How Berlin’s infamous club scene is weathering the pandemic

Nearly two years into COVID-19, the city’s recently reopened nightspots try to dance their way to a healthy Club Kultur.

By Arikia Millikan
photographs by Rubén Salgado Escudero
Published 3 Dec 2021, 10:53 GMT
Revelers
Revelers dance beneath smoke and lights at an open-air electronic music party in Berlin, Germany in August 2021. Prior to September, a same-day negative COVID-19 test was required to enter public gathering spaces including music venues, cultural spaces and athletic events. The city offered free testing to all citizens in easily accessible centers, and mobile testing sites were set up outside spaces requiring them for entry. Restrictions are once again in the works with a spike in COVID cases, including lower capacity rules for nightclubs and proof of negative test results to gain entry.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

As the clock rounded midnight on a cool autumn evening in Berlin, hundreds of prospective clubgoers lined up along a sidewalk dressed in the typical circus-casual attire suitable for a night of roaming the techno labyrinth inside Wilden Renate, a cavernous club in the Friedrichshain district. It was a familiar scene from the city’s pre-COVID days, when passing muster from the clubbing scene’s notoriously selective guest selectors was a weekend ritual for thousands of locals as well as a rite of passage for international nightlife pilgrims.

But tonight was September 4, 2021, and so it seemed like a mirage: For 540 days nobody had been permitted to dance freely inside the walls of Berlin clubs since the onset of Tanz Verboten, or “Dance Forbidden,” the nickname for the city’s ban on indoor dance parties in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, on March 13th, 2020. The rainbow at the end of the storm had finally arrived: Berlin was back.

A partygoer takes a free COVID-19 antigen test from "Corona Bike," a mobile test service in front of a Berlin club in August 2021. The private initiative tested an average of 1,000 club attendees daily during the summer.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
People enjoy a ride along the river en route to an open-air dance festival in Berlin in September 2021. Negative COVID test results or proof of vaccination or recent recovery from the virus were required to board to ferry to the event.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

The decision by the Berlin Senate to overturn the ban marked a victorious reprieve on a long road of uncertainty for Berlin’s night clubs. For the first time in almost 18 months, guests were once again invited to rave the night away on inside dancefloors, mask-free—as long as they showed proof of full vaccination or recovery.

Restrictions are once again in the works with a spike in COVID cases including lower capacity rules for nightclubs and proof of negative test results to gain entry.

Berlin is widely considered the clubbing capital of the world. A 2018 survey from the Berlin Clubcommission, a membership-based organisation that provides support to club owners and promoters in the city, estimated that the nightlife sector employed 10,000 people and three million annual “club tourists” brought in £1.2 billion in revenue. Its 226 registered nightclubs, now recognised as a critical part of the city’s cultural sector by the German government at both state and federal levels after decades of legal battles, are a staple of weekend life, hosting 58,000 events per year before the pandemic.

Clubgoers frequently equate the spaces to churches in terms of importance to various communities, which might be considered fringe or altogether unwelcome in other areas of Germany and the world.

A couple embraces at an open-air electronic music party in Berlin. All clubs were closed during the initial pandemic lockdown, but open-air events were approved by the city government during the summer. Now, the German capital's storied nightlife venues have opened their indoor spaces—with restrictions.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

“An essential part of culture is clubbing,” says Alexander Krüger, co-founder and cultural director of Alte Münze, a cultural exhibition and event hub in the city. For me a club is a concept of a society we want to live in, without racism or homophobia—a utopia. It provides a safe space, especially for the queer community.”

For Berliner Sophie Eilenberger, a stylist and art director, the clubs provide a therapeutic reprieve from the stress and pressure of society. “I'm not a super spiritual person, but what I experienced since I’ve been going clubbing is that there are many things we can just not measure with normal science,” she says. “We've been dancing to a rhythm since humans were born. It doesn't matter if you're beating a drum or a drum machine.”

Berlin, Germany's reunified capital, is one of the world's top destinations for clubbing.

Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
“We've been dancing to a rhythm since humans were born. It doesn't matter if you're beating a drum or a drum machine,” says Sophie Eilenberger, a Berlin-based stylist and art director pictured here.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
A couple shares a kiss at the Berlin club Ritter Butzke, while another patron walks past wearing a mask.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

Before the pandemic, Berlin was the real “city that never sleeps,” and it has been slowly reclaiming its status since the clubs reopened in August. The limitless hours of operation Berlin clubs enjoy can be traced back to efforts to unify Germany from as early as the 1800s when Frederick the Great encouraged immigration to Berlin regardless of nationality or religion. In the post-WWI period of the Weimar Republic, Berlin became world famous for its limitless nightlife, which came to an end with the rise of Nazi Germany.

The fall of the Nazis left a vacuum of ownership of properties that went on to become some of modern Berlin’s most popular nightlife spots, such as Tresor (“Vault”), which was a Jewish-owned retail store that had been bombed in WWII until only the basement remained. The trend for former sites of terror and oppression to be converted to those of freedom and acceptance only accelerated in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when abandoned border control facilities were instantly occupied by the founders of the electronic music scene, conjuring forth the Berlin club scene popular today.

In the inter-war Weimar Era, Berlin's clubs were notorious. Here, a scene from the Sing-Sing jazz cafe shows its American-style 'inmates' revelling in 1934.
Photograph by New York Times Co., Getty Images

Sauregurkenzeit (Sour cucumber times)

The dark cloud that would soon vanquish Berlin club life to livestreams in living rooms and illegal park raves was already seeding in Italy in February 2020, where COVID-19 cases were reaching a global high. JAIIME, a Berliner and up-and-coming Afro House and Techno DJ, was playing a gig in Venice on the evening Italy’s lockdowns began.

“Everything broke away,” she says recalling the forlorn moment. “I was really hopeful for 2020. I thought: ‘That’s gonna be my year.’ And then all the gigs got cancelled for me, for lots of people.”

Berlin’s most infamous club, KitKat, known primarily for its hedonistic displays of alternative sexual lifestyles, was the first to announce its closing on March 9, 2020, before clubs were required to do so by law. Berghain—Berlin’s headquarters for industrial techno—was close to follow, installing a massive banner along its facade reading: Morgen ist die frage (Tomorrow is the question). Finally, on March 13, 2020, the Berlin government issued a mandate that all clubs must close.

For some Berliners, however, closing the clubs at the beginning of the pandemic was not a question. “For me it’s very clear: How the hell is [clubbing] not supporting the virus spread? It’s just very logical that [clubs are] the worst place [for COVID],” says Lutz Leichsenring, spokesperson for the Berlin Clubcommission and member of its executive board. For Leichsenring and others in the Clubcommission, the lockdown became a question of what to do with their time. “It’s our job to bring people together in close contact, and it’s the opposite of what you want in a pandemic.” 

A construction team renovates a ventilation system at one of Berlin’s legendary electronic music clubs, Wilder Renate, to comply with new city regulations for reopening indoor gathering spaces. Like many venues, particularly those without open air spaces, Wilder Renate used the time they were closed during the pandemic to renovate, expand, and improve their spaces.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
Members of the Berlin Clubcommission meet at KitKat Club in Berlin, Germany. With more than 320 members, Berlin's Clubcommission is the world's first and largest regional association of club operators and event organizers.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

The two months that followed marked total lockdown across Germany and strict regulations of how many people from various households could occupy the same room—with the threat of harsh fines for violators. Some say that the shuttering of Berlin’s night clubs resulted in a more dangerous situation overall, because it forced partygoers to get creative in an unsupervised manner.

"When they shut everything down, everything went into the streets,” says Berlin-based DJ Jake the Rapper. “The street lends itself to rebellious behaviour. The clubs were places where you had to behave to get in. I didn't realise how essential we are for the normal guy who doesn't like clubbing and just doesn't want to know about it.”

When frustrated Berliners took to the streets to dance during the pandemic, the city realized it needed to provide better options for its closed club venues. "I didn't realize how essential we are for the normal guy who doesn't like clubbing and just doesn't want to know about it,” says Jacob Dove Basker, aka Jake The Rapper, a legendary DJ and producer in Berlin.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
Thomas Benedix is one half of the DJ Duo Pan-Pot. During normal times Pan-Pot will play festivals with crowds of 20,000 fans, but before Berlin's indoor club spaces reopened, Benedix livestreamed to fans from his living room as his wife, Merelinde, and two children danced along.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

Some Berlin bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen in May 2020 with outside seating only and strict hygiene rules. With the general sentiment that it was OK to gather outside, some clubs were able to bypass the total shutdown rules by permitting limited access to their “open air” spaces, and clubs that didn’t already have designated open-air spaces quickly got to work building them. But most interestingly, many nightlife spaces also found ways to contribute to the battle against COVID itself by converting into coronavirus testing and vaccination sites, offering former employees the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a new line of work.

For Basti Schwarz, who became the staff manager at Arena Berlin after spending the previous 30 years of his life touring around the world with his brother in the DJ duo Tiefschwarz, working at the former concert venue turned vaccination centre provided a rare opportunity to have a social life while staying put and remaining in the present. Basti estimated that 85 percent of the vaccination centre employees at Arena came from the nightlife world, from artists to booking agents to bouncers, which presented an interesting working and social environment in daylight life. “To be honest, it’s one of the best times of my life,” he says. “Especially for DJs, maybe it sounds a bit weird, but I was so happy to be at home. Not everybody has the chance to see something positive [from the pandemic], but if you can, it’s a good way to come out of this horrible situation.”

The concert venue Arena Berlin became a vaccination center during the pandemic, and a majority of the employees came from the nightlife world. “Especially for DJs, maybe it sounds a bit weird, but I was so happy to be at home," says former DJ and Arena Berlin staff manager Basti Schwarz.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
Knutjanzen Ihanssen and his sons Justin and Spike receive their first COVID-19 vaccination shot at the Arena Berlin vaccination center. At its peak, the center vaccinated around 4,000 people per day.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

Alternativlos (There is no alternative)

With clubs gradually reopening to full swing since the Senate lifted the dancing ban in September, culminating in the October grand reopening of Berghain, club life is beginning to feel almost back to normal. Club tourism remains only a fraction of what it once was, but thanks to the resilience of club owners as well as £1.2 million in financial support from the city government, not a single Berlin club was forced to close due to loss of income during the pandemic, Leichenring says.

As Berlin’s electronic music scene is slowly resuscitated by the communities that value it most, questions remain about the future.

The August 2021 Berlin Senate decision declaring it unlawful to restrict the activities of a healthy person is ultimately anchored in the efficacy of vaccines in curtailing infection in the most vulnerable populations and around day-to-day infection levels in a country and city with rapidly rising infection rates. Particular controversy has swirled around the implementation of “2G” vs “3G” regulations at clubs, the Gs standing for: “Geimpft, genesen, getestet” (“Vaccinated, recovered, tested”). Up until the August ruling, clubs were allowed to permit limited numbers of non-dancing, masked patrons indoors with proof of any of the three Gs. But with dancing back on the scene, the city senate subsequently restricted entrance only to clubgoers with either proof of vaccination (geimpft) or recovery (genesen) from COVID-19, with a negative antigen or PCR test (getestet) no longer being sufficient to gain entry.

Masked dancers show a new face of the pandemic beneath the lights at Berlin's Ritter Butzke. "The more you feel safe and part of the moment, in the moment, the more clubbing gives you something,” says Lutz Leichsenring, spokesperson for Berlin's Clubcommission.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic

Many in the club scene are skeptical of the Senate’s decision to exclude negative COVID-19 tests from the set of health evidence one must provide to enter a club, including the Berlin Clubcommission as well as the Senate’s own Department for Culture and Europe, which said in a statement to National Geographic that, while the new rule “gives vaccinated and recovered people their rights back in this area of cultural life,” their recommendation to require PCR testing for nightclub admittance regardless of vaccination or recovery status has not yet made it into the ordinance after much debate.

Others are afraid this stratification will create a two-class system of vaccinated/recovered and “other,” which they say goes against the culture of inclusivity and socialist ethos of Berlin.

“It’s not smart to exclude someone,” Leichsenring noted.

Only time will tell how Berlin will dance its way back to a healthy state of Club Kultur, but one thing is clear: it will keep dancing, one way or another.

“If we lose clubs, we lose the heart, the soul of the city,” Krüger says. “If these places are gone, the city is dead.”

Clubgoer Nicholas Isaiah King Rose poses for a portrait in Berlin, Germany in August 2021. Originally from Florida, he resides in Berlin where he is a professional ballet dancer, educator, choreographer, cellist, and model.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
A disco ball shines over the dance floor at Ritter Butzke, one of Berlin’s infamous electronic music clubs that the government has recently designated a cultural institution.
Photograph by Ruben Salgado Escudero for National Geographic
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