Lethe’s Children

Die Nacht ist vorbei
Ein neuer Tag beginnt
Alles strömt
Berlin, du gibst mir die Kraft
Bin ‘n Teil von dir

(The night is over
A new day begins
Everything flows
Berlin, you give me power
I am a part of you

It was the third line that stood out for me. Alles strömt. Everything streams; everything flows. When I first visited Berlin in March 2008 it was seven years since Ellen Allien had released Stadtkind, her paean to the city’s post-reunification culture after the ‘night’ of the Cold War, but its Heraclitean refrain was as relevant as ever. I couldn’t believe how quiet Berlin was, how calm and easy everything seemed. There was no traffic on the roads – even in rush hour you could cycle quite happily down Unter den Linden – and the S-Bahns, U-Bahns and trams, never crowded, purred efficiently along. The people I met were relaxed and friendly. They had cheap rents and spacious apartments and they didn’t need to half-kill themselves to get them. This was how to live. Berlin was the answer, the antidote to London. Without a plan, I booked a one-way ticket, and, four months later, I was meandering around Kreuzberg, oozing down Kastanienallee and coasting late into German language classes. Ein neuer Tag beginnt. Alles strömt.

I soon realised that Berlin is so quiet because it has massive unemployment, and if people seem relaxed it is because they have nothing much to do. Everything flows because everyone is drifting. It turns out that the capital of Europe’s biggest economy is a ghost town, and not just because it’s haunted by its past. Berlin may be a political and cultural centre (its three opera houses, seven symphony orchestras and three universities attest to a legacy of division and rivalry), but as a living, breathing city it barely functions. With no financial or manufacturing industries to prop it up, it has depended for years on subsidies from the rest of Germany. Of all the people I met, I could count the number who worked ninetofive on one hand. Admittedly, the people I met were mainly twenty-somethings who, like me, had moved to Berlin because they didn’t want a nine-tofive. The poor few with desk jobs were incongruous, and we pitied them when they had to leave the bar early.

The rest of us had, alongside the bare minimum of casual work required to pay the rent, a ‘creative project’. This was your passport to acceptance in the demi-monde of ‘poor but sexy’ Berlin, as Mayor Klaus Wowereit memorably described his city in 2003. But in most cases people spent so little time on these projects that they may as well have been imaginary. My acquaintances included a ‘VJ’ (read: poser), an avant-garde filmmaker/ opium addict, a DJ-cum-nymphomaniac, a student of Nietzsche who was expert at taking naps and a model/electropop artist/fashion journalist/novelist, who I think may just have protested a bit too much. Wherever we came from (and we were all from different countries), we had moved to Berlin to escape or forget, to avoid a career or purge ourselves of a lost love. We were as dysfunctional as the city itself, but we wanted to think we were there to be creative. You often hear Berlin described as a creative city, but it takes an iron will and a Stakhanovite work ethic to prosper in your creativity while all around you are doing nothing. I was ‘writing a book’, which was actually true; except it wasn’t really, because I wasn’t actually writing it. In practice your creative project meant finding new ways to do nothing by day and then rewarding yourself for your great feats of indolence by going out all night. I spent six months in techno clubs, ran out of money, and returned to England at Christmas a gaunt, ghostly revenant, with four months until my book deadline and hardly a word on the page.

I don’t see it as time wasted, however. If techno was an unhealthy addiction which quickly became an obsession, the clubs also contained the essence of what is, after all, an unhealthy city. Forget about the Brandenburg Gate – if you want to experience Berlin, go directly to the Berghain, the high altar of techno, a former power station in the industrial scrubland behind the Ostbahnhof, or to Golden Gate, that shuddering, sweaty oubliette in the concrete pillar supporting the Jannowitzbrücke, or to Renate, a labyrinth of knocked-through rooms in a DDR housing block on Stralauer Allee. These places may not be underground any more in the sense of dissident or illegal – clubbing has been Berlin’s biggest tourist draw for years – but there is still something undeniably chthonic about them. They have retained the authentic atmosphere of the underworld. Berlin has not sold its soul to the easyjetset; its soul left its body long ago. Clubbing in Berlin is not about entertainment or hedonism; it is a grimly Dantean prerogative. The listless grey shades of Asphodel must drink from the waters of Lethe.

It is the music that connects you to the damned soul of Berlin. It is a physical, visceral communion, as the beat reverberates through the city’s foundations into your bones and internal organs. Bin ‘n Teil von dir. You can find most genres of electronic dance music in Berlin, but none feels as indigenous as techno. Unlike some other genres, techno (and its 4/4 sub-genres such as minimal and tech-house) does not draw attention to itself. It does the opposite; it mesmerizes you to the point that you forget you are listening to music at all. It has the ability to suspend time, place and ultimately, self: sublimation through repetition. I once left the Berghain at 11.30am to find that the sky was black. The sun had not come up. I checked my watch again – in fact it was 11.30pm. The world wasn’t ending. I had just been in there twelve hours longer than I thought.

Techno requires a long exposure with subtle, gradual shifts and changes over time to take its effect. A couple of friends who came to visit complained separately that the music didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But then they were impatient Londoners with jobs. Techno is too big and too nihilistic for London. It doesn’t fit, it doesn’t make sense. Berlin, on the other hand, is the perfect crucible for techno, and it is no accident that it has flourished there. Berlin is rich in time and space. Rent is cheap; you don’t need to work on Monday. You can go out for days on end, adrift on the river of forgetfulness.

If techno needs Berlin, Berlin needs techno just as much. The standard account of how the music made its home in the city (as rehearsed in this recent film) explains it in terms of opportunity and freedom in the years of flux and possibility post-1989. A small group of electronic music innovators in counter-cultural West Berlin (brought up on Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk and influenced by the Detroit techno that had begun in the mid-80s) moved East when the wall came down, squatting apartment blocks that had been abandoned by the Communist government and throwing illegal raves in any disused warehouse or empty bunker that they came across. Techno was underground yet inclusive, and provided the soundtrack for a new urban identity that celebrated reunification and, with its futuristic sound palette, looked forward instead of back.

This is all very well, but that was twenty years ago. Why does Berlin still need techno? For the same reason that we did. Not to party, but to purge. That a genre of music which drives itself onwards relentlessly and inexorably until time ceases to mean anything can feel so essential anywhere speaks of a deep pain in that place and in its inhabitants. And Berlin’s pain is deeper than most. This, after all, is a city that was nearly annihilated in World War II before having its heart broken by the Wall. A city whose population was bombed, raped and then divided by foreign superpowers to live for forty years on the frontline of an impending nuclear war. When bass started to thud through concrete in the 90s, it may initially have been an expression of freedom, an attempt to reclaim the city and to breathe life into it. But the city has not revived; it is still a place of ghosts, overshadowed by its past. Techno is a pacemaker in Berlin’s broken heart. The longer the beat continues, the less it expresses anything; eventually, it comes to mean nothingness itself. The mother is dead, but in her concrete womb, her oblivious children dance on. Bin ‘n Teil von dir. Stadtkind.