Dancing on my own: Berlin clubs struggle to get the party started

Strobe lights flare, techno music blares and the lyrics beckon the crowd: “Dance with me.” But beyond the DJ booth, the mood is pandemic-meets-high school dance: masked patrons at the bar keep a distance of 1.5 metres and young couples hover awkwardly against the wall.

“This might be the only club party in Europe right now, and it’s crap,” joked one man, tattooed and clad in black. He stomps out of the Weiße Hase (White Hare) to join smokers lingering around the RAW compound, a 19th century train repair station that is now a graffiti-coated party hotspot in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district.

Welcome to Berlin nightlife in the age of coronavirus. Entry is limited — not for exclusivity, but safety. And dancing is strictly verboten. With lockdown restrictions easing in Germany, Berlin wants to reclaim its reputation as a destination for hedonistic partygoers, but many artists and clubbers fear their unique scene is at risk.

“It was already a struggle to survive for these clubs. Each night counts. Some of them, I’m afraid, won’t make it,” said Henri Jacobsen, of electronic band Tubbe, well known on the LGBT music scene. “As an artist, you find other places, but it’s not like being somewhere you know the history.”

The throngs that once crowded the ramshackle string of derelict-chic bars and clubs at RAW have dwindled to small, socially distanced lines. Bouncers in surgical masks are no longer just gatekeepers, but also check people have masks, tell them to disinfect their hands and show them where they are allowed to sit.

Venues can stay open as late as they want, but must impose social distancing on a scene known for its carefree, experimental attitude, sex in “dark rooms”, and dancing that goes on for days.

YAAM nightclub in Berlin Only venues with large, outdoor spaces can operate © Erika Solomon/FT

Revellers must sign in — a strange development for some clubs, once so adamant on anonymity that photos were banned. Now they take down names, addresses and phone numbers for potential contact tracing.

Even before the pandemic, clubs and bars grappled with rising rents and the encroachment of gentrification, from real estate developers and tech start-ups to pricey hipster cafés. Several venues, including famous fetish club, KitKatKlub, already faced possible eviction last winter.

After months without a profit, clubs, which charge an average €15 entry, now face a mountain of unpaid bills. Those that survive, managers said, may have to take corporate sponsorships — anathema to a culture whose roots stem from Berlin’s underground scene.

“My fear is becoming like San Francisco,” said Eli Steffen, one of the 14 members of a leftist feminist collective that runs the club ://about blank. “This would become a more boring, less vivid city. There would be less space for experiencing hedonism and living out your identity or your desires freely, less anarchy — in the best sense of the word — and less creativity.”

A note saying ‘SORRY PUNKS!’ taped outside the entrance of SO36 in Berlin After months without a profit, nightclubs face a mountain of unpaid bills © Tobias Schwarz/AFP

The city’s nightlife rose with the fall of the Berlin Wall as a landscape of abandoned warehouses and factories gave birth to a lively world of squats, artistic spaces and clubs. Ms Steffen remembers an era of illegal outdoor raves and subway parties — jumping from train to train, blasting music and keeping ahead of the police.

Today, only a few venues with large or outdoor spaces can operate, and coronavirus rules limit entry to anything from a tenth to a third of their normal numbers that sometimes ran into the thousands.

More than 9,000 people typically work in the industry but many have yet to return to work. Annual turnover for the city’s 120 clubs is normally €168m, said Lutz Leichsenring of Berlin’s Clubcommission. Revenues have been zero for the past three months.

The commission has been raising money by collaborating on livestream music programmes, such as UnitedWeStream, but artists bemoan the empty stages, watched only by masked stagehands. “The dialogue of coming together and having a common experience — you can’t create that on livestream,” said Mr Jacobsen.

YAAM nightclub in Berlin Clubs such as YAAM rely on tourists for 60 per cent of their summer guests © Erika Solomon/FTWi

There has been some state support. Berlin’s municipality gave €30m to cultural institutions, including clubs. Venues also used Germany’s famous “kurzarbeit” scheme, where the state pays a portion of salaries. The federal government announced a €1bn cultural package. But Berlin venues alone, Mr Lutz said, need €10m a month to survive.

Fans try to help. Nanette, a spokesperson for the iconic punk club SO36, said within an hour of posting a plea for donations, they received €1,000. Within days, they had €28,000, covering about a month of expenses. “It was incredibly inspiring — but we know our friends are not the richest. They cannot keep this up.”

On the other side of the Spree river, Hendrik auf der Heidt watches arrivals on the reopening night at YAAM, known for reggae and African music. Clubs such as his rely on tourists for 60 per cent of their summer guests. “We are afraid,” said Mr auf der Heidt, a board member. “But we have to make the best of it and keep up the good vibes.” He added: “They can dance in their seats. I certainly hope they do.”

Guests sit at tables overlooking the water while the DJ blasts hip hop. Like all venues, guests can remove their masks while seated, but must wear them whenever they leave their table. But as is often the case in Berlin, which accounted for just over 200 of Germany’s nearly 9,000 Covid-19 deaths, the rules are flouted.

Two unmasked women, unable to resist, dance beneath the DJ booth. A waiter eyes them, but lets them be: “They seem 1.5 metres apart.”

Partiers unsatisfied with the tamed scene are taking a page out of the old Berlin playbook: Hasenheide, a park in Berlin’s hipster Neukölln district, became a bottle-strewn, weekend rave. Near the renowned club Berghain, the “church” of nightlife devotees, teenagers dance atop a construction site. 

On the near-empty dance floor at YAAM, Barney Millah, a Berlin DJ for 25 years, is certain the scene will survive in some form. “Maybe half the clubs ain’t gonna be here after the crisis,” he said. “It might take two, three years, but we’ll rise again. Berlin is always like that.”