Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city's Mitte district (which means "middle" in German; it stood between East and West Berlin) was completely empty. It was a landscape of crumbing warehouses and abandoned buildings that only squatters or starving artists were desperate enough to inhabit. Today Mitte is the cultural hub of the city, home to some of Berlin's best museums, as well as upscale restaurants and shopping. But a little over 20 years ago, it was just starting to come alive.
In his film Let It Rock! Frank Kunster, a bouncer who describes himself as an artist, explores the rise of Berlin's storied club culture, which sprung up in Mitte after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kunster, who witnessed this urban transformation himself, interviewed club owners, musicians, artists, and other creative types who ventured into Mitte in the early '90s to party at the D.I.Y. clubs that were erected in abandoned warehouses. While many of those clubs no longer exist, the ones that have survived (including the infamous Tresor, which opened in 1991 and became the birthplace of rave culture) have become almost mythical. Describing Berghain, the temple of techno that opened 2004, one club-goer told The New Yorker, "It’s a social-political-economic achievement. It’s such a fucking unicorn."
As part of "Nights By Absolut," a series of global projects that focus on the future of nightlife, Absolut invited Kunster to speak to a group of visitors during the Berlin event. Coming off of three hours of sleep (he bounced the night before), Kunster played scenes from his documentary and explained the club scene in Berlin.
Kunster claimed that Mitte was the perfect place for club life to emerge in the early '90s "because there were so many empty spaces and no regulations." He said, "I've been here since 1989. I came here four weeks before the Wall came down. After the regulations came, nightlife became more normal. When you look at the clubs today, they are allowed by the government. In the '90s, no clubs had any allowance because it was not needed. Nobody checked it. You opened a room, put in a sound system, sold beer, and that's it. That was it, but that's not it anymore. It's not possible anymore."
According to Kunster, 1993 or 1994 was the peak of club culture in Berlin, an atmosphere of freedom and total abandon. "It was three or four years after the wall came down, and so many creative people appeared. Mitte was really a new world," he said. "Does anybody remember Bar 25? There were really freaks, and they built a place where they could express themselves. They dressed different, and they stayed there for like three days with a lot of drugs. They did what they did. In the year 1993, 1994, the whole city was like that. The people really wanted to express themselves in a different way, not living the way their fathers did."
Now Mitte is a tourist destination, and its rising rents and desirable real estate has made it impossible to maintain this homegrown club culture. "The crowd has totally changed in Mitte, like totally, 100 percent," said Kunster. Yet there is still hope for clubs in Berlin, which are much cheaper than ones in other European cities.
Kunster also told anecdotes from his own career. When asked how to get past the toughest doormen in Berlin, Kunster said, "With the bouncers, it's totally irrational. They look at you, and when they're in a good mood, they let you in. And when they're not, you're going to be refused." He said that the best bouncers are the ones that "love human beings." While Kunster plans to stay involved in club culture for the rest of his life, his artistic endeavors have taken him beyond his career as a bouncer. His next move? "Politics."