Dorothy Feaver explores a recent surge of documentaries that aim to profile Berlin’s electronic music scene…
Hedonism in Berlin has heritage. The city has accrued layers of sedimentary crust, and new releases “Berlinized – Sexy an Eis” (Lucian Busse, 2012) and “Bar25 – Der Film” (Britta Mischer/Nana Yuriko, 2012) promise to bore holes into recent strata.
Crews from the 1990s and 2000s respectively attempt to document their own stories; in so doing, they are swelling a peculiar heritage industry. Of course film is a time-based medium, and with the subject of hedonism – where time dissolves in pursuit of pleasure – it would be a shame for the slippage between medium and subject not to be explored.
Honey Suckle Company started out as a youth movement, growing from a list of dead-ends: they were 15 years late for punk, 20 years after hippies, and techno was just too “unsexy”. “Berlin Super 80” (2005) serves as a prelude. This mixtape-cum-reader in 1980s subculture compiles mainly black-and-white grainy shorts. It’s a glimpse, totally un-narrated, into pre-Fall Berlin.
Out of such shadows, “Berlinized” opens with a rock cosmonaut walking out into a sandy wasteland and playing his guitar to an audience of building sites. Honey Suckle Company’s crazy-gadfly aesthetic premiered at an anti-fashion catwalk show in the Suicide Club (1995), all knitted caps with ears and duct tape over mouths and eyebrows. The kitschy-sexy-random vibe is a constant through the documentary, leading up to the teeny Bügelbar on Augustrasse, which served the eponymous Sexy an Eis drink (key ingredients undisclosed).
Bügelbar spawned galerie berlintokyo (1996 – 99), which hosted rotating shows for Berliner or Japanese artists – the latter, faked. Members of the then reigning crews look back on their moment from homes and studios. Jim Avignon, of the nomadic U-Kunst group and Radio Bar (U is for Unterhaltung, or “entertainment”), says the art-bar tour was a ruse to get access to unusual places; by then they were through with empty shells, and sought prestigious locations: the botanical gardens, a takeover of Tresor, the French Embassy, the Fernsehturm restaurant, Documenta in Kassel. “All that mattered was the moment, the experience of the night, a single evening, and the next morning was a new deal.”
New Yorker Howard Goldkrand takes a loftier view. Unlike the UK Summer of Love of 1989, their experience was less about hedonism, or even music, and more to do with “thinking about how to live your life in an artistic way.” And so the film cranes its neck towards a more worthy vista, where art and nightlife hold hands in the sunset, quite the beautiful couple. Jan Edler reminisces about the Kunst & Technik club from among tourist deckchairs by Museum Island (“this is where the DJ booth was!”). “It wasn’t a techno club or a house club or a jungle club,” he says. “It changed from night to night and we also had live performances.”
Reminiscences sour against the Berlin of today. Goldkrank concludes that the city is now “living off the fumes of the fantasy of the mythology.” Nina Rhode, of galerie berlintokyo, assesses the hype around the art/club crossover from behind conspicuously non-wacky sunglasses: “maybe we prepared the ground for that. […] I think we were among the first to give the whole thing up too, because it actually doesn’t work. You can’t really merge club culture, or nightlife and art in such a restricted space without having the art suffer,” and she means it literally, “because when you drink, something will naturally get spilled on some object.”
In the background to the empty buildings and Freiheit of the 1990s there are the Golden Twenties, the jazz bars, cocaine addicts, motorcars, department stores and prostitutes – scrums, grotesqueries and largess caught in the imagery of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann, who make vivid the moral decadence in the build up to the events of 1933.
The rise of the entertainment industry in 1920s was a form of compensation – as Siegried Kracauer wrote, “the more monotony holds sway over the working day, the further away you must be transported once work ends.” By contrast, “Berlinized” and “Bar25 – Der Film” present the hedonism of the last two decades as something with moral direction.
The year was 2003 and on the north bank of the Spree, on disused land, a community of 13 were to build with bare hands a legendary wooden “Mikrokosmos”. They lived there in huts, dressing up and nurturing anti-fashion to flower into something brighter. Bar25 did electronic music a service, lifting it from the hardcore urban underbelly and repackaging it with bunting, swings, fairy lights, disco balls, clown costumes, hula hoops, oversized glasses and feathered headgear. This was a place for childlike fun and adult frivolity, where adventures went through day and night, where epic afterparties were adjunct to kiddie theatre, a restaurant, and even, later on, a spa. “We want a place for different things in the same area,” they say, “techno club with restaurant with circus.”
“Berlinized” is sewn together from director Lucian Busse’s video footage and present-day interviews, and where it is absolutely retrospective, and thin on atmosphere, “Bar25” announces itself as being filmed from the inside. There is charming footage of the club’s initial construction, with non-workmanlike guys quietly clearing the ground, overlooked by a few blocks of flats – this was “club recycling.” But it must have been as the local authorities threatened closure that the idea to start filming took hold. The death rattle dragged on for several years and the clash between the club and the Mediaspree property development is the crux of the story.
There’s the eviction notice and shots of the community getting tired and emotional, and the protest marches (“gentrification is terror”, “Spreeufer für alle!”); they get a reprieve on the rental agreement, but ultimately the forces of capitalism are greater. Gentrification is explained to kids in a puppet show where a cardboard O2 stadium bobs into view. There is particular reliance on footage from the final shebang in 2010, and the subsequent funeral, featuring ashes, candles, and a shrine of homemade Buddhas. “Bar25 – Der Film” is very much packaged; protagonists play to the camera and scenes are set up. It is lumped into chapters, each with a preliminary title animation and an undergraduate reading list of quotations from Lewis Carroll, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Hunter S. Thompson, Aldous Huxley et al. This is not only branding, it’s a big clean up.
For the Berlinized parties, the emphasis was not the music but the spaces, whereas the repetitive tickle of Bar25’s loopy tech-house was integral to the place’s unique time-warp experience. This aspect is not reflected in the soundtrack. Song bites are mixed in to suit the mood (clown music for the clowning about, piano going extra doloroso at the funeral), giving it the feel of a promotional video.
If anything the film, with its heavy-handed styling, reflects the limited life span of a subculture, and the emergence of Bar25 as a brand; rather than provide analysis, this is a product for fans, capitalising on the nostalgia-fest. As the endnotes explain, we should look to the south bank for a reincarnation: Christophe and Steffi, the community’s showiest performers, are noted to be “building new dreams from wood on the other Ufer”; Kater Holzig, that is.
In Bar25’s funeral year a film was being made that captures the spirit of the party, while studiously avoiding the place. Addressing the problems of the documentary genre, “Gone to Croatan” (Gaelle Boucand, 2010) asks, how do you access and record hedonistic experience without intruding or distracting? How do you capture the atmosphere? Boucand’s solution was to film her own experience, to use a small camera in her backpack, to ask permission from the people she was following, and to completely edit herself out.
The result presents a group of international friends in real time – whatever that is – moving between Berlin’s open airs throughout the summer. Days dissolve into each other. There is a sense of continuity, unspecific to place or time (Bar25, Boucand says, was omitted precisely because it is a thing in and of itself). It’s lo-tech: the bulge of the camera lens distorts the extremities, creating the illusion of viewing within a bubble. The sound distortion prohibits tunes from marking the time. It inserts the viewer as participant. It convinces.
Again, this is a film infused with idealism. The title draws on anarchist writer Hakim Bey’s theory of the autonomous zone (1991): the search for a non-hierarchical utopia requires the creation of “temporary autonomous zones”, outside of the dominant social structure, which act in relief against it. By their very nature, these micro-societies are transient. Here then, the revellers could be artists, students, hairdressers or government bureaucrats; their body language is uninhibited, meeting and greeting, rolling around, drug taking, talking about bikes, or explaining the solar system with arms and hands –“the world is totally unlogical!”
“Gone to Croatan” is about spaces outside of the norm, just as the parties aren’t defined by the location. We don’t know where we are, except, as someone points out, “you can see to the Alps on a clear day.”
This article first appeared in the latest issue of Sleek Magazine and was reprinted with kind permission.