Life Underground

Life Underground

The closest I came to experiencing death was in a Berlin nightclub. I sat in a lantern-lit garden with a group of Londoners, convivial in the way that one becomes when united with others who share a common tongue. We had met in a smoke-filled terrace, recognizing an affinity for each other despite the impossibility of speaking loud enough to overpower the blaring house music.

In the garden, conversation flourished, but I soon found myself en route to the music-filled shack, where I asked the bartender where I might find a restroom. She detailed a circuitous path that would take me to an unexplored side of the club.

I walked leisurely through the starry garden. A soft melody of German, French and English replaced the sound of heavy bass, and I arrived in front of the multi-tiered, dilapidated building I had witnessed when I first entered through the courtyard. Pulling on the shoddy aluminum handle of an unmarked door, I was surprised to find a set of stairs. I descended the curious steps, moving against a rising cloud of smoke. It seemed to fight to escape from the underground.

At the base of the steps, speakers cried in a tone different from those of the terrace. I found myself in a lightless underworld, forced to follow a newfound flow of bodies. There were more than I had seen on the outside, lapping over each other as if from a painting by Géricault. It was a place where limbs flailed at a tempo almost completely removed from the lyricless music. 

Half-blinded and breathing warm air, I wondered what to make of my seamless transition into this world of apparitions -- whether there was something lost in the descent to this place, or whether this underground encapsulated the condition of living more acutely than any other place could have.

I spent several hours among the transient crowd, where I danced as the ghosts did. At last I pushed through the bodies in order to make my way towards the stairs. The sun shone brightly overhead as I exited.

Gray, unkempt grass colors the landscape along the speeding U-Bahn. It was with this view, en route to Berlin Schoenberg Airport, that I reflected on the previous night’s descent into the Berlin underworld. This scene of katabasis, I realized, characterized what Berlin symbolized for me.

There is a palpable sense of death that pervades this city. It is suspended in air like the panels of the Berlin Holocaust Museum, infinite in the way the sky appears reflected off of the glassy facade of the Alexanderplatz Park Hotel. The feeling is passive: it is not so much intrusive as it is simply “there.”

This is not to say that this is a one-way transaction. In fact, life seems to ooze into the realm of death, evidenced as much by the rules of nightlife – the warehouse clubs and the super-corporal experience of dancing, for example – as by the cafes that sit adjacent to the rows of graves in Kreuzberg cemeteries. If it is a wall that divides life and death, it is a permeable wall. This seems fitting for Berlin, where this permeability is not taken for granted.

There is a wealth of scholarship on German attitudes towards death, as one might expect of a country so intimately involved in the two deadliest conflicts of history. In her paper entitled “Laughing about Death: Humor in both World Wars,” Martina Kessel highlights two developments: a Great War style of propaganda that used humor to try to explain the unpredictability of death, and oral jokes – called Flüsterwitze – that encouraged gallows humor as a coping strategy during the murderous regime of the Third Reich.

As Kessel concludes, these attitudes have stuck. Nevertheless, in lieu of an academic paper, you need only spend a few minutes strolling through the wide, cemented avenues to arrive at the same conclusion about the German comfort with death. Yet my descent into the underground of Berlin demonstrated not so much a comfort with death as an exaggerated effort to embrace death – to stretch oneself as close to a conception of death that one might be able to, given worldly constraints.

There are several prerequisites for admission to a true Berlin club. Unaffected dress and stoic demeanor are at the top of the list. Likewise, you are advised to refrain from checking your phone while in line. In fact, communication of any kind above a dull whisper is generally to be avoided. In short, you would profit from leaving your American conception of “cool” at the gate of customs.

In a way, this attitude represents an embracement of death and an acknowledgement of the ethereal space that it occupies in society. Certainly, there is the morose uniform of the clubgoer. Beyond that, the Berlin aesthetic appeals to the contradictions inherent in the encounter with death as imagined by Dante. 

Waiting in line, you expend an immense amount of mental energy in order to embody the total indifference of a proper Berlin clubgoer. This simultaneous presence and estrangement sticks with you through a night of dancing. As you lose your senses to the stream of tracks, the last to go are the profound empathy for and simultaneous detachment from your fellow dancers. The hour sinks into nonexistence, and time is relegated to two modes: day and night. It is in this simplification that we find the most depth – or, as I found, the closest form of human connection.

In the underworld of Berlin nightlife, you release your prejudices and your inhibitions, yet you are never allowed to descend any further than that. So while I might not have “experienced death” in the way that a regular Anglophone woulduse the word, I would argue that I have come as close to it as you might be able to fathom in the world above. It was in this close-call with death and my descent into the underground that life became most illuminated to me. ■