During an around-the-world trip last summer, a couple from California visited Berlin’s legendary Berghain techno club. A few hours later, one of them was dead. Even today, no one seems willing to accept responsibility for the tragedy.
Jennifer and Carlo were in Lima, almost a year ago, when they heard about Berghain for the first time. Daniel, a German guy they had met there, told them about it. Jennifer had wanted to take some time off, and Peru was the second stop on their trip around the world. She was an attorney at a large law firm in Los Angeles that specialized in procedural law. She earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but didn’t like the work at the big law firm, which felt like an assembly line. She got out for a year, at least for starters.
Carlo had a part-time day job at a startup he ran with his brother in Los Angeles. Jennifer was writing a novel set in the financial world. She didn’t show Carlo what she was writing, but he didn’t care whether the book was ever published or not. He just wanted Jennifer to be happy.
The couple planned to take a year-long break before starting a family. They had been married for four years and had a joint apartment. They wanted to take the next step, as they say in America. The distance and the time were to help them figure out what to do next, whether to have kids, maybe buy a house on the beach.
Jennifer was 29 years old, Carlo 36.
The European stage of their trip was set to begin in southern France. Two weeks in Nice, Cannes and Marseille, and from there Croatia or Greece, and then Ibiza, for three nights. Then they were going to return to South America, this time to Colombia. That was the plan. But Daniel, the German guy in Lima, said if they were already in Europe they should go to Berlin, and that you can’t take a trip around the world without having seen Berghain, the world’s most famous nightclub.
They called Rob, a buddy of Carlo’s, who ran the European headquarters of a large American packaging materials company. Rob had been living in the Netherlands for a while and knew his way around Europe.
Berlin, Rob said, is right at the top of the list.
The New Yorker wrote that Berghain is to Berlin what Fenway Park is to Boston. Cool, iconic and authentic — “and yet still kind of underground and, as such, a microcosm of Berlin.” The author described it as a murky, foggy and nefarious bunker world, something that a U.S. hockey dad like himself “had never even imagined wanting to experience.”
Carlo was no American hockey dad, and Jennifer was no soccer mom — not yet, in any case. The Easyjet flights from Nice to Berlin cost them only 80 euros ($98). Modern air travel had made the world small for Jennifer and Carlo.
Rob, their Californian friend from the Netherlands, booked a hotel in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. Rob is gay, and Jennifer and Carlo had the feeling they were the only heterosexual guests at the hotel, but it matched their impression of Berlin, of being in a different, freer city where everyone lived how they wanted to.
They landed on the evening of June 21, a Wednesday, with plans to spend four days — and four nights — in Berlin. They liked the city: It was green, people were friendly and nearly everyone spoke English. They visited the East Side Gallery, the Wall Museum and the grocery department at KaDeWe, Germany’s answer to Harrods. With their American self-confidence, they described it as an “upcoming city,” with its intriguing club scene, ambitious startups and good restaurants. They dined at Nobelhart & Schmutzig, a trendy restaurant in Kreuzberg. Jennifer was the tour guide. On Friday evening, they went to Watergate, an electro club with a panoramic view of the Spree River. They danced and drank until 3:30 a.m. Before they headed back to the hotel, Carlo bought three Ecstasy pills on the street: one for Rob, one for himself and one for Jennifer. They were for Berghain — for their last night in Berlin, the next day.
They slept in. Carlo got up at 1:00 p.m., Jennifer didn’t crawl out of bed until 4:00 in the afternoon. They went out for dinner, then to a cocktail bar, and around midnight they were standing in line in front of Berghain. Dressed in black, silently waiting. A number of blogs provide tips on how to get into Berghain, and The New Yorker gave the following advice: “Don’t look too glamorous; look queer; don’t act like a tourist; don’t look too young; don’t show up as a group of straight men or women; dress eccentrically; go alone. Don’t speak English, don’t stand out, don’t act drunk or tweaked.”
One Last Photo
Daniel, the German friend in Lima, had told them the best way to get in is to act as if you don’t care whether you get in. They practiced that for nearly an hour while they stood in line. They took a picture of themselves and sent Daniel the selfie. Jennifer and Carlo all clad in black, looking bored. Under that they wrote: “Our best bored faces in line.” It was to be their last photo together.
They were standing in front of the door shortly after midnight. Later, when Carlo tried to describe the bouncer, he couldn’t remember him because he had tried so hard to pay no attention to him. It worked. The man at the door waved them in.
They were elated to make it inside. Not that they would have been crushed if the bouncer had turned them away. They were Americans. Everything is grist for the story mill, even failure. But it was better this way. At 38 minutes after midnight, they sent the last text message to Daniel: “Our best bored faces got us in!” They were frisked, at which point a staff member found Jennifer’s Ecstasy pill and confiscated it. She was furious. She got into a fight with Carlo. He offered to split his pill, but she wanted her own. Rob promised to get some more.
They walked up the steel staircase to the main dance floor, where the best speakers in the world were pumping out music. The room was 18 meters (60 ft.) high, a black cathedral with DJs standing like priests at pulpits. A long, gently lit bar, dancing beams of light in the darkness, theatrical fog, sweat and weed — a house of horrors, Carlo thought.
Rob went to the bathroom to score some Ecstasy for 10 euros per pill. Rob and Carlo each took one of the old ones, Jennifer one of the new ones. Her anger had dissipated — at 1:00 in the morning. They danced a bit, drank and climbed the stairs to Panorama Bar, where the music was a little lighter. They strolled through the hallways, sat on benches and swings. Time trickled and raced. At times it felt like they had reached the peak of their world trip. It couldn’t get any better.
They were sitting in the beating heart of the world. Then it swallowed Jennifer.
Carlo wasn’t sure how long he had lost track of her. He was standing with Rob on the dance floor and couldn’t see her. At 4:37 a.m., he sent her a text message: “We lost you.” Jennifer didn’t answer. Up the steps, down the steps. Now the club was packed. The bass was pumping. Twelve minutes later, Carlo wrote: “Where are you? You’ve disappeared.” The fog billowed, the swings rocked and the heaving bodies gyrated on the dance floor. Carlo felt the Ecstasy, the love struggling with the fear. Ten minutes later, he wrote: “Are you OK? We’re looking for you everywhere.” The bass, the fog, bare asses, pumped-up torsos. Spotlights like searchlights. Then, shortly after 5 a.m., a response came from Jennifer’s mobile phone — only it wasn’t from her.
“Come downstairs … your friend has overdosed … she needs help … behind the cloakroom.”
Carlo and Rob stumbled down the stairs to the ground floor. Five minutes later, they were standing in a space behind the cloakroom with Jennifer and the woman who had sent them the text message. Jennifer was sitting on a sofa, trembling, feverish. She was gagging and foaming at the mouth, her entire body seized with convulsions. Carlo asked the woman if she had called for an ambulance. She said no, adding that Jennifer just needed a bit of rest. In one or two hours, she would be back to her old self again, the woman claimed. She had seen this often, she said. The woman spoke good English, but she couldn’t reassure Carlo. He asked her to call a doctor. He begged her. Jennifer was writhing. She was burning up. Rob fetched some water. Carlo pleaded with his wife. Breathe, baby, he said, over and over. The woman told Carlo that he could, of course, take Jennifer to the hospital in a taxi. He screamed at her. Rob screamed. They didn’t know the emergency number — they weren’t thinking straight. After a quarter of an hour, the woman called for an ambulance.
The paramedics had a station just around the corner. It took them just two minutes to get there. The emergency response physician noted that Jennifer was unresponsive. She didn’t react to pain stimulus. Her pupils were dilated. Initial diagnosis: intoxication.
What did she take? they asked.
An Ecstasy pill, said Carlo.
Two, said Rob. I gave her a second one.
Why? Carlo asked.
Because she wanted it. You know Jenn.
Thirty minutes later, the ambulance took Jennifer to the nearby Vivantes Clinic Hospital in Friedrichshain. She arrived there at 5:55 a.m. The doctors wrote in the admission note: Condition comatose. Extremely high fever. At 6:05 a.m., she was on the intensive care ward.
Meanwhile, Carlo was standing with his friend Rob in front of Berghain and waiting for a taxi. They hadn’t allowed him to ride in the ambulance. Dawn was breaking on one of longest days of the year, quickly dispelling the enchantment that had captivated them just a few hours earlier. The grim surroundings of Berghain suddenly seemed like an apocalyptic sacrificial altar. Gravel, railroad tracks, metal fences, garbage and Communist-era concrete apartment complexes. A sooty block in a bleak landscape. A few black-clad partyers were waiting in front of the door in the hopes their bored expressions would get them inside the club. Rob headed back to the hotel, flushed the remaining pills down the toilet and went to the airport. Carlo followed his wife to the hospital.
A Sudden Death
He sat in the waiting room of the intensive care ward. It was now light outside. He occasionally asked about Jenn, but the hospital staff didn’t speak English. At about 9:00 a.m., a doctor appeared and informed him that his wife’s condition was serious. He said that her heart had stopped and she had to be resuscitated twice. She was running an extremely high fever, nearly 42 degrees (107 degrees Fahrenheit).
Eventually, another doctor came and told him that his wife had died. The man said that he could see her if he wanted to.
She lay there. Her hand was cold. He sobbed. He didn’t know how long he sat there.
The doctors wrote the discharge summary: Intoxication with Ecstasy. Multiple organ failure. Acidosis. Rapid disseminated coagulation. Kidney failure. Liver failure. Coma. Hypertension. Spontaneous, massive bleeding from the lungs and stomach. Exceedingly fast hemoglobin decline. Full range of emergency life-saving measures. Massive transfusion. Attempted coagulation stabilization. Died from the complications of her critical condition. Signed by the hospital director, senior physician and an assistant physician.
The time of death was 10:33 am. Jennifer was 30 years old.
Carlo left his dead wife’s side. They asked him to wait for the police. He sat in the waiting room. It was a Sunday in June. He heard voices and things, but later wouldn’t know if they had actually existed. Eventually, two plainclothes police officers arrived and asked him a few questions. He barely remembers what they said, only how poorly dressed they were. Later, he returned to the hotel. He was now alone. Rob was in the Netherlands, Jenn was dead. He called his parents, then hers. It was 6:00 in the evening in Berlin, early morning in California. Jenn’s father was on the phone. He let out a wail. He didn’t ask any questions — he just wailed. It wasn’t a human cry, Carlos says. It was the cry of a wounded animal.
Jenn was her parents’ only daughter. As first-generation Asian immigrants, many of their expectations of life in America had to be fulfilled by their daughter, and she had not disappointed them. They remembered her as an ambitious, straight-A student. Jennifer always did her best to maintain this impression. When they visited her parents, it seemed to Carlo that his wife was another person. Her parents didn’t see her as someone who would go to a techno club in Berlin and couldn’t imagine how their daughter would end up there. They didn’t know that their daughter occasionally attended techno parties in California.
Carlo called his brother Guido in Los Angeles and asked him: Are they going to arrest me here?
Guido said: I can’t imagine that they will.
Then Carlo went to bed.
The next day, he called the American Embassy. The officials gave him a list of Berlin lawyers who spoke English. He ended up talking to Kathrin Sachsenberg, a lawyer in Charlottenburg with a raspy voice. That evening, his parents and parents-in-law arrived in Berlin and checked into another hotel.
The week whizzed by. The formalities helped them get through it all. They visited officials, funeral homes, the lawyer, they stood by the open casket, received the ashes, handled the paperwork and sat silently in the hotel. Autopsy, toxicology, cremation. The American consul asked the district attorney’s office to send a copy of the autopsy report and the toxicological results so that a death certificate could be issued.
The autopsy was conducted at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. “The salient findings ascertained during the post-mortem revealed an extreme degree of fluid retention in the body, pale brain tissue and pale kidneys,” according to the Berlin Institute of Forensic and Social Medicine. “Case history, death situation and dissection indicate a substance intoxication.” Tissue samples and bodily fluids were forwarded to the department of toxicological chemistry. Body tissue was retained pending possible further inquiries. Brain, heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, adrenal glands, spleen and pancreas.
On Friday, June 30, Carlo flew with his parents back to Los Angeles; on Sunday evening, July 1, Jennifer’s parents arrived back home with their daughter’s ashes. One week earlier, their girl had still been alive. One week later, they were scattering Jennifer’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Monica. That evening, Jennifer’s parents, her parents-in-law and Carlo were standing in the glow of the sunset on Will Rogers State Beach. This was precisely the spot where Jennifer and Carlo had married four years earlier. When it grew dark, they went home.
But that wasn’t the end of Jennifer’s disappearance.
In mid-July, Carlo received an email from his Berlin lawyer, who wanted to know how he was feeling.
Nothing could help him be the man he once was, he wrote. He said that he sometimes asked himself if his wife would still be alive if the paramedics and the staff at Berghain had reacted differently.
His lawyer understood this as an assignment. She had originally been hired to organize the smooth departure of Carlo and Jennifer’s mortal remains. She had received 500 euros for her services, but she had the feeling that this wasn’t quite the end of the matter.
Kathrin Sachsenberg speaks English because she lived in America for a few years in the 1960s when she wanted to be an actress. She acted in some cabaret shows in Munich, then decided she would rather study law. In the 1980s, she moved to Berlin because it was a far more interesting city. She shares an office with two colleagues who primarily deal with cases relating to foreigners.
“I handle whatever comes up,” says Sachsenberg.
She has had two spectacular cases during her long career, both in the 1990s: a Greek man who killed his mother-in-law, and a young Turkish man accused of raping his wife. Carlo and Jennifer’s story evoked memories of those days. Of all the lawyers in Berlin, she asked herself why Carlo had chosen her.
She had only seen Carlo once, the day after Jennifer died. He came to her office with his father. It’s insane how quickly people can travel from Los Angeles to Charlottenburg, Sachsenberg thought to herself. Carlo sobbed most of the time. She opened the case on June 26, 2017, at 4:15 p.m.
That was over a half-year ago. Sachsenberg lights a cigarette. She reflects for a moment. She’s forgotten Carlo’s last name — the Berlin authorities have sucked all the energy out of her and she’s got a bad cold. She leafs through the file, page after page of descriptions of a dead body, describing where her small tattoos were located and how they looked, but almost nothing about what happened that night.
The two plainclothes cops who questioned Carlo noted down his name and that of his Berlin hotel. When they phoned Berghain, the manager said that he hadn’t started his shift until 7:00 a.m. — and that he didn’t know anything about the incident that had occurred during the night. Nobody had called the police either, he said. The investigators didn’t bother him anymore.
The documents submitted by the first responders contain a rough reconstruction of the night at Berghain based on Carlo’s recollections. It mentions the night manager who tried to convince Carlo and Rob not to call an ambulance, but contain no indication that anyone tried to find the woman and question her. The police didn’t want to know who was standing at the door that night. There were no inquiries about the young man who had sold the pills to Rob that had killed Jennifer.
The cover of the Berlin police’s report reads: “Suspects: 0, injured parties: 1.” That tells the whole story.
In late August, the toxicological report from the Berlin State Institute for Legal and Forensic Medicine was added to the file. The summary: “The death can be explained by the ingestion of an extremely high dose of MDMA.” In September, a law firm in Berlin, acting on behalf of Jennifer’s father, filed a criminal complaint with the Berlin public prosecutor’s office for failure to render aid. The lawyers pointed out that Jennifer’s death could have been prevented if the staff at Berghain had taken action more quickly. Kathrin Sachsenberg joined the case. Then the investigation was reopened.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office and the police occasionally made statements after that, but they usually sounded tired and defeated. In a correspondence that dragged on for months, the Berlin Public Prosecutor’s Office and police headquarters puzzled over how they could reach Carlo’s friend Rob, who had purchased the pills. In January, the Berlin police came to the conclusion that, according to their “internal information systems,” Rob had not appeared before the police or officially registered his place of residence in their city — and was “not listed as the owner of a motor vehicle.” The head of the police department suggested that the American authorities be contacted for assistance.
What Is the Club’s Responsibility?
It takes five minutes to find Rob’s address and telephone number online. He’s not hiding and he’s available to help with inquiries. So far, though, no one from Berlin has contacted Rob.
“There is currently a lack of concrete leads to conduct any promising ongoing investigations,” the Public Prosecutor’s Office wrote in late October. The case was closed. In November, the lawyers representing Jennifer’s parents requested the investigation be reopened. In late December, the Forensic Institute issued another statement and wrote that it was “doubtful, at the very least,” that Jennifer could have been saved if the helpers had reacted more quickly. In mid-January, the Public Prosecutor’s Office closed the case again. In late January, Kathrin Sachsenberg once again protested.
At the end of the file, which refers to Section 30 of the Narcotic Drugs Act, there are documents on another incident that occurred on the afternoon of Jennifer’s death in Berghain.
A few hours after Jennifer died, police were called to the club because a half-naked man with a bag full of drugs was lying on the floor unconscious. The police brought him to the hospital where Jennifer had died that morning. They listed the drugs in his possession while the man, a Bosnian, regained consciousness. They took down his personal details and drove him to his apartment in Frankfurter Allee, where they found a second Bosnian, an electronic scale and more drugs, including speed, Ecstasy, GBL and ketamine — a horse tranquilizer that is highly popular in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene.
The incident appears to be disjointedly connected to Jennifer’s file. A few hours transpired between the two events, but no clear link was established and the drug dealer was released that evening.
Next to the report of this bizarre police operation, a supervisor scribbled the question: “What does the vice squad have to say about such conditions at Berghain?”
Olaf Schremm heads the narcotics division of the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation. He has a thick regional accent and consistently mispronounces Berghain as “Bergheim.”
Schremm’s office is located at the end of a long linoleum hallway in the huge police station at Tempelhof Airport. Between January and late October of 2017, there were 146 drug-related deaths in Berlin. Nearly one third of the deceased were foreigners. Most of them died of heroin overdoses — not a drug that is usually taken in the clubs. The latest study on party drugs by the Berlin Health Department says that alcohol is at the top of the list, followed by cannabis, amphetamines, Ecstasy, cocaine and ketamine, but also GBL, a solvent that, until recent years, had been widely available in DIY stores for removing graffiti from façades.
“Coffee?,” Schremm asks. “It’s still fresh.”
Schremm’s colleague places a tray with colorful little baggies on the table, just to get an idea of the latest designer drugs. “Bonzai,” which look like little teabags, are synthetic cannabinoids, so-called “legal highs.” Most of them are manufactured in Asia and their producers attempt to circumvent the provisions of Germany’s narcotics laws by slightly altering the drugs’ chemical structures.
Schremm thought this is what today’s visit was about — or about the cocaine dealers who deliver to your door nowadays like a pizza service, or about the drug habits of members of parliament. Those are the hot issues in the media.
No, it has to do with the death at Berghain.
“Ah, Bergheim?” says Schremm.
He says: “I can’t, of course, comment on specific cases.” He says: “We shouldn’t focus too much on Bergheim. They primarily play techno music there.” He says: “What actually happens inside the clubs is beyond our reach.” He says: “There are a few investigations in the immediate vicinity of Bergheim.” But, he says, “We have very little information.”
“You know, when it comes to drugs, neither the buyer nor the seller has an interest in publicity,” says Schremm. “And when there’s an accident and someone dies, you can’t ask the deceased any questions.”
That’s true, of course.
Schremm has a crew cut and a smoker’s face. The rubber plants in his office are desiccated; files and a fax machine in the corner, a calendar and police coat of arms on the wall. He is the top drug law enforcement official in the German capital. He has learned much of what he knows about new developments by watching TV. He likes to watch reports on the drug milieu.
“Officially registered cases in this area don’t allow for police intervention,” says Schremm.
And the unofficial ones?
“You don’t know about them.”
The Legend of Berghain
Olaf Schremm seems to have surrendered to the myth of the club, just like everyone else. Every report on the world’s most famous club mentions that Berghain doesn’t make any public statements. This usually sounds reverential, often admiring.
There are journalists who inspect Berghain like voyeurs, reporting on the drugs, the sex and other lurid details at the gay sex club, Lab.Oratory, located in the club complex. And then there are the insiders among the press who hint that they know so much more than what they are writing. These are the actual public relations officials for the club. Their stories help ensure the survival of a myth that dates back to the club’s early years.
Berghain grew out of a club called Ostgut founded by Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann in the late 1990s. In 2004, this media-averse duo moved the venue out of a nearby former railway warehouse and set up shop in the club’s current building, a decommissioned power plant which they initially rented from energy company Vattenfall and eventually purchased in 2011. They had it remodeled by a Berlin design company. The building has four floors and is a protected historic landmark. Actress Claire Danes said on a U.S. talk show that Berghain was the greatest place on Earth. DJ Magazine rated Berghain as the best club in the world. This resulted in the only official statement ever issued by the club: “We’ll continue just as before.”
That’s about all that can be gleaned from Berghain. All inquiries disappear into a black hole until you no longer know whether there’s anyone in there responsible for anything. It’s askin to trying to make contact with a UFO that has landed in the city, like Amy Adams in “Arrival.” No “yes,” no “no,” just dead silence.
A call to Sven Marquardt, a bouncer who has published a memoir and can occasionally be seen on talk shows, goes unanswered. He’s essentially the face of Berghain, with tattoos of vines and barbed wire snaking across his face, ornamented with heavy piercings and chains.
Ten minutes later, a text message arrives: Who’s calling?
There’s something fairytale-like about it, like knocking on Ali Baba’s Cave.
Then: As I’m sure you’re aware, the club has never made an official statement … For me, EVERYTHING has been said… I’m on totally NEW paths. Around the WORLD.
It sounds as if he were proclaiming a law — a Berlin law: Keep your mouth shut. Friends and relatives argue it’s best not to write anything about Berghain because they’re afraid the heart of the city could stop beating. Sometimes one feels like the city was built around the club.
“The brand essence of Berlin is freedom,” says Burkhard Kieker, the head of visitBerlin, the marketing agency for the German capital. Kieker gazes out his office window onto a small, grimy street in West Berlin with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Normally, all clubs have an expiration date,” says Kieker, “but not Berghain.”
Two years ago, he was in Detroit with techno pioneer Dimitri Hegemann because people there thought they could use techno to revitalize their city. He and Hegemann were greeted by the mayor as if it were a state reception. Hegemann stood in front of an old Cadillac plant and said: This is where you have to put your Berghain. Kieker still has the photos on his smartphone. An elderly gentleman in front of an industrial ruin. Further back in his photo gallery, Kieker shows the shots he took in a movie theater in Los Angeles, where the TV series “Babylon Berlin” had its international premiere last fall. He was there with the mayor of Berlin and the cast and crew.
The series portrays an image of Berlin that can be sold to the world; the roaring 1920s and the wild 1990s; the vaudeville shows and the bunkers; swing and techno; opium and Ecstasy; darkness, sex and freedom — Dancing on the Volcano. Roughly one-third of the tourists who visit Berlin come to the city to party, says Kieker. A billion euros in tourist money is linked to the Berlin clubs. Kieker describes a mixture of tolerance and cluelessness among the authorities that makes it all possible. An alliance of pharmacists, paramedics, police detectives, club officials, social workers, dancers, smokers, politicians and human resources managers protect the rough and raw diamond that is Berghain. If it ever gets polished, the game is over. The party tourists, at least the discerning ones, are fickle.
“Berlin is disruption,” says Kieker, “you have to preserve that.”
Jennifer disappeared somewhere between this constellation of interests. And in that world, she never existed. She was never there.
City health officials and Charité Hospital have jointly conducted a survey on party drug consumption, but it didn’t receive much attention. The Berlin Department of Commerce knows that the city is so attractive for many startup operators in large part because it has such a captivating club scene. High-tech companies lure up-and-coming creative young talent to Berlin with references to Berghain. Oddly enough, the greatest Berghain fans in politics are among the ranks of Berlin’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
And the Berlin Senate’s Department of Culture forges the ideological superstructure.
Klaus Lederer is the capital city’s head of cultural affairs. A member of the far-left Left Party, Lederer studied law, is gay, grew up in Berlin and has been a guest at most of the clubs, including Berghain — although most of his recent visits have been to mark the openings of art exhibitions in its spaces.
“When Norbert, who owns Berghain, has a problem, he comes to me” Lederer says. “And when I have one, I go to Norbert.” It sounds as if Berlin’s culture czar were negotiating with the Prince of Darkness. Norbert, the quiet man behind Berghain, appears to have more power than the city’s mayor.
“In the Berlin of the 1990s, these venues emerged based on an acceptance of diversity,” says Lederer. “The rule is: ‘Live and let live.’ People can also learn how to handle drugs. Drug scouts (a harm-reduction effort within the club world) are a form of solidarity. People have to negotiate the rules among themselves at places like this. It’s difficult for politicians and the media to intervene. And it also doesn’t help to march in there with a squad of police. The clubs ensure on their own that they don’t become a hotbed for drug trafficking. Clubs are far more than just a location factor. These are places of solidarity and tolerance and otherness. It’s a success for Berlin that we can sustain this. This has to be fought for again and again.”
He has launched into a half-hour plea, a speech addressed to the world. It’s dark and raining down on the Berlin district of Mitte where the Department of Culture is located — a black rain, as black as Lederer’s wardrobe — and at this moment it becomes clear what Jennifer was looking for in Berlin, that it was no coincidence she came here.
This is also clear when you enter the club on a Sunday morning. At first glance, it looks like a film set — something out of “Blade Runner” or “Strange Days” or “Babylon Berlin.” A journey back in time, when everything seemed possible. And then there’s the friendly staff, the relaxed guests, the dancing as ersatz for early-morning exercises. The light that falls into Panorama Bar like milk. Müsli. First-class espresso. Banana juice. Giggling Japanese visitors in leather harnesses, crazy Americans with muscular builds like the Hulk. You forget that this would actually be the time reserved for church services — and that another crappy week is set to begin all over again tomorrow. Berghain is a thorn in the side of a city transforming into a swanky European metropolis. A temple for the diehards.
Lederer eventually stops talking and leaves. This evening, he still has to save Radialsystem, a cultural center located on the banks of the Spree River. The head of the Berlin Department of Finance is already waiting for him.
Why does the world come to Berlin?
“Marx would say to escape the idiocy of rural life,” Lederer says, before disappearing into the black rain.
It’s unlikely that Jennifer read the “Communist Manifesto,” but she wanted to escape. If you equate the madness of corporate America with the idiocy of life in the country, perhaps she was following in the steps of Marx.
Her parents-in-law, Peter and Alice, live in the mountains above Santa Barbara.
Peter has just returned from playing golf. He has his bathrobe on, the Jacuzzi is bubbling away, in the background you can see the wildfire-scorched mountains of Southern California and, beyond that, lies the ocean. They could see the flames from here. Her parents-in-law loved Jenn, and Jenn was fond of them. They thought that she couldn’t let herself go with her own parents the way she could with them. Her parents’ expectations were high. The two of them believe that their daughter-in-law was looking for a way out of the life that her parents had wanted for her.
Jenn and Carlo didn’t attend Alice and Peter’s 50th wedding anniversary because they wanted to go to Burning Man, a rave festival in the Nevada desert, just as they did every year. For a week in early September, they danced in the Black Rock Desert. That was more important to them. Alice and Peter have run restaurants their entire lives. They never had time for drugs, they say. They occasionally had to fire a cook who was addicted to cocaine, but they were unfamiliar with the party-drug world. They have read a lot over the past year. They now know about legal highs, GBL and GHB, the rules for getting into Berghain, the drug deals in the bathrooms, the role of the bouncers, the Berlin police. A friend of theirs who has a lot of experience with drugs told them: “Ecstasy? I loved everyone when I took the stuff, and I don’t like people. Really eerie.”
Peter laughs. A grumbling laugh.
They say their son has still not read the toxicological report. He says he can’t. He’s exercising a lot. He may be in therapy — they don’t know, but they hope so. He’s working, they say. He was with them over Christmas. He promised his mother he wouldn’t kill himself.
It’s nearly a two-hour drive from their house to Culver City. The route winds along the coast, and includes the Pacific Coast Highway, which has been repaired in the wake of the recent wildfires and mudslides. Just before it reaches Los Angeles, the road passes Will Rogers State Beach, where they scattered Jennifer’s ashes eight months ago. The parents, the parents-in-law and Carlo. It was the last time that they saw each other. Carlo tried again and again to call Jennifer’s parents, but they refused to talk with him. He doesn’t know why, but he has an inkling. That they believe that he led their daughter into this dark world where she ultimately died. That they knew nothing of her life, and perhaps they now no longer have a desire to learn about it.
Carlo is sitting in a restaurant in Culver City. It’s only three minutes away from the apartment where he used to live with Jennifer. The sidewalks are filled with people strolling through the sunlight, most of them his age. We would have loved it here, Carlo says. It looks like a real city. It has street cafés, public transportation, movie theaters, bars, an old hotel and a community bookstore — not to mention Southern California’s fabulous weather.
“I’m not particularly ambitious in terms of my career. All I wanted was to have children with Jenn, to raise them and then to grow old with my wife,” he says.
He asks how good the Berlin lawyer is. It’s hard to say. He says he has no altruistic motives. Of course, he wants the next person in a situation like this to be helped — but he’s primarily interested in seeing that his wife’s death does not remain completely without consequences. It’s hard to bear when you watch the most important person in your life disappear without a trace. Up until the point when he looked around the dance floor and couldn’t find his wife, it had been the perfect night, Carlo says. “Berlin was exactly what we had expected,” he says.
Whatever they were looking for — freedom, danger, something pure, a world without limits or prejudices — they had found it.
Carlo reveals the last picture of the two of them on his smartphone. Two black-clad, beautiful people hiding their excitement behind bored expressions.
The only public statement ever made by Berghain sounds for a moment like a promise of salvation — and then like a curse: We’ll continue just as before.