Dancers from Berlin's Staatsballet during a special performance at Berghain in 2013. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

It’s all about money, of course, but the Berghain case is also a symbol of how seriously the city takes its nightlife scene.

It’s official: techno is culture. Thus ruled a German court this month in a case concerning Berghain, Berlin’s (and increasingly Europe’s) best-known nightclub.

A vast dance club housed in a former East Berlin power station, Berghain has somehow managed the impressive feat of becoming world famous while still retaining a reputation as having an underground edge. Now, a regional court has to an extent enshrined its status in law, by ruling that it may join the city’s museums and concert halls in being taxed not as an entertainment business, but as a venue for culture.

The ruling seems in pretty striking contrast to recent events in London, where authorities have just ordered Fabric, that city’s best-known electronic music venue, to close down. Look at little more closely at Berghain’s case, however, and you see that the argument for granting the nightclub cultural status actually flies to an extent against the will of the authorities. Berghain ultimately got its special status as the result of an esoteric debate on what should be the proper behavior and location for consuming culture.

At its heart, Berghain’s case is about money. Before 2009, the club paid sales tax on its entrance fees at a rate of 7 percent, the rate that Berlin cultural venues pay. In 2009, however, it was switched to the rate for entertainment venues, a far higher 19 percent. Understandably, the club wanted a rate cut, but it could only get one by gaining an official ruling on its cultural role. To get this, the court had to agree that Berghain corresponded closely enough to the concert halls, galleries, and theaters entitled by law to the lower rate.

The tax authorities had a decent case to make against the club. For example, Berghain could not be compared to a theatrical institution, their lawyers insisted, because the music played there has no marked beginning nor end, no accompanying visual performance, and the audience doesn’t clap and can’t buy advanced tickets. Berghain’s lawyers, however, insisted that in terms of the experience of the music itself, listening to techno via  Berghain’s excellent sound system was not inherently different in the pleasures it offered from, say, watching a performance of a Mahler symphony at a concert hall. The court agreed, and ruled in their favor.

Was it the right choice to usher Berghain past high culture’s velvet rope, beyond which lie such prestigious venues as the stunning modernist Berlin Philharmonie concert hall and the Brecht-founded Berliner Ensemble Theatre? Berghain has in fact staged some more conventional cultural events alongside its usual dance nights, but in general the question is a rather unfair one. Berlin’s cultural venues are given lower taxes because of the sector they operate in, not because they are acknowledged to have achieved a certain quality standard as such. If the argument is that Berghain’s efforts have seen it cross over from a world of pure entertainment, there’s no question that it has made decisions that have long-term cultural quality rather than night-to-night profit in mind, even if only because the former is ultimately the best way of securing the latter.

Berghain’s music is intended primarily to appeal to electronic purists. Meanwhile, in recreating Berlin’s alternative nightlife scenes on a grand scale (the club got its start by hosting queer sex parties), it has managed to open up a subculture without diminishing it (Berghain’s notoriously strict door policy has been one way of achieving this). The result, albeit usually far less lurid than its sex club genesis might suggest, is as impressive as any museum, with the nightclub’s huge concrete main hall coming across as a sort of brutalist techno Valhalla.

As a precedent that could ultimately reshape the city of Berlin, Berghain’s acceptance as a cultural venue does come with some potential downsides. Will all Berlin music venues now apply for and receive lower tax rates? Berlin’s relatively tolerant attitude to nightlife rests partly on the economic contribution nightclubs make in a city where tourist numbers doubled in the decade running up to 2014. Nightclubs have in turn generally tried their best to be good neighbors—Berlin’s volunteer-run Club Commission, for example, has a working group that tries to ensure that events minimize the noise and trash they create. Break that contract by slashing tax contributions, and the argument for tolerating nighttime noise perhaps wears a little thinner.

On a minor note, there’s also an argument that Berlin’s nightlife scene wouldn’t necessarily be worse off for taking itself a little less, and not more, seriously. The idea of black-clad hordes enacting hours of rhythmic stomping to repetitive beats is of course many people’s version of a great time. But when DJs lambast Conan O’Brien for the crime of filming something apparently comic outside Berghain, there’s a case to be made that the club’s devotees could maybe, just maybe, do with lightening up a notch.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  2. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  3. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

  4. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  5. Perspective

    Coronavirus Reveals Transit’s True Mission

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.