In the past, I’d only felt nervous outside a nightclub if I was relying on a fake ID or wearing the wrong kind of shoes. But at Berghain, the hopeful can queue for up to three hours and still be turned away from what is likely Europe's most hallowed dancefloor, thanks to a notoriously strict door policy.
Set in a former power station in Berlin, legends are built on euphoric tales of the atmosphere within, where huge sound systems pump techno into a cavernous interior, and a 1,500-strong crowd dance themselves well into the following day.
But before the party gets started, clubbers must first get past the club’s terrifying, grim-faced gatekeeper, Sven Marquardt.
Berghain’s head doorman is a man who looks like a post-apocalyptic bearded version of Wagner, the Brazilian X Factor contestant who destroyed multiple hit songs in 2010. But rather than destroying music, Sven destroys clubbers’ dreams of getting in, with highly selective decisions on who makes the grade.
His squad of formidable bouncers have an enigmatic entry policy that clubbers have been trying to crack for years (there's even a documentary about him). There are hundreds of forum posts online with advice ranging from the bizarre “look more gay” to the much more reasonable “don’t be too drunk in the line”, as well as an equal number of negative reviews from disappointed punters who claim that the mysterious door policy is xenophobic, sexist, racist and discriminatory in every way imaginable.
Sven, somewhat surprisingly, is also a street photographer who, in the evenings, turns his artistic eye to curating Berghain’s crowd. According to his agent (and surely he is the world’s only bouncer to have an agent), “he seeks inspiration from the nocturnal atmosphere and meets characters that awaken his visions; he is able to discern the potential of his protagonists before they even suspect a thing.”
Many critics disagree with the somewhat flowery (if not pretentious) statement, believing Sven and his merry doormen simply reject people for their own enjoyment.
The policy’s ambiguity has led bloggers to chart their own theories on how to impress the bouncers in minute detail, and some years back a German developer even proposed a cringeworthy “How to get into Berghain” app to assist would-be visitors by providing style guides and directions to the club. More recently the website BerghainTrainer.com launched, allowing would-be club goers to practise for the real event by digitally engaging with a Berghain bouncer who assesses their worthiness virtually.
One thing is clear: people are desperate to get in. And on a cold night in January, I was one of them.
With the advice that I should wear black in mind, I donned my finest dark polo shirt, jeans and a nondescript jacket and set off. Despite the fact that temperatures in Berlin were dropping below 0C, I wore a rather thin jacket in the name of not appearing too showy with a more wintry number. After all, sacrifices must be made.
The venue is plonked right in the middle of an industrial estate and isn’t signposted. Low music rumbled from the club’s direction, as I passed a queue of 10 taxis waiting to ferry people home. Driver Imad al-Darwish told me he takes passengers away from the club every night, many of them upset and dejected after being refused entry at the door. According to Imad, during peak periods the taxi line can stretch far into the distance, but things tended to move along very quickly.
A man dressed in hipster-esque clothing arrived and chained his bicycle to the metal fence surrounding Berghain. He took a swig from his beer, dropped it on the ground among a sea of broken glass, then proceeded towards the club’s entrance. He got in. Others weren’t quite so lucky. I spoke to two German girls who claimed to be regulars. They were both dressed in black and in the correct age bracket - the bouncers like people who look as if they are at least in their mid-twenties, apparently. But both were refused entry after being told that their names were not on the (non-existent) guest list.
Walking along the long, dusty track that leads up to the club’s entrance, I could already feel the stares of the bouncers. The long walkway to the entrance means that they can see you clearly long before you can see them. The door was framed by graffiti, adding to the underground feel of the whole place. On a Sunday evening, there was a small queue which was flowing steadily - more tolerable, at least, than the hours-long bottlenecks that can occur on Friday and Saturday nights. The man in front of me, dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, stepped in. Clearly the doormen didn’t mind double denim.
Finally I was at the front and stepped into the spotlight of what felt like a perverse border control checkpoint, staffed by five large German men in matching black jackets.
Looking along the line I saw Sven. He is a rather short man, heavily pierced and with a tattoo of brambles and moths etched into his face, and was wearing a thick coat. Not even “Europe’s hardest bouncer” could bear the freezing winter temperatures. A question was barked at me in German. As I explained that I couldn’t understand another guard helpfully translated: “Sorry, you’re not getting in.” Why, I asked? “Because we decided”. It was hard to argue with logic like that.
I was not the only one though. Minutes later, a groggy German couple emerged from the club having queued for two hours and partied for a further 10 on Berghain’s sprawling dancefloors. “There are a lot of fairytales online about how to get in, but you should just be yourself,” one of them told me. “The people at the door can tell if you are pretending to be something you’re not.”
So why didn’t I get in? Despite following all the standard advice, at a club with huge queues and a limited capacity, I suppose it’s inevitable that some people are turned away.
I was just one of the night's many rejections - so many that the club could make a small profit from selling “I didn’t get into Berghain” T-shirts. And Sven bobblehead toys (I’d definitely buy one of those). Perhaps the door policy is unfairly skewed against foreigners. Perhaps my outfit was wrong. Perhaps I looked too nervous in the queue. Or perhaps one of the bouncers woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Only one thing is for certain; Sven is not easy to please.
Advice (for what it's worth) from a man who succeeded
I lived in Berlin for some time and have gone to Berghain on numerous occasions, says John O'Ceallaigh. The bouncers don’t hesitate to deny entry – often for no discernable reason - but it will likely work in your favour if you:
- Speak German
- Convince the bouncers you’re there to see a specific DJ rather than to gawk at clubbers – knowing your Ben Klocks from your Marcel Dettmanns helps
- Don’t dress as though you’re on a night out in London's West End – Berlin is a casual city and the only people you’ll see in Berghain in heels and fake nails are transvestites
Is it worth the hassle? If you enjoy clubbing, definitely. Berghain is an immense, industrial space with an exceptional sound system and unparalleled acoustics; despite, or more likely because of, the stringent door policy, the crowd is one of the most diverse and enthusiastic you’ll find anywhere; and, with parties regularly running for longer than 24 hours, there’s no other major venue in Europe that matches its stamina.
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This article was originally published on January 28, 2014.