree River used to be the site of nightclubs.
But that’s not what nightlife was about, of course. It was a space to go crazy, to dance and sweat and scream. “It’s also a therapy space, that kind of club,” says Hegemann.
But he says the most important aspect is something else: the desire to meet people who are different from oneself. “I always called them ‘my people.’ You look for them. Your people. You don’t know them. But you think that you will meet them in the night.”
The Dawn of the Night
The virus has put nightlife on the agenda. The “1st International Conference on Night Studies” met in Lisbon in July, albeit only virtually. There are no shortages of attempts to save nightlife, and thus cities. An initiative associated with the first “Night Mayor,” Amsterdam’s Mirik Milan, has just presented a Global Night Rescue Plan that includes using municipal stages for raves, with entire streets being turned into party zones. Everyone is worried about winter breathing down their necks. The further north in Europe, the greater the fear.
Marc Wohlrabe is a rare mixture: a visionary pragmatist. Even among the colorful figures in Berlin nightlife, he is a unique figure. He is a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, for one. His father, Jürgen, was one of the most powerful men in the party in Berlin. He died in 1995, and his son, now 48 years old, advised then governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen in one of his election campaigns—even as he went to Goa raves and spent night after night experiencing the wild nightlife of 1990s East Berlin. He founded Flyer, an event magazine, which briefly brought German coolness out into the world, with issues sold not only in German cities, but in New York and Tokyo. The magazine went bankrupt in 2003.
By that time, Wohlrabe had already co-founded the Berlin Club Commission, now the most powerful lobby organization for nightlife in Germany. Because that wasn’t enough for him, he also helped set up Live DMA, a European equivalent to the Club Commission. He explained to club owners in Tokyo how they could find allies in a rich city to raise the pressure on politicians. Every week, he speaks by phone to clubbing representatives in other big European countries.
Wohlrabe can think like a politician. He understands how government authorities work. He knows how to build pressure in complicated situations where opposing forces are at work. But he also loves nightlife.
“In Germany,” he says, “we always believe we can find the perfect model, but that will not be the case for nightlife. Every club has different problems. And for every club, there are different solutions.” Rent, volume, opening hours, space in the street or in the garden. For now, he says, the authorities have to be accommodating. And the club operators? “We just need a little patience. And we have to make it to the spring.”
Ultimately, the question of how to deal with the clubs is about more than nightlife. “The coronavirus crisis will continue changing our cities,” says Wohlrabe. “Unfortunately, online sales have become even more important, many stores will disappear. Working from home will transform office districts. What kind of city do we want then? How do we want to live? What role should culture play?”
At the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg (HAW), Anke von der Heide is working on saving nightlife, or, more precisely, on helping it be reborn as a virtual experience. She focuses on “Cross Reality,” or XR. “The goal is to virtually recreate social and live events during the COVID-19 time, using 3-D glasses and immersive video mapping,” the scientist says. She had herself been struggling to cope with the ban on nightlife in the spring, and the loss of club-life and bars.
She explains that XR could, of course, “not really” replace that. But what is real? The attempts at cross-realities that have emerged thus far have been well-received by the nightlife scene.
A DJ and a lighting designer, both real, are standing at their desks in front of a green screen that allows them to be projected into any space.
The viral is forcing people to embrace the virtual.
The clubbers might be dancing in a bedroom in Frankfurt, or in a kitchen in Tomsk, or a forest near Vancouver, wearing virtual-reality glasses with a built-in microphone. They are only visible to one another as avatars, substitute beings with bluish glowing eyes in an otherwise empty face. The bodies can be moved with the rhythm, and shout sentences or even scream sharply.
It’s akin to a residential building somewhere in a desolate nocturnal corner of Mannheim or Vilnius with its windows lit up and one person with VR glasses behind each window, dancing in his or her own kitchen, all in the same rhythm, arms outstretched, lost in the mass of individuals.
But if this is the future, then good night.