Berlin’s vanishing nightclubs: ‘The open sex in all corners can be distracting’
Gentrification of the German capital is threatening its vibrant, decadent club scene
Griessmuehle in Berlin. Nightclubs play a huge role in the city’s culture and economy. But real estate investors and infrastructure projects have put many venues at risk. Photograph: Gordon Welters/The New York Times
It’s 5am in Berlin’s KitKat club, and the half-naked crowd is dancing furiously to a deep bass track as a woman performs energetic oral sex on a very happy man reclining to my right.
As I sip a warm gin and tonic, I’m reminded of Prussian King Frederick II and his progressive promise, 280 years ago, that “everyone should be happy in their own way”. In the centuries since, and particularly in the KitKat club, Berliners have made it a point of honour to live up to the king’s “each to their own” mantra.
It served as a touchstone 100 years ago in the “Golden 20s” in Berlin, as world war defeat collapsed the old order and discredited its political and moral authority.
'Locals know to have a disco nap, show up later and observe the strict dress code: fetish, latex & leather, uniform, kinky, glitter and glamour, elegant evening wear, sackcloth, ashes'
The new decade in 1920 ushered in a new era where war debt and economic crises triggered the horrors of hyperinflation. Within hours, newly-printed money had lost all its value, offering an opening for political extremists. As the pressure began to build, extremes of wealth and poverty in the interwar capital made living for the moment – even the hour – the order of the day in a city that was dynamic, desperate and drugged-up to the gills.
Today, a cottage industry has grown up in Berlin to memorialise – and monetise – the fascination with the so-called Weimar era. There are Weimar concerts, exhibitions, parties and tours. A new bar, Moka Efti, is a nod to a vanished interwar nightclub featured in the television series Babylon Berlin, which returned on January 24th for a third series.
Even today’s KitKat is named after the fictional night club in the musical Cabaret, set in pre-Hitler Berlin. But this evening’s “CarneBall” fetish party, drawing crowds from all over Germany and beyond, is far more creative than any Sally Bowles musical number. The question, though, is: for how much longer?
The queue to get into KitKat snakes around the block as doors open at 11pm. Locals know to have a disco nap, show up later and observe the strict dress code on the club’s website: “fetish, latex & leather, uniform, kinky, glitter and glamour, elegant evening wear, sackcloth and ashes”.
A shadow hangs over this evening’s party: the growing fear of club closures gathering pace in Berlin
Just after 3am the group ahead of me in the queue, Italian 30-something men in parkas and jeans, are dismissed at the door. Wearing a tuxedo with a few additions, I am waved in and slip past the tired cashier in a soiled French maid’s outfit.
KitKat is housed in a sprawling complex near the former deathstrip and has several dance floors, half a dozen lounges, and a dark room. In the illuminated pool, a naked couple splashes as I arrive, ignored by partygoers lazing in the tiki-themed poolside area.
First-timers can easily be distracted in KitKat. Distracted by the open sexual intercourse in all corners. Distracted by the exposed bottoms, from pert to sagging. Distracted by the black woman channelling Josephine Baker as she dances on an illuminated platform in a tight catsuit and Louboutin platform pumps.
Distracted by creative costumes that run the gamut from dominatrix to birthday suits, the latter often combined with strategically-placed stick-on sequins or transparent chastity devices.
But as a self-professed hedonist heaven, none of that is the point of KitKat. Regular clubber Karsten – latex shorts and a Spartanesque six pack – says that just as important is the music, and the relaxed, uninhibited, inclusive atmosphere.
“Look around,” he says with a wave, “no smartphones.”
The strict phone ban means a lack of distraction, an absence of selfies and several hundred people living in the moment, not for Instagram. Drinks are moderately priced, drugs are in circulation and even smoking is encouraged, the vapours vanishing quickly into air ducts.
The Club Commission insists that these venues and their events are as much part of Germany’s cultural heritage as Wagner and Beethoven
But a shadow hangs over this evening’s party: the growing fear of club closures gathering pace in Berlin. Legendary locations like Bar25, Bassy, Knaack, Kiki Blofeld and White Trash are no more.
January saw two more closures including Clärchens, a ballroom where generations of Berlins had danced since 1913. Its new owner has promised to reopen after renovations, but regulars are sceptical. Now the KitKat club’s Munich landlord has cancelled the lease to June 2020 and the Griessmuehle is in danger of imminent closure.
Berlin’s state cultural minister Klaus Lederer is furious but largely helpless, saying clubs are prime victims in a rapidly changing city. In the 1990s, he recalls how anyone with a sound system and a crate of beer could open a club in a derelict building in the former East Berlin. Today the property investors have moved in looking for profit and, with them, 40,000 new Berliners a year looking for somewhere to live.
“The city is growing, the city is becoming fuller, and usage conflicts are rising,” says Lederer. With new residents quick to sue established, neighbouring clubs on grounds of noise pollution, Lederer has made €1 million available to clubs to improve their insulation.
Now the Club Commission, an industry lobby group, is determined not to let KitKat go without a fight. As talks continue with the Munich owner, a campaign is under way to change the legal definition of clubs from amusement venues to cultural institutions, which would loosen noise regulations and other legal requirements.
The Club Commission insists that these venues and their events are as much part of Germany’s cultural heritage as Wagner and Beethoven. Even the doubters cannot argue that Berlin’s world-famous club scene is an economic factor in the city’s crucial tourism industry.
One recent study suggested Berlin clubs have a combined annual turnover of €168 million. About half of club guests are visitors to the city. Their total annual spend – on hotels, food and transport – is estimated at nearly €1.5 billion. Preserving this club culture would appear self-evident, a matter of economic self-interest.
Pressing for joined-up thinking, the Club Commission has called for a round table of all actors. To slow down club evictions, it has proposed rent ceilings for cultural institutions, as well as tax and planning breaks for landlords who retain clubs instead of evicting them for the highest bidder.
“People often play things down, saying that clubs come and go,” said Lutz Leichsenring, Club Commission spokesman. “But they said that in London and New York, too.”
Since the fall of the wall, the reunited German capital has been riding a party wave three times longer and just as frenetic as in the Weimar era. Long enough, many fear, that Berlin’s club culture and party reputation is now taken for granted.
For Berlin clubbers, the city has a choice. It can continue to cash in on nostalgia for the lost, decadent Golden 1920s past, or it can act, in the spirit of Frederick the Great, to save the city’s decadent, latex-faire present.
It’s nearly 6am in one of KitKat’s many dark corners, and a middle-aged woman wearing only a G-string and elaborate lavalier is pensive about the club’s future.
“It’d be such a shame if this was all over soon,” she says, studying the heaving dance floor. “But we’ll wait and see. I’m hopeful.”
The heyday of ‘Depraved Berlin’
Berlin’s club and cabaret scene has been mythologised beyond all recognition. The collapse of Kaiser-era morals and rampant inflation created a stiff cocktail of desperate decadence, part-time prostitution with an opportunistic atmosphere.
Nearly 1,000 pubs, clubs and restaurants were registered in Berlin before the Nazis rose to power in 1933. Though diverse, they were united in their focus: either on modern technical innovations – hydraulic stages, massive fountains, escalators and lifts – or on good old-fashioned sex, drinking, drugs and jazz.
The Moka Efti bar – which features in the Babylon Berlin television series – existed, in several forms and locations, but was nothing like the fictional version. Named after its Greek-Italian coffee roaster owner Giovanni Eftimiades, it offered visitors Moorish interiors, a barber shop, a billiard hall, a secretarial service, an in-house confectioner with an Orient Express interior and a claim to serve 25,000 cups of the house blend coffee daily.
It made a final move to the Tiergarten in 1942 but was closed by the Nazis, the building being eventually bombed out of existence.
While Moka Efti was for locals, the six-storey Haus Vaterland pleasure palace on nearby Potsdamer Platz was for tourists: dozens of themed bars and dance floors, a cafe seating 2,500, a Bavarian beer garden with room for 1,000 and a third-floor Rhine wine terrace, complete with artificial river and – once an hour – a simulated "storm on the Rhein", where the room darkened and guests were showered with rain and then a sunburst from artificial lights.
Long before Tinder, Berlin clubs pioneered flirting by (table) phone between strangers
Many international tourists were lured to the inter-war capital by hyperfinaltion, which turned them into big spenders with their dollars or sterling. Guidebooks, such as Curt Moreck’s “Guide through Depraved Berlin” were wildly popular. One such visitor was British writer Christopher Isherwood, whose semi-autobiographical writings on 1930s Berlin spawned Cabaret. He admitted, though, that he moved here because “Berlin meant boys”.
He favoured working-class rent boy bars such as the Cosy Corner, in reality the Noster’s near Hallesches Tor, where local lads stripped to the waist and waited for trade.
Another was “Zur Katzenmutter” (The Mother Cat), where the landlady served beer to soldiers who hung around looking for anyone who would take them home.
Perhaps the most famous gay bar was the Eldorado. Now an organic supermarket, it once had a more rowdy festive atmosphere that attracted artists, writers, celebrities, tourists as well as homosexuals and other gender-bending members of what sexuality researchers dubbed “the third sex”.
Long before Tinder, Berlin clubs pioneered flirting by (table) phone between strangers. The Resi club offered a live band, a dance floor that could hold 1,000 and a spectacular fountain where the water rose and fall with music. But the real attraction was an elaborate system of table phones and pneumatic tubes, allowing people speak with or send written messages to each other. Others used the tubes for transporting perfume, directions, or cocaine.
The Kakadu (Cockadoo) was one of the Weimar Berlin’s largest bars, stretching across four shop facades with a main room of around 400 sq m.
With an interior described by one regular as “Tahiti Expressionism”, the bar offered other halls for concerts and cabarets, as well as séparée for dining and other private entertainment.
It was noted for prostitutes who copied the American flapper look, and for the cockadoos on each table who, when you asked for the bill, screeched “Zahlen! Zahlen!” at the waiters. They were also known for defecating on the tables. It was closed by the Nazis in 1937.