Lifestyle & Culture

Berghain, Pt. 1: The ‘vibe check’ at Berlin’s most selective nightclub

Sven Marquardt, Berghain's security chief

Please don’t write about Berghain,” a bartender colleague, friend, model, DJ and seasoned Berlin party-girl told me. It would be several months before I even attempted entry to the Temple of Techno. After I finally made it past the final bosses of club bouncers and took a long, euphoric tumble down the rapid-fire BPM rabbit-hole, I sort of agreed with her.

Lots of people have written about, or even made tik-tok videos about the notorious Church of Underground, highlighting its other-worldly pleasures, what more could I add to the deluge? But after my first encounter with Berghain, I was left feeling honored and immensely respectful of the space and its much derided, hyper-exclusive door policy.

The following dispatch on The Hallowed Halls of Hedonism is a gesture of extreme gratitude for one of the best nights out I’ve ever had.

“Are you nervous?” my friend, an experienced Berghain-er (who we’re calling Jean) asked me and another first-timer as we stepped out of an Uber on a bone-chilling night in February.

“No, just cold,” I replied.

“Just be yourself, and don’t look them in the eye. They can feel you. Don’t try to do anything. Don’t talk in line. Don’t look at your phone. Just relax.”

“Yeah, cool man I got it!” I replied naively, believing that my usual effortless “whatever-happens-happens” spirit would be available to me as we slowly marched forward in line towards an ominous, mystical, kick drum-throbbing, decommissioned power plant on the border between the Berlin districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichschain known only as BERGHAIN.

“We should split up,” Jean said. “One of us will go alone.”

“Shall we flip a coin?” I asked.

“I’ll go alone,” my fellow American friend and sommelier, let’s call him Tarik, said.

Tarik stepped ahead of Jean and I and we began our slow approach to the front gate of what is widely regarded as the hardest club to get into in the world.

Waiting in solemn quietude … to be rejected

As soon we got far enough along in the queue to see the door I felt a thick shroud of solemn quietude amongst the crowd of hopeful partiers. No one was talking, no one was smiling, total silence as if we were all awaiting sentencing for some serious crime, or going to a funeral; every single person was dressed in black from head to toe.

Looking up, we could see figures milling about the opaque, glowing red windows of the third floor of the club, known as the Panorama Bar. Laughter, loud talking and the occasional glass bottle collision underscored by thundering beats provided the exact opposite sensory experience to the one we were presently having. Inside was free, wild and fun. Out here in the cold, it was strict, stern and uncertain.

We got close enough to see the bouncer, a perfectly regular looking guy with a cap and glasses who was in charge of our evening’s future. We watched a few rounds of the compelling and dead quiet judgment of Saturday night revelers. First, on the ramp leading to the door, an instruction to step forward and wait. Then, what can only be described as an energy-scan.

Many call this a “vibe check.” The bouncer just looks at you, expressionless, as you (ideally) don’t try to look desperate or nervous, and either waves you in, or softly shakes his head and says “Leider, heute nicht,” (“Unfortunately, not today.”)

Now it was Tarik’s turn. In my opinion, he looked the part. Dressed in all black, he possessed a tall and tough look all complemented by his innate “fuggeaboutit” attitude that comes from being a native New Yorker.

To my surprise, he was given a denying shake of the head and waved to move out of line. Now it was our turn.

I thought for sure that being with Jean, a leather clad, neck tattooed, multi-piercing, chain wearing, experienced Berghain goer would be enough to get me in. To our surprise and dismay, we were also refused entry and waved away.

We got “nein-ed.” We didn’t get into Berghain, we got into Berg-Nein.

Strike one.

Another try

Jean was very upset as we re-assembled in the nearby adjacent park. “That’s never happened to me before,” he said. Jean had been a few times already and even got to skip the line due to a friend who used to work there. He had been there enough times that he thought he was recognized as a regular and was shocked at this outcome.

“Maybe it was me,” I said. “I’m a new person you brought, maybe they didn’t like that. Or they don’t like us in groups. Maybe we try again? And separate?”

“Man, I’m not trying again, they’re gonna remember me. Ain’t nobody in line look like me; I’m a 6-foot-5 black man,” Tarik said.

“Wanna try again Jean? One more try?” I asked.

Jean nodded and we decided to split up and try one more time.

“I’m going home,” Tarik said, “There’s no point in me trying again.” The three of us separated. “I love you Jean, but I feel like you’re ditching us,” Tarik called playfully after us. Jean and I made our way back to the beginning of the line, pretending we didn’t know each other as Tarik shuffled back to the U-bahn in defeat.

I stood a few people ahead of Jean in line waiting for another turn, this time without a beanie on my head, (maybe they don’t like beanies?)

I arrived for judgment number two, and was not too surprised to be again waved out of line. 

Strike 2.

Sven Marquedt

As I walked away from the club and towards the beginning of the line, which had now tripled in size, I glanced back to see Jean’s proceedings.  He was waved inside. They were okay with him going in alone, but not with me, the newcomer. I was disappointed but resolved to try again. Getting Berg-neined is a right-of-passage in Berlin nightlife and I now knew the cold sting of rejection from what looked and sounded like the best party on earth.

And so I tried the following night to get in again, on Sunday, the club’s most popular evening. There was no line, I approached the door and met the same bouncer, but this time just out of sight in the front doorway stood the infamous Sven Marquardt, head of Berghain security and one of the world’s most known nightlife guardians.

Sixty years old, face-tattooed, covered with piercings, dressed in all black with a big coat and sunglasses, Marquardt, truly looks like the final-boss of clubs. The bouncer worked in a kind of angled decision flow with Marquardt,. I approached, waited, the bouncer looked to Sven, Sven shook his head no, and the bouncer waved me on, not tonight.

Strike 3.

It would be a few weeks before I tried again and my desire to know what all the fuss was about expanded.


Read more about Berlin here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more by Chris here.

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