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Berlin's clubs itching to restart the party

Kay-Alexander Scholz
June 11, 2021

As Berlin starts to reopen, dancing remains mostly forbidden. The club scene got through the crisis better than expected — but will it ever be the same again?

Berghain mit Warteschlange
'Good old days': The infamous queue outside the Berghain nightclub has not been seen for 18 monthsImage: picture-alliance/imagebroker

What's a party capital without a party? Some Berliners who haven't seen the inside of a dance club for 18 months are now questioning the point of living in the city.

For over a decade, Berlin has been a magnet for international party tourists once dubbed the "Easyjetset." The city's clubs have boomed, bringing €1.5 billion ($1.83 billion) into the economy in 2018 alone.

But in the wake of a devastating lockdown, Berlin's club culture is under threat. Despite the announcement this week by Berlin culture minister Klaus Lederer that some dancing will be allowed outdoors again from June 18 — partly to lessen enthusiasm for illegal outdoor raves happening in Hasenheide Park in the Neukölln district, for example — uncertainty remains. 

A survey from May showed that almost 16% of club owners are thinking about shutting down due to ongoing sense of precariousness. Even when venues are reopened, it is not guaranteed that clubbers will return.

While a limited number of people will be permitted to dance outside from next weekend, clubs without large outdoor areas will not benefit. Pamela Schobess, manager of the central Berlin club Gretchen, explained that distancing measures further limit options.

"We actually have a capacity of several hundred people," she told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "But seated with a gap of 1.5 meters, we get 36 people in Gretchen," she said.

Amid such half measures, the question remains: Will party venues fully open again? Or worse, is bankruptcy looming?

First to close and last to reopen

As COVID infection rates have dropped sharply in recent weeks, bars and restaurants are now reopening in Berlin.

But dance venues, which were the first places to close during the pandemic, will likely be the last to fully reopen.

Despite the near 18-month shutdown, venues have so far survived, according to Lutz Leichsenring, press spokesperson for the Berlin Club Commission that represents the club industry in the capital.

"We've been able to save all the clubs from closing so far," he said. Federal and state financial aid programs have helped. "Even if the aid has often come late or does not fit precisely," Leichsenring added.

Lutz Leichsenring of the Berlin Club Commission in front of a club wall with illustrations.
Cautiously optimistic: Lutz Leichsenring of the Berlin Club CommissionImage: John Macdougall/Getty Images/AFP

The financial assistance is also due to run out this month, leaving the club industry under a darkening cloud of economic uncertainty.

Clubs now cultural institutions

The Berlin Club Commission has been doing a lot of work in the background to ensure the continued survival of Berlin's clubs. This includes negotiations with politicians to recognize clubs and live venues as cultural as opposed to entertainment sites. 

After almost a year of campaigning, in early May the Berlin Senate's Building, Housing and Urban Development committee voted almost unanimously to give clubs the privileges of cultural sites, which include tax breaks, protection against displacement, and could possibly make clubs less vulnerable to noise restrictions.

"Music clubs are cultural institutions that shape the identity of city districts as an integral part of cultural and economic life," said Pamela Schobess of the Berlin Club Commission. "Now, an outdated law is to be adapted to reality. This helps to keep cities and neighborhoods alive and liveable and to protect cultural places from displacement."

Sound installation at techno club Berghain

The culture of techno

Some clubs have always seen themselves as cultural venues. The legendary Berghain techno club, set in a cavernous former power station, was already given cultural status in 2016, as it has long hosted exhibitions, performances and concerts.

Other clubs are embracing a broader cultural offering. About Blank, one of the city's best-known clubs, is hosting a theater performance that reflects on the emergence of techno club culture in abandoned spaces after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Premiering on June 3, it was a look back to the beginnings of a post-division Berlin club scene that shone brightly until the pandemic — and that is now banking on a revival.

The performances over three days were sold out within 48 hours. After months of isolation, Berliners have been longing for culture.

Doors to "About Blank" club covered in graffiti.
Berlin's legendary "About Blank" club was closed for months: here, the portals to the club spaceImage: Juska Wendland

Dancing outdoors within reach?

Some might have hoped for a little dancing in the club's outdoor garden after the performance, but dancing had remained forbidden until the recent announcement that limited numbers of people can again dance outdoors from June 18.  

Meanwhile, on Sunday June 13, a new club called Revier Südost, which was created by the owners of Griessmuehle — a techno club forced to shut down in 2019 — will be open as a one-off experiment.

With DJ Ellen Allien headlining, 300 lucky guests who were chosen randomly from a pool of online applicants will dance the day and evening away masked, distanced, and tagged.

The open air pilot project has been sanctioned by the Berlin health authorities and was promoted under the slogan "Dancing for science!"

The event echoes last summer's open air dancing policy, which has not yet been revived during the third wave of the pandemic. 

Up until now, club venues haven't been part of the hygiene and testing concepts that have allowed cinemas and operas to reopen in recent weeks. These opening steps were probably "developed primarily with a view to so-called high culture," said Berlin's Club Commission in a press release from May.

"The ban on dancing is absolutely incomprehensible to us and should therefore be abolished as soon as possible," read the statement.

People dancing in a club.
Still hard to imagine right now: many people in a confined space with poor ventilation without masks and enough distanceImage: Colourbox/Pressmaster

Ongoing uncertainty

Though clubs are belatedly being included in the Berlin city government's reopening plans, this only addresses part of the challenge. Berlin's clubs are international venues that also rely on a steady stream of tourists, along with performers and DJs who are able to maintain busy touring schedules.  

"How many can still afford a train ride or a flight to Berlin if travel becomes more expensive, as predicted?" asks Leichsenring.

And what if DJs have limited travel options in the wake of the pandemic?

"Many well-known bands or DJs only come to small clubs in Berlin because they are on international tours anyway," he said. "Will they be threatened with quarantine if they were previously in a country with high infection rates?"

Berlin clubs no longer spontaneous and improvised

But there is some cause for optimism. The news last month that some clubs are to be classified as cultural institutions on the same footing as operas or museums means that often-vulnerable clubs will be protected as cultural spaces.

Outdoor terrace at a party at Berlin's House of Weekend club, with television tower in background.
Berlin club scene before the pandemic: 250 clubs generating € 1.5 billion in economic activity via three million party touristsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Urban planner and publicist David Koser fears, however, that making clubs cultural sites means they will no longer be the "improvised places" that made them famous.

Until now, cultural institution permits are most often granted to venues in the city center where rents are high, or in commercial areas. Clubs in residential or so-called mixed areas will still have little protection, which has led to their displacement in Berlin.

"The spontaneous and non-commercial Berlin club culture of the first two decades after the fall of the Wall will not return," Koser said of their changing status.

"If the clubs are now put on an equal footing with museums, perhaps they themselves will now be 'museumized' to a certain extent," he added.