Berghain 2.0 – The Lab.Oratory

The city of Berlin in general had left such an impression on me, and I had enjoyed my time there enough to warrant a round trip and pass through a second time, but I would be lying if I said that my arrival on a weekend had been at all left up to chance. The first time around I had arrived on a Friday night and proceeded to have a wild night out with Donatella and Simon, making a bunch of temporary bender friends and stumbling home in the sunlight. This time around I was staying with Ralf, and as a fellow gay man he had a few more ideas of other places in Berlin that I might want to experience. He assumed – correctly, of course – that I would want to return for a final night of dancing at Berghain, but we both agreed that going again on a Sunday evening was probably a better plan of attack. But it was Friday night, so we had to do something. Ralf tossed around a few ideas.

“Well, depending how adventurous you’re feeling, we could go to the Lab,” Ralf said, in a rather nonchalant way that I would later discover to be very misleading. I knew that Berghain was a huge venue that was split up into different, smaller venues in the same building – I had experienced both Berghain proper and Panorama Bar during my last visit – but Lab.Oratory, or simply “the Lab”, was another one of the minor off-sets. I have to admit, my experience with sex clubs was practically non-existent at this time, so I was more than a little intrigued when Ralf was explaining the Lab. “It’s more of a bar for hanging out and cruising rather than dancing,” he continued. “Saturday nights are speciality nights, but on Fridays its pretty open and general.” Speciality, it was explained, referred to the variety of wonderful and kinky fetishes that the Lab catered for. “You don’t want to end up there on the wrong night, or you can be in for a bit of a nasty surprise,” Ralf said with a giggle. As someone who used to work in a fetish store in Sydney, some of the more eccentric themes Ralf listed even made me squirm. “But if you wanted to see it, we could go tonight? It should be pretty… well, not vanilla. But less… extreme.”

As adventurous as I would consider myself, I decided that I did have some limits, and so I agreed to check out the Lab that night. When we were getting ready to go, I felt like I was missing something, and it wasn’t until we set foot out the door at around 10:30pm that I realised I was completely sober. Back home my friends and I would almost never head out to any kind of club or bar without first consuming at least a few alcoholic beverages, and even in a lot of the other cities during my route around Europe I had bought a couple of beers to polish off before heading out, which was to ease away some of the social anxiety of entering a new place by myself as much as it was to save a bit of money by not buying so many drinks in the club. But as a non-drinker, I guess it wasn’t even a blip of Ralf’s radar when he was preparing to go out, and I wasn’t enough of an alcoholic to demand a beverage before we left. It was just a subtle reminder by omission of the kind of crazy partying life I used to have, and how it was possible to divert from that every once in a while. Having said that, though, we were going to one of the most notorious nightclubs in the world. I guess I’d just finally learnt you don’t have to get wasted to have a good time.

When we did get to Berghain, Ralf led me away from the main door, where a substantial line was beginning to form, and around the corner to another entrance. There was already quite a line for that door too, but he assured me were in the right place. The same could not be said for the rest of the people in the line, however. There were the usual suspects – pairs or small groups of men, a variety of body shapes and sizes, even a range of ages, but all looking very stern and solemn as they waited around. Some were dressed up with a suggestion of leather fetish, others were dressed rather plainly. “Dress like you’re not trying to impress. At all.” Ralf had given me advice when I’d been unsure of what to wear myself. “You’re more likely to get in looking like a homeless person than you are an attractive or pretty model.” So it was obvious who wasn’t going to get in the Lab – although I can safely say most of the people who weren’t going to get in were probably in the wrong line anyway. Guys dressed up in fancy collared shirts, or groups of people that had girls with them (Lab.Oratory, for obvious reasons, is restricted to males) were turned away at the door, but most of them looked slightly embarrassed or confused as they passed back down the line, rather than the disappointment or even devastation often exhibited by people who had been turned away by the infamous bouncers of Berghain.

I was a little nervous as we approached the front of the line, but having Ralf there to guide me was definitely a reassurance. He did all the talking, in German, and we paid and walked through the dark club entry. Upon entering we were each given a large plastic garbage bag to put our things in. Some people just stripped down to their underwear of jockstraps, other got completely naked, while some people kept their kinky outfits and just deposited their valuables. I followed Ralf’s suit and put my phone, wallet and keys in the bag before handing it back over the counter. They wrote a number on my bag and then, using a big black permanent marker, wrote that same number across my bicep. When we ventured further into the depths of the club to the bar, all you had to do when ordering was point to your number, and they bar would keep a tab for you that you would fix up when you were leaving.

It was definitely a handy system, because the Lab isn’t the kind of place you’d want to be carrying valuables around in. It’s dark and gloomy, the lights angled in such a way that they created more shadow than visible light. It was grungy and dirty, and the main crowd of people was an even mix of silent solo cruisers, pairs or groups of guys engaging in conversation, or pairs – or groups – of guys having sex. Ralf had been right in his basic description – it was essentially like Berghain, just with no women, less dancing, and a lot more blatant, hardcore sex. For the most part Ralf and I were rather well-behaved, with him giving me the grand tour of all the different sections of the club. There were private discreet corners, there were more open areas to accommodate larger groups, and there was even elevated levels that would appear to be stages, where other patrons could play spectator to whatever happened to be going on. I watched on for a few minutes – half horrified, half intrigued – as the hopefully self-explanatory act of double fisting happened right before my very eyes. Even all the work in a fetish store and the theoretical knowledge that came with it couldn’t have properly prepared me to witness some of the things I saw in the flesh.

Other highlights were the shower rooms which hosted a whole range of water sports – no, I’m not talking about water skiing – and metallic structures with grid floors, so you could either stand up the top and urinate through the drain, or you could stand at the bottom and… well, you get the idea. Given my work experience I found it all incredibly fascinating just to watch, but my participation was extremely minimal. Ralf and I left to head home at some point in the early morning, still rather clean in the physical sense, although some of the things I saw will never be unseen.

***

Berlin, and quite a lot of Europe actually, was experiencing a heat wave that weekend. For an Australian, low thirties in Celsius is hardly a heat wave, but German buildings aren’t really designed to have to cope with such temperatures. As a result, Ralf’s top storey apartment became something of a furnace, so we threw open all the windows and sat around in our underwear trying to keep cool for most of the weekend. But come Sunday evening, we donned our shabbiest outfits and headed back out to east Berlin so I could experience Berghain one final time.

It was quite a different experience to actually go there with someone else. Ralf told me that last time he had been to Berghain – the time he had met me – he had arrived with a small group of people and proceeded to lose them in the crowds as the night progressed. I asked him, trying my best not to sound too needy, if he would please not lose me tonight, since I had no idea how to get back to his apartment from here after the U- and S-Bahn’s stopped running. He just smiled at me, pulled off the plain white shirt he was wearing, and stuffed it behind one of the lounges in the more chilled out rooms next to the dance floor, seemingly oblivious to the threesome of blowjobs that was happening on said couch. “As long as the shirts still here, then so am I.” I could find a million and one flaws in that logic, but his cheeky grin and carefree attitude reminded me that this was hardly the place to be pedantic about such things. Regardless, we still spent most of the night together, dancing under the intense speakers, getting up close and sweaty with the other ravers, and losing ourselves to the beat.

“I think so much when I’m out there on the dance floor,” I remember explaining to Ralf on the bus ride home. “Like, when you’re drunk I guess you just forget a lot of things, and your mind goes to jelly and you don’t think of much at all. It’s all pretty basic and primal. But when I’m with you… well, I was relatively sober. It’s almost like meditation – the beat just blasts through my body and sends me into this kinda trance. Except my mind is going at a million miles an hour and I can’t stop thinking.” Visiting Berghain has been described by many as an almost religious experience, and while I didn’t have quite that kind of connection, it was definitely a surreal place for me. It kicked my mind into overdrive and forced me into having several minor epiphanies.

We weren’t there for quite as long as I was last time, but my second time at Berghain was just as ridiculous, getting lost within the cavernous rooms, passing people on the dance floor who were completely naked, and seeing orgies take place next to a group of people having a casual chat over some drinks. And those are some fond and freaky memories that I’m sure I will treasure for life.

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The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.