Familiar Spectacles: Nightclub Space in TV Berlin

Esty encounters Berlin’s revelatory nightclub space in Unorthodox (Netflix, 2020)
Kim Wilkins examines spectacular yet familiar scenes of Berlin nightclubs in serial television, arguing that they draw on the city's history of hedonism to promote its present-day image as a nightlife capital.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

In her book on the topic, Charlotte Brunsdon characterizes the television city as a city of repetition.1Charlotte Brunsdon, Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 15. In contrast to the cinematic city, whose rhythms and fascinations have been apprehended through the movements and detached observations of the bohemian flaneur, Brunsdon demonstrates how the televisual city is marked less by city traversal than city dwelling—constructed around the recurrence of specific locations isomorphic with the experiences of everyday life.2Ibid. 6 It is through these repetitions that the specificity of the television city is rendered familiar. In this short essay I embark on a brief examination of a particular space that recurs within—and across—many recent Berlin television cities: the nightclub. In these Berlin-set series, nightclub space tends to repeat in one of two ways: 1) as particular recurring settings within series — whether Berlin’s club scene provides a central storyline like Beat (Amazon Prime Video, 2018) or specific clubs feature within a larger network of city-settings, as in Babylon Berlin (Sky1, Das Erste, 2017–) and Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Amazon Prime Video, 2021), or 2) as a generic leisure space of revelry and licentious abandon, that provides scenes that can be read metonymically against Berlin’s international reputation as a nightlife hotspot, as in Unorthodox (Netflix, 2020). In concert with Susanne Eichner and Lothar Mikos’s formulation of Berlin’s “brand images” these nightclub spaces both reflect the popular conception of contemporary Berlin as a nightlife capital and contribute to turning the mediated imagination of Berlin as an intemperate artistic city into a “brand value”.3Susanne Eichner and Lothar Mikos, “Berlin in Television Drama Series: A Mediated Space,” Series (Bologna) 3, no. 1 (2017): 45. However, whereas Eichner and Mikos locate these “brand values” in sedimented layers of twentieth-century historical images—notably Weimar, Nazism, and the Cold War—I present the case that nightclub sequences offer familiar spectacles that elicit similar touristic imperatives across different heritage settings. The question I wish to explore is simply this: how do these nightclub sequences operate as familiar spectacles?

Although, as Eichner and Mikos note, Berlin and its famed nightlife have long featured in series set in the German capital,4Ibid. the recent televisual Berlin cityscapes I have in mind constitute a subset of titles released since the mid-2010s, when streaming platforms were introduced to the German television market and subsequently began producing high-end series aimed at global audiences.5Lothar Mikos, A European Television Fiction Renaissance: Premium Production Models and Transnational Circulation (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), 181–188. These series tend to project a version of Berlin that aligns with what Eichner and Mikos identify as one of the city’s multilayered brand images—that of a city that “[offers] its inhabitants low living expenses, an amazing nightlife and a sense of being ‘it’”.6Eichner And Mikos, “Berlin in Television Drama Series”, 42. This Berlin imaginary echoes what Agata Pyzik calls “Berlinism”—a romanticization of the German capital as a particularly hedonistic and transgressive dreamland traceable to the celebrated legacy of the Weimar era—that circulates across its audiovisual representations.7Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Alresford: Zero Books, 2014), 80. As I have argued elsewhere with reference to Babylon Berlin, these high-end streaming productions tend to employ and perpetuate “Berlinism” as an enticing, and ultimately, touristic imaginary. Indeed, these series frequently employ a televisual incarnation of John Urry and Jonas Larsen’s “tourist gaze”—broadly conceived as a visually-centred organizing principle that structures a variety of encounters between tourists and sites of tourism, where tourism is “associated with consuming goods and services which are in some sense unnecessary… because they supposedly generate pleasurable experiences which are different from those typically encountered in everyday life”.8John Urry and Jonas Larsen, The Tourist Gaze 3.0 (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), 1; Kim Wilkins, “Babylon Berlin’s bifocal gaze”, Screen 62, no. 2 (Summer 2021): 135–155. That is to say, the tourist gaze is predicated on visually apprehending experiences that are, in one way or another, out of the ordinary—distinct from a sense of “home”.

Maria Schrader’s 2020 Netflix miniseries, Unorthodox explicitly enacts the tourist gaze associated with Berlinism. The series centres on Esty (Shira Haas), a young, recently married woman suffering vaginismus, who has fled the constraints and expectations of Brooklyn’s tight-knit Satmar community for the promised freedoms of Berlin. As such, Esty’s newcomer-in-the-metropolis status, coupled with her strict conservative cultural background, provides fertile ground for the Berlin capital to be experienced touristically: as extraordinary in contrast to “home”. Indeed, Unorthodox showcases the city’s sights and sounds in the manner of a sightseeing tour, complete with commentary on Berlin’s history delivered by the denizens Esty befriends. The relationship between television and tourism is neither new within the context of Berlin, nor distinct to this location. And given that, as Urry and Larsen (among others) explain, media-informed fantasies feature prominently in the selection of potential sites for tourism, it is also rather unsurprising.9Urry and Larsen, The Tourist Gaze 3.0, 127. However, my point is not merely that series like Unorthodox engage a tourist gaze, nor that they demonstrate a symbiotic relationship to tourism industries, although they certainly do that. Rather, I wish to highlight how these series specifically employ a touristic gaze that pulls Berlin’s historical significance—both the fêted and the atrocious—into focus not, or not only, as a touristic view of the city haunted by the past (echoing Brian Ladd’s city of ghosts) but as the scaffold on which the inclusive contemporary “creative” Berlin is constructed.10Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). The history to which I refer is the myth of the “Roaring Twenties”, distilled into a brand image of Weimar Berlin as a libidinous metropolis at the cultural and technological vanguard, that informs the “ludic” tourism of the “pleasure and play” gaze of Berlin’s nightclub scenes across different heritage settings.11Urry and Larsen, 18–20.

The appeal of—and appeal to—Weimar in contemporary popular imaginings of Berlin tend to function as they do on the city’s own tourism website: as the Babylon of “yesterday and today”.12“11 tips to bring back the Roaring Twenties in Berlin: Babylon Berlin — Yesterday and Today” https://www.visitberlin.de/en/blog/11-tips-roaring-twenties-berlin (visited 30.05.2022) That is to say, Weimar is heralded as the origin of Berlin’s reputation as a nightlife capital, and in turn, a signifier of the city’s legacy as a place for creative, sexual, and intellectual exploration.13This is lineage is frequently asserted. See Agata Pyzik,” Poor but Sexy”, 80. “Drinking & nightlife – Going out in Berlin” https://www.visitberlin.de/en/drinking-nightlife, Arno Raffeiner, “Revue & Rave in Berlin: 1920s Club Culture and What’s Left of It” https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2018/09/revue-rave-in-berlin-1920s-club-culture (visited 30.05.2022) As spaces that intertwine the libidinal and creative, cabaret clubs and dance halls are key markers of the Weimar Berlin brand image. It is this brand image that sits at the heart of the most prominent Berlin nightclub sequence in recent television history: the introduction of Babylon Berlin’s lavish Moka Efti club. The five-minute sequence begins with a shot that recurs in the nightclub sequence repertoire: an over-the-hip tracking shot that follows a character as they pass into and through the club space.14This sequence is not distinct to television, much less Berlin-set series. The famous “Copacabana” tracking shot in Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990) is a case in point. The camera follows Lotte (Liv Lisa Fries)—a police-stenographer-by-day-flapper-cum-prostitute-by-night female-lead—as she guides the viewer into and through the sprawling Moka Efti, introducing a location that will repeat frequently across the crime drama as a site of joy, excess, and criminality. Once inside the club, a spectacle of ecstatic revelry unfolds as Lotte joins a mass of youthful bodies in beaded dresses that glitter as they happily jostle past, and writhe into, one another on the dance floor. The glamour of the club, and unity of its merrymakers, is brought to a head when Nikoros a cabaret entertainer in dandy male drag—redolent of both Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret characters, and, through the inclusion of a leather military trench coat and combat boots, Adolf Hitler—takes the stage and performs what has become the series’ unofficial theme song, Zu Asche, Zu Staub (To Ashes, To Dust). As I have written elsewhere, this sequence is a television spectacle in Helen Wheatley’s formulation. It is presented as a self-contained music video, a televisual spectacle that halts the series’ police procedural narrative and replaces it with a largely non-narrative form of visual and aural pleasure.15Helen Wheatley, Spectacular Television: Exploring Televisual Pleasure (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 14–15. The song, played in full, dominates the audio track while the visuals rhythmically cut between Nikoros’s performance, shadow play on the club’s art deco interiors and the ecstatic young crowd, as their dancing shifts from elated, feverish bopping to uniformed choreography at Nikoros’s command. While, as my description surely indicates, the spectacle at play is pregnant with allusion to Germany’s Nazi past, taken at face value the sequence is most clearly intended to encapsulate the myth of Weimar Berlin: the image of Berlin as Babylon, with the Moka Efti a metonym for the excesses of its hedonistic nightlife.

The seductive nightclub hedonism of Babylon Berlin (2017)

The ludic tourist gaze elicited in this sequence is determined by its spectacle. Its glamour, scale, and libidinous energy is undoubtedly “designed to be stared at, to be ogled, contemplated and scrutinised, to be gaped and gawked at”, as Wheatley puts it—standing in diametric opposition to the domestic and quotidian.16Ibid., 1. As the nightclub is a leisure space that promises a type of free and hedonistic pleasure that explicitly sits in contrast to the domestic experience it avails itself as a readymade site of spectacle—it is by nature a space that promises the extraordinary.17Jakob Demant, “Affected in the Nightclub. A Case Study of Regular Clubbers’ Conflictual Practices in Nightclubs,” The International Journal of Drug Policy 24, no. 3 (2013): 196–202. And yet, it is also immediately recognizable, familiar even, to anyone who has partaken in Berlin’s nightlife scene (including members of what Tobias Rapp termed the “EasyJetSet”: “weekend-warrior” party tourists who fly to Berlin explicitly for its clubs)18Tobias Rapp, Lost and sound: Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2012). or, perhaps more pointedly, to anyone who has listened to a former resident reminisce about their Berlin glory days (or rather, nights). As a metonym for Berlin nightlife, it is necessary that the nightclub space symbolise the city’s culture more broadly. Indeed, similarly to the lure of Parisianness (for the non-French) that Brunsdon identifies in the 1960s BBC Maigret,19Brunsdon, Television Cities, 26–64. the Moka Efti (and later the Pepita Bar), function as repeated sites of spectacle for the audience precisely because they suggest a ubiquitous and historically continuous bacchanalian existence that is projected as endemic to Berlin. It is vital that it is Lotte who introduces these sites, as she is not only a Berlin-native (evident through her spunk and use of Berlin vernacular) but, as an industrious, scruffily attractive young woman, she is designed to personify Klaus Wowereit’s famous branding of the city as “poor but sexy”.20The official Babylon Berlin website describes Lotte as “Determined and resourceful, poor but sexy” “Charlotte Ritter: Babylon Berlin” https://babylon-berlin.com/en/cast/liv-lisa-fries-charlotte-ritter/ (visited 30.05.2022). I have analysed Lotte’s character in more detail elsewhere: “Lotte in Weimar: Sex and Poverty in Babylon Berlin” Cinephile 15, no. 1 (2021): 18–24.

Beat guides viewers into Club Sonar

It is also notable that in other Berlin series nightclubs are introduced through a very similar shot itinerary. Beat begins with an extended sequence that follows Beat (a famous club promoter and partygoer played by Jannis Niewöhner) as he enters Club Sonar—a contemporary labyrinthine space populated by energetic bodies who imbibe, dance, and fornicate in both the club’s dark spaces and under its spotlight beams. Just as Lotte is Berlin, Beat is consonant with Berlinism—only he does not embody a romanticized fantasy of the city per se (such projections seem reserved for young women), rather—as his moniker suggests—Berlin’s famous techno scene is conceived as elemental to his identity. Through a voiceover Beat traces this indelible connection to the foetal stage and sound of his mother’s heartbeat. “That’s techno. That is who I am” he concludes as he is elatedly subsumed into the crowd. Thus, like Lotte’s survey of the Moka Efti, the sequence serves as an introduction to this licentious and creative space and its colourful inhabitants facilitated by a “local” guide. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (a consciously anachronistic reimagining of Christiane Felscherinow’s 1970’s book) too employs a version of this guided club-tour itinerary but to slightly different effect. As in Babylon Berlin and Beat, the camera follows a Berliner, the plucky and fashionable teenage Christiane (Jana McKinnon) into the nightclub Sound. However, as Christiane is not yet a club-frequenter (unlike Lotte and Beat) her debut facilitates a doubling of the sequence’s spectacle. Not only is the viewer encouraged to stop and stare at the sea of chic youths bopping in joyous unison with the music, but Christiane is shown enacting this precise moment of awe as she too gazes at the scene. This doubled spectacle however is splintered when, under the euphoric glow of psychoactive drugs, Christiane and her clique are lifted into the air as the DJ spins a pared back version of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free”. This shift enacts what I see as the tension underpinning these nightclub sequences’ seductive promise. By framing these sequences from just behind or beside “local” characters, they become permitting guides to the fantasy of “real” Berlin. Yet, by following these guides, the viewer remains an outsider, only temporarily party to—rather than part of—what is suggested is “everyday” to the “real” Berliners who constitute the spectacle. Indeed, in this moment, Christiane no longer mirrors the viewer’s encouraged tourist gaze, but becomes its object.

Becoming part of the spectacle, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (2021)

I have presented the case that, across different heritage settings, or brand values in Eichner and Mikos’ terms, the repetition of nightclub sequences (and often shot itinerary) projects and promotes Berlin’s reputation as a sexually liberal, permissive, and artistic metropolis as spectacle, drawing the romanticized myth of Weimar’s “divine decadence”, as Sally Bowles famously put it, into the present.21Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris [and] Goodbye to Berlin (J. Laughlin, 1954). Missing from this discussion is the way the series I have discussed also imbue nightclubs with the seething danger associated with the Weimar myth as “a dance on the volcano” ahead of Nazism. Babylon Berlin and Beat are, after all, crime dramas, and their nightclubs not only repeat as site of revelry and abandon but settings for criminality and large-scale corruption. And yet, as recurring sequences across series, genres, and heritage settings, the Berlin nightclub is overwhelmingly repeated as a site of explorative and euphoric potential. As a familiar spectacle, the nightclub synthesizes and informs the notion that Berlin is not only the place to be—but, as the city’s 2008 marketing campaigned ‘be Berlin’ promised—where one can “be”.22See Claire Colomb, Staging the New Berlin: Place Marketing and the Politics of Urban Reinvention Post-1989 (London: Routledge, 2012), 237–239. It is telling that within Unorthodox’s touristic itinerary of scenes and situations, it is a nightclub experience that enables Esty to overcome her vaginismus—the condition that led her to flee her marriage in Brooklyn for Berlin in the first place. The familiar nightclub spectacle promises that everybody is, indeed, free to feel good.

Notes[+]

Wilkins, Kim. "Familiar Spectacles: Nightclub Space in TV Berlin." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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