Berlin: It’s Not All Sex, All the Time
Going Deep Behind the Hedonist Curtain
Yes, I live in Berlin. And I know what you’re thinking. I know because you seem to have one-track minds when it comes to my adopted home.
On a literary panel in a converted crematorium, an American editor asks a British writer a leading question about Berlin facilitating new relationships because Berlin “is all about sex.” A bad date turns worse when an American academic apologizes for never having been to a sex club; he seems surprised that I haven’t either. Another American man thinks that “everybody in Berlin is in an open relationship.” And need I mention the groups of lads on stag weekends, going for “steak and tits” dinners before hitting the clubs and then searching gray-faced for cooked breakfast the next afternoon? Or, indeed, the myriad of articles in the US/UK press that presumably draw them here. My favorite of them, by Robert F. Coleman in the New York Times, describes his view of the city as “a hedonist paradise, where beer was cheaper than water, drugs effortless to acquire and the best dance music in the world only a short ride away any night of the week.”
This all sums up the view I keep catching sideways glances at, the rest of the world’s image of Berlin (or is it just the Anglophone male’s view?)—it’s all about sex, and it’s all about hedonism. That’s not how my life looks to me, though, nor the lives of most of my friends, and I’d like to try and set the record straight, give a more nuanced impression. But can I write about the other Berlin without coming across as a total prude? I do sometimes like to think that I draw on the cloud of cool attributed to Berlin simply by living here. I hope people imagine I’m out partying every night, despite being a 42-year-old single parent. And perhaps it’s foolish to puncture those potential illusions. But let me try it anyway, because I object to the city I call home being reduced to a one-dimensional pleasure dome.
Stories add depth to places, even those we’ve never been to. Walking around town with a friend, I get what we call her “sexual history of Prenzlauer Berg”—met a guy in that bar, kissed someone in that park, sat and cried on that wall, my ex used to live in that building, this place was where I spent that disastrous New Year’s Eve, remember? That’s one thing art and literature are good for: storying places.
Berlin’s story draws heavily on the myth of the Roaring Twenties, the heady Weimar era. While I can’t help loving the “Berlin punk cabaret” band Kamikaze Queens, their 2008 song “Voluptuous Panic!” drives me crazy in its sketching of 1920s Berlin as a city where “lust was life and even the common folk were whores.” The idea of Weimar Berlin has been distilled so drastically that all we have left of it is the imagined glamour—a red-velvet city where, as the song would have it, “every Berliner danced into the dawn.” The 1972 Liza Minelli musical Cabaret not only makes an honest (bisexual) man of Christopher Isherwood’s more slippery original character, but it also gives us a Berlin populated solely by Bohemians and Nazis. It’s Douglas Coupland’s “legislated nostalgia” gone mad, with no one left to remember what it was really like. But there is a cure for this distorted image of Berlin. If we look at the art and writing that emerged from the Weimar period, rather than these retro-narratives, we get a far broader picture.
As a city that mushroomed during Germany’s industrial revolution, Berlin does indeed have hedonism in its history. Many Berliners wanted to forget their daily grind, and from the beginning of the 20th century, they found opportunities to do so in countless bars, beer gardens on the edges of town, dancehalls, music halls, variety theaters, and gloriously over-the-top cinemas. Berliners can be seen at work and play in Walter Ruttman’s 1927 experimental film Symphony of a Metropolis, a day in the life of the city. Rather in thrall to machines and technology, Ruttman takes a while to get to the city’s inhabitants. But after a policeman, the first people we see are early-morning revelers, swaying home with tired balloons in tow. Come the evening there is indeed a great deal of dancing, on stages and off, apparently across all classes, with many shots of women’s bare calves (also Charlie Chaplin’s feet on a cinema screen). There is beer and champagne drinking, boxing and gambling. But there is also a boy begging, men mending tram tracks and before this long evening section, we have seen a great deal of hard work going on.
In his 1926 essay “Kult der Zerstreuung” the philosopher, early sociologist and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer described Berlin’s cinemas as “palaces of distraction”:
The Berliners have been scolded as addicted to distraction; the accusation is petit-bourgeois. Certainly the demand for distraction is greater here than in the provinces, but also greater and more tangible is the tension of the working masses—an essential formal tension, which occupies the day without filling it.
Kracauer is hard to read; his dense early essays from the 1920s and 30s tend to make my head swim. They are fiercely intellectual but also seem to change their basic premises as he reacts to new theories he has come across. At least in “Die Reise und der Tanz”—published in 1925 before he moved to Berlin—he heartily disapproves of modern dancing, abhorring its fixation with rhythm rather than meaning and its superficial attempt to recreate religious ecstasy by counteracting the passage of time. Only a year later, however, craving distraction is fine by him.
There has always been something Berliners want distracting from. There has always been an everyday life; daytime to the nighttime; weekdays to the weekend. For me, the best of Berlin’s literature and art captures the tension between glamour and sordid reality, the joy of partying and also the real life behind it. Otto Dix and the New Objectivity artists managed to do just that. Dix was a passionate dancer and painted Berlin nightclubs in a number of his works. His Metropolis of 1927-28 is the classic example: a triptych showing wealthy dancers in a club, flanked by panels featuring war invalids and prostitutes. When I look at it, Dix doesn’t seem to be castigating the club-goers for having fun; he’s merely pointing out that not everybody in the city is as lucky as them. Sex work was and still is a way to get by for some women in Berlin—“even the common folk were whores”—and Dix and his counterparts have left us a wealth of depictions that don’t pull punches. Portrayed with dirty hands and drooping breasts, these women are not painted like the pretty, enviable courtesans of 19th-century Paris.
Alfred Döblin also captured the city’s seedy side in his magnificent novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929; trans. Eugene Jolas). Subtitled “the story of Franz Biberkopf,” it can also be read as a kind of prostitute home-story. The unfortunate working-class hero Biberkopf pimps out two even less fortunate women, both of whom come to grisly ends. Döblin shows Biberkopf and his “Mieze” enjoying simple pleasures, drinking at home and keeping a budgie. The scenes are banal—the only wild abandon here takes the form of violence. Life is not glamorous, but a permanent struggle, even for a more experienced and successful prostitute, Eva, who has an apartment paid for by her rich client.
Doris, the breathless narrator of Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl (trans. Kathie von Ankum), winds up in a similar arrangement. But before that, she gives us what I consider the finest example of stripping the sheen from hedonist Berlin. After delivering an excited explanation of the city’s bright lights and sounds and smells and colors to her blind neighbor, she takes him out into the night. They chase around from one establishment to the next, drinking Russian vodka and then “something sweet that tastes pink—be happy—I want to, want to so badly.” Doris takes her neighbor to Haus Vaterland, where:
All the people are in a hurry—and sometimes they look pale under those lights, then the girls’ dresses look like they’re not paid off yet and the men can’t really afford the wine—is nobody really happy? Now it’s all getting dark. Where is my shiny Berlin?
The evening spirals further downhill as Doris tries to show her neighbor more and more elegance and excitement:
All I want to do is cry. Let’s go—everything looks different all of a sudden—in front of the Vaterland, someone is beating a poor girl—she’s screaming—and a police officer arrives—a lot of people are standing around, not knowing where to go, and there’s no glamour and nobody there—only dead tombstones—and if someone looks at you it’s because he wants something from you—but why doesn’t he want anything good?
Weimar Berlin had gay culture too, of course. In her 1953 memoir Weeste noch…!, the comic singer Claire Waldoff coyly describes a club especially for women during the 1920s—one that once again fails to live up to its own myth:
You had to pass through three front doors before you got to the secret women’s Eldorado, thirty pfennigs entry fee, where four musicians with brass instruments played the banned club songs. A room decorated with garlands, populated by women painters and models. You saw well-known male painters from the Seine; beautiful elegant women who wanted to see the other side of Berlin, the disreputable Berlin; and infatuated secretaries; and there were jealous scenes and non-stop tears, and couples had to keep disappearing to settle their marital strife outside.
Although the place allegedly attracted such legendary figures as Anita Berber, the highlight of Waldoff’s evening there is a communal song sung while kneeling on the floor with a glass of cognac. Even I’ve had wilder nights than that.
In Ernst Haffner’s rediscovered novel of an early 1930s street gang in Berlin, Blood Brothers (trans. Michael Hoffmann), two boys try their luck at prostitution. But what initially looks like a good way to make easy money becomes more sordid and difficult than they’d imagined:
At noon, Willi and Ludwig are woken by the sound of a plangent voice at the door. The chubby descant of a woman outside calls upon the two guttersnipes to vacate the premises. Gradually it dawns on the boys where they are. In the white sheets of a private hotel. The distinguished gentlemen left after a while, and had each deposited a twenty-mark note. The distinguished gentlemen! Along with their silk-lined tuxes they had stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy healthy, if half-starved, boys. Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”
The story of these boys is an example of the three-dimensional picture of Weimar-era Berlin we can reap from its contemporary literature. Willi and Ludwig have run away from a reformatory and must eke out a living by their wits. Haffner does have them getting up to sexual exploits more to their taste, but a communal girlfriend means their whole gang winds up with VD, originally caught by Willi during an encounter round the back of the toilets at a fairground at a cost of 50 pfennigs. There’s little less glamorous than that.
It seems we’re still falling for the greasepaint plastered all over Weimar Berlin’s haggard face, letting the false nostalgia and glamour mask a time of dire poverty for many.
In fact, much of the art and literature of the era disapproves of wayward living, and Erich Kästner is another case in point. His 1931 novel Going to the Dogs (trans. Cyrus Brooks) was eventually published in a tamer version under the title Fabian–Story of a Moralist. Both versions see the hero sourly enduring all sorts of hedonistic activities, most memorably a working-class Ballhaus. Protagonist Fabian and his buddy decide to indulge in a favorite writerly activity: slumming it. They are soon picked up by two women who get straight to the point—suggesting a hotel room—but are placated by a plate of cold cuts in a booth. The next booth over harbors a rich lush who tried to seduce poor Fabian the night before—she and her lawyer husband really do have an open relationship. A quick getaway ensues. Among gin-soaked lesbian artists, Fabian later finds a nice girl who doesn’t belong there; it turns out she lives in the same lodgings as he does. But things go pear-shaped for the couple when she decides to embark on an affair with a film director for the sake of her career.
Christopher Isherwood knew that “the disreputable Berlin” was in some ways an invention for tourists. In A Berlin Diary, the narrator sets out on a tour of the “dives” with his friend Fritz Wendel:
I rather upset him by insisting on visiting the Salomé, which I had never seen. Fritz, as a connoisseur of nightlife, was most contemptuous. It wasn’t even genuine, he told me. The management run it entirely for the benefit of provincial sightseers. (…) The whole premises are painted gold and inferno-red—crimson plush inches thick, and vast gilded mirrors. It was pretty full. The audience consisted of respectable middle-aged tradesmen and their families, exclaiming in good-natured amusement: “Do they really?” and “Well, I never!” We went out halfway through the cabaret performance, after a young man in a spangled crinoline and jeweled breast-caps had painfully but successfully executed three splits.
I’d previously thought Isherwood must be to blame for Berlin’s one-dimensional reputation in the Anglophone world as a den of artistic iniquity. But on re-reading Goodbye to Berlin, I discovered that his narrator interacts with all kinds of people, even moving in at one point with a working-class family struggling to make ends meet. Isherwood actually gives the reader two distinct dimensions: ugly poor people and attractive rich people, most of whom are in some way down on their luck too. The only character in his Berlin stories for whom Berlin really is all about sex is Sally Bowles—an upper-class Englishwoman. Later, Isherwood wrote of his own work on Berlin:
What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The “wickedness” of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market.
He considered his character Sally Bowles “an attempt to satirize the romance-of-prostitution racket.” If only I didn’t keep meeting young women who seem to be trying to channel her even now. It seems we’re still falling for the greasepaint plastered all over Weimar Berlin’s haggard face, letting the false nostalgia and glamour mask a time of dire poverty for many.
And now? There are plenty of writers in present-day Berlin reflecting on its deviant reputation. In The Bullet Trick, Scottish novelist Louise Welsh gives us our first sight of the contemporary city through a cabaret (what else?) seen by daylight:
I’m used to the abandoned atmosphere empty theatres take on during the day. Deserted by audiences they lose their sheen. (…) The auditorium smelt of mildew, tobacco and wet coats. Its dirty pine boards were littered with the debris of last night’s performance. (…) High above our heads plaster cherubs toyed with lutes and angelic trumpets amongst bowers of awakening plaster blooms. Remnants of white paint still illuminated some of the chubby orchestra, but most of them had sunk into the same mouldering grey that covered the rest of the ceiling.
It’s a great metaphor for any city with a lively nightlife—that glamour made of smoke and mirrors that vanishes when the house lights go up. In 2012 André Giesemann and Daniel Schulz took a series of photos of Berlin clubs in the cold light of day. The photographers said of the spaces: “There’s a smell of alcohol and sweat. And there’s this strange grease on the floor. A club lives from these traces. They form a kind of second skin.” I love that stale, ugly scent of leftover party; for me it’s a privilege to catch the occasional whiff of it. It makes me feel like an insider. A friend of mine, though, cleans a Kreuzberg club on Sunday afternoons and has unpleasant tales to tell.
Present-day Berlin’s international reputation seems to be tied up with one main institution: Berghain. Despite being toppled from its former ranking as best club in the world, it still puts a lot of effort into maintaining its image as an unrivalled factory of hedonism. It has gathered around it, by chance or design, a narrative of its own. And that story has made its way into various pieces of art and writing.
The journalist Marc Fischer wrote a short but magnificent piece about the line outside Berghain, first published posthumously as “Warte nur” in 2011. It opens drily: 2:35 AM and a group of Spanish students are “standing in the last third of a sixty-metre queue outside a former heating power station, which rises ahead of them like a tattered fortress.” They argue about what awaits them, wondering whether they’ll crack the secret code and get in, trading myths and legends:
The stories people tell aren’t about top models who didn’t get in or TV starlets caught taking drugs in the toilets. They’re about people who spent days in the club’s catacombs, in all possible physical states. They’re about zombies, confused people, crazy people. Some went in heterosexual and came out gay; with others it was the opposite. The tales Berghain tells are purgatorial stories.
In 2009, music journalist Tobias Rapp wrote a whole book about the joys and economics of international techno-lovers coming together to party in Berlin called Lost and Sound (trans. Paul Sabin). He, too, knew about the power of Berghain stories and the way they evolve.
Anyone who’s been regularly to Ostgut and Berghain over the years knows from personal experience how these stories have given rise to and constantly reinvented the legend of this club. There’s this big collective discussion where you subsequently recount the events of the weekend, tell each other what happened to whom, what you saw, what people told you, and what they in turn had seen and heard about. It’s a conversation in which all these stories are constantly being retold, gaining new emphasis, being weighed up, evaluated and explained.
(…) This is how the Berghain legend comes about, and it’s constantly being perpetuated. What’s more, the great discussion has extended well beyond Berlin telephone networks. Nights are discussed in newsgroups; Chinese whispers circulate the stories around Stockholm and Milan. A few people in Melbourne have heard them. Then at some point the New Zealand Herald is saying that there are techno clubs in Berlin where sex on the dancefloor is the most normal thing in the world. At which point a couple more New Zealanders book their flights to Berlin.
For the myth-formation, it makes little difference whether the stories really happened; it’s enough that they exist, that they are told and retold.
This brings us to Axolotl Roadkill. In 2010, 17-year-old Helene Hegemann published her debut novel about a trainwreck of a schoolgirl who stumbles between Berlin’s clubs and couches that includes a great Berghain story. I should know; I translated it. It soon emerged that parts of Hegemann’s story originated elsewhere. A blogger called Airen had been documenting his real-life adventures with drugs, sex and techno on a blog, which was then published in book form. Hegemann took 20 lines from Airen and modified them, adapting his Berghain stories into her own narrator’s tale. Legitimate? I don’t care. It’s a great novel either way. Here is the end of a night of Berghain debauchery, all in Hegemann’s (and my) own words:
At 8:26 a.m., Ophelia is simultaneously bored to death and glad to have found me asleep but unharmed at the back end of one of the bars. She asks me in all seriousness if I want to have a sitdown for a minute. Get down on your knees, sweetheart, and kiss the ground. There’s no talking on the leather upholstery of her choice; instead we look past each other seriously and stylishly and act as if communication might work magnificently via an unbounded tolerance of each other’s silence. “Shall we go? It’s so dull here.”
After the fact, critics said that Hegemann couldn’t have got into nightclubs at her age, and partygoers everywhere laughed long and hard. Look at Vincent Voignier and Barbara Bernadi’s portrait of “Olivia” from their photo series of people coming out of Berghain on Sunday mornings. A sweet child with ladders in her tights, keeping her secrets to herself in a leotard she might have worn at school during the week. That’s how Hegemann’s narrator looks in my mind. Her name is Mifti and she does indeed fit a lot of excess into 200 pages—dancing and sex and drugs and violence and mental breakdown. But even she has a daytime life, though it consists largely of skipping school and arguing with her siblings. Sadly, my translation didn’t make the slightest dent in the Anglophone understanding of Berlin.
Oscar Coop-Phane’s novel Tomorrow Berlin (trans. George Miller, 2015) documents the international draw of the city’s hedonist narrative. Three young French men arrive in the city and duly proceed to Berghain, one of them not even bothering to find accommodation beforehand. Like Siegfried Kracauer before him, though perhaps with a little more hands-on experience, Coop-Phane notes the power of dancing (and drugs) to escape the dictates of time:
The bass pounds like your heart, you feel like you’re living more intensely, with other people. Everyone enjoys it without shame or worry, naked with your pleasure. That pleasure is expressed through raised arms, mouths that sometimes call out. The ketamine heads experience it in slow motion, like in an aquarium; for others, on amphetamines, it’s speeded up.
But Coop-Phane’s characters can’t keep going forever. Eventually, they reach a turning point, after a night at Berghain complete with hurried toilet-cubicle sex:
He doesn’t feel tired or hungry. He’s only going home because the evening has gone on long enough. He thinks of a line in a book by David Goodis, which he savors sometimes, after a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business. The evening was starting to turn sour, Armand could feel it turning, that all he would end up with was a great, jaundiced feeling of melancholy and he had to go, go home to bed.
My favorite Berghain story crops up almost unexpectedly in Iris Hanika’s delightfully disjointed collection of miniatures, Tanzen auf Beton. With dark humor and self-analysis, Hanika’s narrator explores the ending of a deeply unsatisfying relationship, interweaving thoughts on music and lyrics with her feelings about aging. The book pivots around a two-page piece about dancing at Berghain, “dancing on concrete to music made of concrete.” And then comes an imaginary Berghain story nested within this superficially “real” Berghain story—the narrator imagines all she’d get up to there if she were younger: taking drugs to disinhibit her, kissing three strangers on the dancefloor, retiring to a corner with one of them… and then afterwards dashing home, embarrassed, in another of those inevitable comedowns. Hanika’s character is inside the place but still projecting, still making up her own myth about it.
Berghain is famously housed in a former industrial heating plant built in 1953. As a symbol of contemporary Berlin’s excesses, it prompts curiosity about what stood there during the Weimar era. The area was dominated by a freight station, which would have been bustling with porters and railwaymen. In 1929, a disused passenger station to the north was converted into a huge variety theater aimed at working-class audiences, the Plaza Varieté. It seated 3,000, about twice Berghain’s capacity. There would have been singing and dancing and bawdy comedy, though more Kästner than Cabaret. Claire Waldoff performed there, premiering the song “Wegen Emil seine unanständige Lust”—in which her narrator swears she won’t get her breasts fixed just to satisfy her husband’s indecent desires. The building was ultimately bombed in 1944, years after it had been “Aryanized” by the Nazis, its former owners murdered or in exile.
The area around Berghain, like Berlin itself, has a history of combining work and pleasure. Clubs in particular are now recognized as a vital element of Berlin’s economy, especially since a former record label executive took charge of the city’s culture department. The local authorities have their own “music commissioner” and 140 institutions have banded together to form the Clubcommission, asserting that “club culture is a cultural asset that significantly enriches Berlin’s social, cultural and economic life.” Berghain itself employs some 200 people, from cleaners to DJs to cloakroom attendants, and in 2014 it made an €800,000 profit. Behind all that romanticized partying is perhaps not an army but certainly a squadron of workers, keeping the narrative going, the smoke pumping and the mirrors clean. Metaphorically speaking, of course—everyone knows there are no mirrors at Berghain.
Perhaps the most tenacious story about today’s Berlin is former mayor Klaus Wowereit’s three-word narrative, “poor but sexy.” Don’t believe the hype. People here do work hard, and the parties don’t go on forever. We’re producing great books and art and music and fashion and apps and pharmaceuticals and electronics, and we’re still plugging away at that airport. Berliners aren’t necessarily having a better time than you: we’re just good at telling tall tales.