Getting in, getting friends in: Two nights at Berghain / Panorama Bar
t this point, those of you who’ve read my previous mini-profile of Berghain already know that getting in can be complicated; there’s severe selection at the door, and yet the door policy is never fully revealed or explained, and so any night out here is accompanied by a flurry of analysis and strategizing. As readers of my previous blog, Luis in Paris, will remember, I’m also interested in the rather fluid ethical component of this process (something I’ve called liquidarity in my work): who goes in with whom and who vouches for whom, based on differences in access, appearance, “coolness,” familiarity with the bouncers, and so on. Last Friday and Saturday comprised my “homecoming” to Berghain / Panorama Bar, and both evenings provided rich examples of how contingent and complex entry into a nightclub can be.
Friday, July 9th
I was joined this weekend by Bob and Donna, two French friends living in London, who come to Berlin nearly every three weeks to party. They’ve been devoted fans of Panorama Bar for years, and the staff have come to recognize them, such that they no longer have to worry about being refused at the door. Sometime last winter, during one of their “sessions” in Berlin, they chatted up a bouncer, who we’ll call “Ned,” for simplicity’s sake.
You see, I had started talking to Ned back in the summer of 2008, when I noticed that he spoke English with an American accent. I saw him working the door at the Berghain Kantine (a Biergarten and mini-club next to Berghain) on a Wednesday and chatted him up, and he eventually became more friendly to me as he saw me more often. By the time I left Berlin at the end of that summer, he would occasionally pull me out of line and take me directly into the club (which is valuable when the line can sometimes take more than an hour).
And so, Ned recognized Bob and Donna from having seen them partying with me so frequently through 2008 and 2009. He told them that, the next time they come to the club, they should walk past the line and head straight to the door (which is a privilege reserved for “regulars” here). He practically scolded them for wasting so many nights in line. The next night, they came by and Ned wasn’t at the door, but Sven—the “hardest bouncer in Berlin”—recognized them and waved them in, no questions asked. Interestingly enough, while they needed prompting from Ned to approach the door, they actually didn’t even need his presence at the door to get in; the rest of the staff had already quietly conferred the status of “regular” upon them.
All of this is to say that, by last Friday night, Bob and Donna had been bypassing the line and getting waved in every time they came here. I, on the other hand, had been absent from Berlin for nearly a year, and I had no idea whether Ned or any of the other bouncers would recognize me.
So it’s Friday night and I get to Berghain ridiculously early (1am!) to catch one of the early acts, John Osborn. My friend Janine is with me; she isn’t going to go into the club with me, but since she lives next door, she decided to keep me company while I waited. The lineup is moderately long—there’s maybe 150 people ahead of us—but I was just waiting for Bob and Donna to show up, so I could head to the door with them. In the meanwhile, Janine and I entertain ourselves by watching the door and trying to guess who gets refused and who gets let in. Tonight is a special label party for Sub:stance, which is primarily a dubstep label, so the door policy seemed to have been extended to allow younger people and larger groups. More than once, Janine and I were sure that someone was going to get turned away, and instead they were let it. Perhaps it was also the fact that they were opening the Berghain room in addition to the Panorama Bar room tonight, which means that they need to get an additional 1000 people in here tonight.
Bob and Donna eventually arrived by the time that I had gotten to the part of the line where we enter a zigzagging corral of metal stanchions. They arrived with a third person, though, and so my plan to follow them into the club was suddenly put into question. They could certainly bring a third person in with them, but it wasn’t clear that the bouncers would like it if they brought two “unknown” people with them to the front of the line. I was already close to the front of the line anyway—maybe 20 minutes away—and I was unlikely to get turned away as a lone partygoer, so I told Bob and Donna that I would meet them inside. They were obviously uneasy about leaving me there while they went straight inside, but I was sympathetic, having been in a similar situation before. Janine, however, felt that I should’ve gone with them.
In any case, Bob and Donna and their friend headed in and Janine headed home, so I was left alone in line for a while. When I got to the front of the line, I saw the two men in front of me get turned away. Wisely, they didn’t argue with the bouncer but instead nodded and walked off (rule #1 of getting into any club in Berlin: don’t make yourself memorable for the wrong reasons). When I approached the door, the bouncer gestured to me and the two men behind me and started ask if we were a group of three. Halfway through his sentence, he stopped, seemed to recognize me, and then waved me in without another word. I said, “Danke,” and headed in.
As I turned the corner into the vestibule, I saw Ned working the bag search / frisking area. As soon as he saw me coming in, he recognized me, putting out his hand for a firm hand shake and back-slapping man-hug (you know the kind: shoulder-to-shoulder, no contact between torsos). “How’ve you been?” I said, “It’s been a year since I’ve been here!” He laughed, said it was good to see me, and then waved me through without taking more than a token glimpse at my bag. Yay, I’m back and they remember me!
The rest of the night involved a lot of recognition: visiting the woman who tends the bar near the toilets in Panorama Bar, seeing the other bouncers, seeing Berlin-based acquaintances that I hadn’t seen in a year, exchanging awkward glances with guys that I may or may not have made out with… A few hours later, while watching MJ Cole spin with Bob and Donna, I see Ned drop by with a beer in hand, apparently on break. Bob and Donna had been telling me all night that I should try walking straight to the door tomorrow, but I was hesitant; so I walk over to Ned and chat him up. After a bit of small talk, I say, “Look, I’ll be coming from another event tomorrow night and getting here at ‘rush hour.’ Do you think it would be OK for me to go straight to the door?”
“Of course,” he said. “You come straight to the door. If I see you, I’ll wave you in no problem. If not, just tell them that you’re on Ned’s guest-list.” I thank him profusely and let him get back to enjoying the music.
Shortly thereafter, Ned approaches me and says, “Hey, in fact, do you have my number? Let me give you my number, and then you can call me or text me if you have any problems in line. You shouldn’t have any problems, but I can always come out and find you and bring you in.” Again, I heap thanks upon him. In response, he gestures at me and at Bob and Donna, “It’s regulars like you that pay my rent, let me take care of my family, give me my food money, my drinking money, my weed money…I gotta give something back.”
A bit later, I send him a text message thanking him for helping me out for tomorrow. An hour or so later, he sees me on the dancefloor and says, “I got your message,” and nods to me.
And so the night ends with my sense of belonging at Berghain / Panorama Bar higher than it ever has been.
Saturday, July 10th
After seeing a friend for dinner to celebrate her birthday, I head over to Kreuzberg to have a drink with my friend, Janine. After going to Club der Visionäre and seeing it overstuffed with people from Fashion Week, we end up heading to Möbel Olfe for a brief drink. By 0:18, we hop the night bus back to Ostbahnhof. There’s a French DJ named Brawther playing the opening set, and I was curious to see him spin (verdict: moderate to good track selection, rough mixing, mostly house). Janine and I are standing on the Straße der Pariser Commune—which is the street parallel to Berghain—saying our goodbyes as she prepares to go home and get some sleep.
As we had been coming up the street earlier, we had seen a group of teenaged boys, clearly very drunk, slamming each other into the plexiglass wall of a bus-stop shelter and laughing uproariously. Now, one of them—the least drunk of them—interrupts our conversation to ask in broken French where Berghain is. I switch into English and give him directions. Two other boys approach and join the conversation, saying that they had been turned back from the last club they went to because it was apparently a gay night. At the back of my mind, I wonder if they hadn’t just been turned away from Berghain already, but I’m mostly interested in ending this conversation before the more violent part of this group arrives, so I just give them directions.
Janine pipes up, saying, “A bit of advice: don’t speak English near the door and don’t go as a large group.” “How many of you are there?” I ask. “Ten.” “Oh, then you should break up your group.” “Like, five and five?” “No, more like couples or trios.” “Oh, OK.”
And so off they go. But not for long. About ten minutes later, while I’m still chatting with Janine, I see the ten British lads come sprinting back from Berghain at full speed, as if they were being chased by a wild animal. They’re laughing but also clearly terrified of something, as they yell at each other to keep running and to dodge between trees and cars. As their noise recedes to a distant echo, Janine and I exchange concerned looks.
“You better be getting home. Be careful.”
“And you better get into Berghain. Have fun.”
I arrive in front of the club and the line is already nearly back to the line of taxis on the street. In my head, I practice saying “I’m on Ned’s guest-list” in German as I begin to walk past the people in line. Near the front, I overhear a French girl commenting resentfully that some people (i.e., me) are bypassing the line. I get to the door just as one of the bouncers is repeating his refusal to a group of young German boys. Sven, standing in the doorway, sees me over the other bouncer’s shoulder and waves for me to come in. Like Bob and Donna earlier, I didn’t even need to drop Ned’s name at the door.
Ned isn’t working in the vestibule, so another bouncer searches me and waves me through. On a hunch, I tell the woman at the box office that I should be on Ned’s guest-list. I was prepared to pay the entry fee (and thus appear gracious and low-drama) rather than try to talk my way in, but I was surprised to find that Ned had actually put me on his personal guest-list—and with a “+1,” even! So, off I go, once again suffused with the sense of belonging and acceptance.
An hour or so later, Bob and Donna make their appearance. They’re happy to see me, but they both seem a bit off. Bob tells me that they’ve had a weird experience at the door. They approached the door and Sven had challenged them hostilely, asking, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you standing in line?” Bob said that they were on the guestlist for the Secret Sundaze label (who had some of their DJs spinning tonight), and Sven demanded their names and then checked with the box office before letting them in.
This was perplexing for all of us, because Ned had explicitly told them to stop waiting in line and to always come straight to the door. Furthermore, they had done just that with a third person in tow the night before and Sven had waved them in without comment. Both Bob and Donna are disturbed and confused by this, especially so because they both identify strongly with Panorama Bar as their “second home.” More than any other club in Berlin the pain of being rejected (or at least challenged) cut very deep. In fact, a few hours later, Bob suddenly decided that he would never return to Panorama Bar, Berghain, or even Berlin. Not this weekend, not ever. Thankfully, he walked back from that ledge over the course of the morning, but it just goes to show how violent this encounter felt to them.
I urged Bob to talk to Ned and ask him what had happened. If Sven thought that they were abusing their privilege or something, Ned needed to explain to them how the system worked. If it was something else, they needed to know. Once Bob approached him, Ned said that he didn’t quite know what was going on in Sven’s head tonight, but he’d been in a foul mood. Apparently, a group of ten young British boys had started a fight with the bouncers.
Oh, I thought to myself, I probably shouldn’t have told those boys how to get to Berghain.