They stay in your system, Berghain and its Panorama Bar. It might be many years later, sat at a very expensive sushi restaurant when suddenly those moments in that club come back to you, like memories of a trip to a parallel universe.
For me, and for many others, Berghain is like a church – a new-age religion. It's a place where you can forget yourself. The obligatory photo on the way out is like receiving a blessing; being a part of something special, something sacred.
Berghain opened in 2004 in an abandoned power plant in what used to be East Berlin. The name is a mashup of the last syllable of its neighbourhood – Friedrichshain – and the one across the Spree – Kreuzberg – on what was once the other side of the Wall. Its predecessor was Ostgut, founded by Michael Teufele and Norbert Thurman in 1999 as a mainly gay techno-club. Now, you can dance to house music upstairs at the Panorama Bar, while the downstairs area is for techno, where the sound is harder, faster and more distinct. It's renowned for the quality of the music, the power of the sound system, the mysterious door policy, and the infamous dark rooms.
The weekend parties, which often spill into Monday morning, can be a dystopia and a utopia at the same time. It's a place of enormous charisma; the whole electronic music world has heard of this egalitarian micro-state of organised debauchery. It is known for being physical, which does not necessarily mean that everybody is having sex – although you can if you want to. Dancing takes place, too, and losing yourself is a given. It's a place that shows you your fantasies and allows you to act them out and, in order to protect you from this moment of revelation, there are no mirrors in the club. Berghain does not want you looking at yourself when that moment comes. It's a place of radical self-expression where you can go in and behave exactly how you want to. You can walk around naked and let the music lead you.
So how has Berghain become an alternative Sunday service? And what happens to the congregation?
Today it’s too late for church, but I’m still perfectly on time for Berghain. It’s Sunday afternoon, 2.20pm – prime time for the club. I've had some cereal, a cappuccino and some juice. Traditionally, you dress up for church, in heels and makeup, but this doesn’t work for Berghain. So I put on a tight, black cotton dress and an old but expensive bomber jacket. I’ve read through a few blogs that tell you what to wear and what not to wear if you go to Berghain these days. I try to stick to the creed: not too glamorous, not too queer, not too heterosexual, whatever that is supposed to mean. I am told to go by myself, not to speak English and to wear a lot of black. A memory flashes in my mind of these funny raver girls from Estonia who were standing in line in front of me a couple of years ago. They had glitter 'tramp stamps' on their jeans and Sven Marquardt, the famous bouncer with the pierced face, liked this so much that he invited them into the club in an uncharacteristically friendly manner. The door policy is unpredictable like that.
Today, the line at the entrance isn't too long. Nobody is really talking and the closer you get to the door, the more silent it becomes. The guy with the big glasses who is sitting on a barstool next to the entrance nods at me, allowing me to pass, and immediately I feel a surge of energy. I let them cover my phone’s camera with a sticker dot and move on to the security check. The examination is more thorough than at the airport. The woman is feeling my bra and squeezing my ass – who knows what I could be carrying around. I slowly walk up the stairs towards the dance floor – the sound is booming, my shins are shaking, the bass from the speakers breaks through my body’s protective shell. Immediately I get this feeling that I've entered purgatory. It only took three minutes and already, as I walk up the iron staircase, I feel dirty, like a sinner. And nothing has even happened yet.
Now I’m in Panorama Bar, watching people move on the dance floor. I walk over to the bar, sit down on a stool, legs crossed, and order an espresso. People are friendly. Everyone looks over 30. An hour later, I realise I’m sitting in the exact same spot where I had a horrible experience many years back, when my boyfriend of the time was making out with my best friend and pretending I wasn’t standing right next to them. That was one of those Panorama Bar moments – when the beautiful utopia becomes a dark dystopia.
My friend Thomas and his friends usually say to each other, “Hey, are you going to church this weekend?“ meaning Berghain. The procedure is a ritual. First you wait in line, then the symbolic body and blood is consumed behind closed doors. Thomas says most of the people in Berghain are on drugs such as GHB. You can take drugs, have sex and pass out here and nobody will bat an eyelid – and if they do, they probably won’t care. This Berghain religion is something private. It is the great exception in the age of social media: no pictures, no posting, no selfies. Everything is strictly forbidden.
Berghain is a place where secrets are well kept, a place that shows you your limits, if you want to find them. The operators protect their parallel universe and the club functions a bit like that motto 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' – or as a wise woman recently put it: “Berghain is a gentleman, it doesn’t kiss and tell." You can confess later, if you want to.