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PJ VOGT: I’m a reporter, a writer. I try to answer questions, not unlike what you do, Stephen. Although, our questions are sometimes a bit dumber. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re smart.

That is PJ Vogt. He has been making podcasts for nearly as long as I have. His shows are often about life on the internet, and how technology changes us.

DUBNER: So your current show, Search Engine, despite the name, isn’t a show about life online for the most part, is it? 

VOGT: No. The reason it’s called Search Engine is because it’s a show where — it’s a bit of a joke. What a search engine is supposed to be is like you asked a question and very cheaply and very quickly a machine gives you an answer that might be pretty good. We’re like a human-powered, bespoke, incredibly expensive to run, very slow search engine.

DUBNER: That gives answers in layers, and over time, as opposed to bang, here it is. 

VOGT: Yeah, yeah — oftentimes the answer is “Who can say?” But we give you, like, human-level, complicated and complex answers.

Today on Freakonomics Radio — a bonus episode, with PJ Vogt and Search Engine. It’s sort of about economics, the economics of a famous nightclub in Berlin.

VOGT: I’d heard the basics. A decommissioned power plant turned into a multi-story nightclub. People talked about this place as a kind of grimy heaven. And like traditional heaven, grimy heaven was also supposedly very hard to get into.

One guiding principle of our show is that just about anything can be interesting if you’re willing to look closely enough, or from the right angle. In this case, the door policy at a Berlin nightclub is connected to municipal tax laws, the Cold War, and more. But also: the Freakonomics Radio crew doesn’t get to go clubbing very often — like, never. So: thanks to Search Engine and PJ Vogt for letting us tag along.

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DUBNER: So PJ, give me the genesis of this episode of Search Engine we’re about to hear. Each of your episodes is built around a single question. Where’d the question for this episode come from?

VOGT: Okay, so, two friends of mine, lovely young men — both kind of conscientious people, like straight-laced, buttoned-up, home-before-midnight, hardworking, professional guys — they said they had a question which had sprung from a vacation they had been on, and it was unusual vacation. The two of them had flown eight hours from New York City to Germany to try to go to this techno club called Berghain. Are you familiar with Berghain? 

DUBNER: Before you and I started talking about this conversation that we’re having now, I was not familiar with Berghain. 

VOGT: It used to be — before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a Soviet power plant in East Berlin. Four stories tall, like a very imposing building. More recently, it has become a techno nightclub, and supposedly the techno nightclub, like the most exclusive fun, like everyone who loves this stuff, wants to go to this place before they die. A kind of Mecca. But the other thing about Berghain is that it has the most strict and scary door policy in the entire world. They love to reject rich and famous people. A lot of the people you think would be allowed into any room have not been allowed into this room. And if you want to try to get in, you have to wait in a line that, on a good night, you’ll stand in line for four hours. On a bad night, you might stand in line for eight hours. So these guys had taken an eight-hour flight to Berlin to stand in a line for four to eight hours, for the chance to maybe get into this nightclub.

They actually stood in line three separate times. Here are Chris and Dan describing to PJ how, when you get to the front of the line, you encounter the “selector,” the guy who decides whether you’ll be admitted into Berghain.

DAN: So you get up and then there’s a number of calculations that are going on in your mind. Do you look at the bouncer in the eye? Do you look kind of at the ground? Do you smile? Do you keep a straight face? Do you say anything? And I think on this try, this was like our authentic, friendly selves attempt. I smiled at the guy, he asked how many people we were, I said two. I was friendly. I think I asked him how his night was going.

VOGT: Did he answer?

DAN: No, of course not. One of my calculations was whether or not to look like I was having fun and into the music. So I kind of like was dancing a little bit, but you know, very like minor movements. And I don’t think that strategy worked.

CHRIS: It didn’t.

VOGT: So, you walk up, you say, like, how’s your night? He says nothing. Is he just looking at you? Is he a he?

DAN: It’s a he. There’s Sven, the, the main bouncer. If Berghain itself is the epitome of what you would think of East German old techno nightclub, then Sven is the epitome of what you would think of as the bouncer, the lead bouncer for that venue.

VOGT: What does he look like?

DAN: A large man with a large number of tattoos and piercings on his face. And there’s two others. Apparently there’s some sort of communication between the two of them. Some sort of silent communication. 

VOGT: But it’s not legible. 

DAN: There’s only one amount of legible communication, and that’s the decision.

VOGT: And how do they communicate it to you? 

DAN: It’s always one person they pull up at a time, or a small group, and sometimes they’re immediately rejected. Like, they don’t even get to say a word, the bouncer just puts his hand out and they just keep walking.

CHRIS: Very subtle. Yeah.

VOGT: And they just point towards the street?

DAN: It’s not so much a point as an open palm out the direction that you should be going.

VOGT: So the gesture you’re doing is actually the gesture one uses to be like, welcome to my home, but it’s welcome to not my home. The arm goes out, the, the palms outstretched. Like, look at this. You’re not going to a nightclub.

CHRIS: Yeah. It’s like “You’re welcome to go anywhere else in Berlin.” 

You can probably tell from that part of the conversation how things went for Chris and Dan. Here’s PJ again:

VOGT: They flew to Berlin, they tried three separate times across three separate days to get into this place, they were rejected each time. And there was just something about the draw of — these guys are, they’re not people who are like, if there’s a red velvet rope, I got to be on the other side of it. They’re not sceney guys. It was like, the fact that they were willing to spend their vacation just standing in a line and being told no made me very curious about them and this place. 

Okay, so that’s what you need to know to get started. Here, now, from the Search Engine podcast is an episode called “Why Didn’t Chris and Dan Get Into Berghain?” With PJ Vogt.

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When we started all this, last July, all I really knew about Berghain was that it was a Berlin techno club, and that it was very hard to get into. But I started researching. The club itself maintains a very minimal footprint online. 200,000 people follow Berghain’s Instagram account, but the club has only ever posted one photo, in 2015. A picture of a sign that says in all caps “TAKING PHOTOS IS NOT ALLOWED” — the sign, presumably, from inside the club itself.  Berghain, like Vegas, claims that what happens there, stays there, except in Berghain that seems to be true. Some information about the club, nevertheless, has circulated. The story of Berghain, as I now understand it, begins thirty years ago.

In the early 1990’s, two Germans, Norbert Thormann and Michael Teufele, had begun hosting a mens’ only gay fetish party, sometimes at an abandoned air raid shelter. After a few years, the party outgrew that bunker. The pair took over an abandoned railroad depot. At the railway depot, they started a club called Ostgut. Ostgut was legendary, open to people of all genders and sexualities, but still a space run by and largely for gay men. A den of hedonism where consenting adults supposedly engaged in all sorts of unusual behavior. Online, at least one video survives from inside the club. But the video’s pretty tame. It’s from July 2000, looks like camcorder footage, a grainily shot DJ hovers over a console, twiddling knobs, while nearby, a crowd of German shadows writhes under a strobe light. Ostgut may have lived forever, except the city wanted to build a big arena, so the railroad depot was knocked down in 2003. Berghain was its reincarnation, the palace that replaced Ostgut. This time, too big to knock down. A thermal power plant, originally built by the Russians in the Soviet Era. Four floors. On the very bottom floor, a dedicated basement gay club, for men only. At the very top, a bar with big windows opening onto a panoramic view of the city. On the floors in between, where the power turbines once sat, an enormous dark cavern, the main dance area. The entire space, governed by its own particular rules.

TIKTOK: Berghain is not a standard posh club with bottle service.

TIKTOK: They make you put a sticker over your phone, no pictures, they’ll throw you the f*** out. 

YOUTUBE: There’d be a window where you could buy ice cream, and you could order smoothies.

YOUTUBE: It’s open from Friday until Monday, and most people stay there for 12 hours, 24 hours, or more.

Berghain is best known for one weekly party. Klubnacht, Club Night. Club Night is a misnomer, because while the party starts Saturday evening it continues all the way until Monday morning without interruption. A few books document the history of this scene that birthed this party, I found Tobias Rapp’s Lost & Sound to be particularly helpful. He writes about how, when Berghain opened in 2004, this party was by and for Berliners, but word soon spread internationally. “A European budget airline called EasyJet had just opened a new hub in Berlin, and other Europeans started taking EasyJet flights to the city to come party. The legend kept growing; eventually, it grew large enough to draw Chris and Dan, two of the many Americans who made the pilgrimage to techno mecca. It was a marvel. A three-day party good enough to draw thousands of people, every weekend, people who would fly to Germany without even a promise they’d gain admittance. That was Klubnacht at Berghain.

Most of what people discuss online is not any of this. Instead, they talk about Sven, the intimidating bouncer who Chris and Dan encountered and then cowered in front of. Sven Marquardt is a tall, imposing man in his early 60’s, with giant lip rings that look like silver fangs. His hair is slicked back and silver, tattoos of thorns cover much of his face. He looks like a bad guy in a John Wick movie, and he has played a bad guy in a John Wick movie. That was just a cameo, one time though. Sven has run security at Berghain since the club first opened 20 years ago. Sven’s backstory: He grew up in East Berlin, the communist side of the wall, before it fell.

SVEN: Meine Name ist Sven Marquardt. Ich bin in zwei und siebzig in Ost Berlin geboren.

There’s this one documentary, Berlin Bouncer, that profiles Sven.  In one scene, he gives a talk in front of a crowd. He’s wearing all black, tinted glasses. Sven discusses the early chapters of his life, how his teenage years were defined by the feeling of being stuck outside a much more significant kind of door.

SVEN: Ich wollte eigentlich nur rüber kucken. Also nicht tatsächlich weg von zu Hause sondern eigentlich nur mal wissen was auf …

[TRANSLATION: I just wanted to see the other side. We didn’t really want to leave home. But just find out what was on the other side. What were we being deprived of? What weren’t we supposed to see?] 

Sven is saying “We just wanted to see the other side of the wall … we didn’t really want to leave home, we just wanted to find out … What were we being deprived of? What weren’t we allowed to see?” Sven has said that as a young gay punk rocker, living in East Berlin was risky. He was frequently picked up by the secret police. He was devoted to his photography career. But after the wall fell, he chose to stay on the East Berlin side, and his art career stalled there.  Sven’s brother was a DJ, and Sven started working the door at his parties. It turned out that Sven’s eye for people worked not just in photography, but also here: he had a talent for deciding who should be let in. He developed a reputation. That’s why they chose him for Ostgut, and later for Berghain. The fact that this much of Sven’s biography exists, in public, of course goes entirely against Berghain’s secretive ethos. But Sven has continued to pursue his photography career, and so every few years, when he has a new exhibition, or a photo book, he talks to journalists. Questions about his photography, which he wants to discuss, and questions about how to get into Berghain, which he has to tolerate. Those are the terms under which the gatekeepers at places like The New York Times or GQ will allow Sven entry, and understanding the way of these things, he obliges. Sven. The man with the answer to our question. What was the bouncer at Berghain scanning you for? I should say, I emailed Sven and requested an interview, I’ve never been less surprised to not get a reply. But in the documentary, there’s this prickly moment where the interviewer seems to have directly asked Sven the rules of the door.

SVEN: Die Regeln die es gibt, die braucht man auch nicht nochmal abfragen. Und dazu gehört auch einfach, dass bestimmte Sachen da bleiben wo sie stattfinden. Den satz sage ich glaube ich auch nicht zum ersten mal dass wir mit der auswahl der gäste eine verantwortung tragen für die leute die da drin so sein kann wie sie sind.

[TRANSLATION: The rules that are in place. One doesn’t need to question them. One of them being that certain things should stay where they happen. I’ve said this a few times before: when selecting guests, we have a responsibility to make sure those inside can be the way they want to be.]

Sven responds not with helpful tips about what shade of black to wear. Instead, he says, sternly, “We don’t need to question the rules that are in place.”

SVEN: Die leute die da drin so sein kann wie sie sind.

He does allow that, as the selector, his responsibility is to only let people in who, once they join the party, won’t impede the freedom and self-expression of the people who are already inside. It makes sense, but it does not provide clues. And in any situation in which official sources remain this tight-lipped, speculation will reign. And it does here. Mostly on TikTok. There, a cottage industry of people who claim to have gotten through the door, now style themselves as helpful experts, explaining what, exactly, they believe Sven is scanning for when he looks at people like Chris and Dan. Trying to get inside the mind of a 62-year old gay, German ex-punk.

TIKTOK: Be really casual, don’t be flamboyant, don’t speak too much.

YOUTUBE: Don’t talk too loud in the queue. And under no circumstances engage in laughter. 

TIKTOK: Literally just basically be as casual and blend in as possible in order to get in.

It was impossible to know if any of these people are actually telling the truth (Again, you can’t record inside of Berghain) Which means, you just have to take their word for it.

YOUTUBE: I promise, people say that you need to wear black to get in, but that’s not true. It helps, but it’s not a must.

TIKTOK: Just be yourself, and if you get in, you get in, and if you don’t, try again some other time, or call it a wrap.

The advice offered by these supposed gurus frankly, does not feel all that usable. Try to get in or, maybe don’t. Wear black, but you don’t have to.

My favorite artifact of all the online Berghain speculation is a website called, that will actually drop you into a surprisingly high-rez simulation version of the Berghain line. The site takes control of your webcam and then scans your face, analyzing your emotions through your expressions. How angry, sad, euphoric your face is, giving a virtual simulation of Sven’s gaze. And then the first-person video virtually walks you step by step up to the doors of Berghain. The music gets louder, as you get closer. The website warns you that Sven will ask you three questions. So I did it.

FAKE SVEN: “Ist das dein erstes mal here?”

When I arrived at the virtual door, a German man, presumably an actor, playing Sven, asked, “Is this your first time here?” I said yes.

FAKE SVEN: “Weisst du wer heute spielt?” 

He asked do you know who’s DJing tonight. I said yes.

FAKE SVEN: “Hast du was genommen?”

He asked whether I’d taken drugs. I said nein. After a moment of scanning, the virtual bouncer told me

FAKE SVEN: “Passt heute nicht”

“Not good today.” And then made the hand gesture toward the street. The same hand gesture Chris and Dan had gotten.  To be honest with you, this rejection by a fake bouncer, it hurt my real feelings. I’ll tell you something about myself that won’t surprise you. I’ve never been considered cool. I know cool people, I’m not against coolness, I just don’t possess it. I’m uncool enough that I often ask the cool people I know to explain to me why certain things are cool right now. How did we decide big pants are back in style? If you have to ask, you’re not cool, and I do have to ask, both professionally and just, because of my personality. So I’m not cool, and I’m old enough to be OK with that. But this was a little different. At Berghain, where Sven ruled, it seemed to me that the source of his power lay partly in his refusal to explain himself. My job, as a journalist, was the opposite. To understand and explain. And I just couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to understand something that was designed to obscure itself. That was why, even after all this internet sleuthing and documentary watching, we would continue digging, for the better part of a year. We would talk to lots of people, we’d read too many books devoted to the talmudic study of German techno, its origins and subgenres. And in the end, we’d emerge with an answer. What was Berghain scanning for, and why. How had a place like this come to be?

*      *      *

In America, in the circles I run in, people complain a lot about capitalism. I don’t think they’re bothered by the exchange of goods and services, I think it’s their shorthand way of saying everything here is too driven by profit; even things that start out good can be squeezed to death by our ceaseless desire to wring out every possible dollar. In Berlin, a place where until recently, capitalism and socialism both operated. In Berlin it feels like something else is going on. The nightlife industry there brings in 1.5 billion tourism dollars a year. But they’re strange dollars. The crown jewel, Berghain, operates by turning away thousands of paying customers, and despite demand, keeps its ticket prices pretty low. All while existing in a building that is 37,600 square feet in a very hip neighborhood. And not only does it all seem to work, it’s worked for a long time. This does not happen in nightlife, clubs do not stick around. Studio 54 was open for less than three years. Berghain is on its twentieth. And people attribute a lot of that success to Berghain’s strict and strange door policy. You can tell the story of that door as a story about culture, about cool. But cool, we know, never explains itself. So let’s get inside Berghain from a different direction. I’m going to tell you the story, not about DJs and bouncers, but about lawyers and lobbyists. About the municipal regulation and policy that allows this club to exist the way it does. A story that begins in 1949.

VOGT: Hi, can you hear me?

LUTZ: Hey, I hear you well. 

VOGT: How’s it going over there?

LUTZ: Well, well, well.

Lutz Leichsenring. I had first heard about him from one of my best friends, Kae Burke, a nightclub founder herself. People in Berlin called Lutz the mayor of the city’s nightlife.

VOGT: So did Kae explain like who I am and what we’re up to over here?

LUTZ: I think she might, but it was also quite some time ago. So maybe you can fill me in again.

VOGT: Yeah, so I have this podcast called Search Engine where we just try to answer people’s questions, no matter how simple or complicated. We do like, really serious stuff. Like we just did something about, fentanyl and the drug supply in America, but we also do really silly stuff and kind of like everything in between.

LUTZ: And what level are we here in this conversation?

VOGT: We’re closer to silly, I think. Uh, so we have these friends I want to tell you about who just, like, didn’t get into Berghain and are confused about it, but it’s sort of an excuse to tell the larger story about nightlife. Like, I think for people in the United States, it’s a place you go and you spend $500 on champagne. And like, you know what I mean? It’s like —

LUTZ: Or $10 on a can of beer.

VOGT: Yes.

LUTZ: Without a glass.

VOGT: Exactly.

Germans like Lutz call this style of nightclub “bottles and models,” shorthand for the economic model that drives them. Clubs like this are what most Americans think of when you say nightclub — spots that tend to make their money by enticing rich people to pay for tables and to buy bottles of champagne so that they can feel important. The clubs are like little status factories. In Berlin though, that same word, nightclub, describes an entirely different operation, fueled by a different economic model. And Lutz’s job is to protect that status quo. He is nightlife’s advocate in the offices of city bureaucrats. The spokesperson for Berlin’s Club Commission. I wanted Lutz to tell me how Berlin’s unusual nightlife scene had come to be. And that story is the story of two arguments. The first argument takes place in the late 1940s. Argument one, is about a very specific rule: curfew. In Berlin today, there is no curfew, bars and clubs stay open as long as they want.

VOGT: And can you tell me the story of, like how Berlin came to be a city with no curfew? Like, what is the origin story of that decision? 

LUTZ: This decision, it’s like almost 80 years old. And it happened right after World War II. So 1949, you had already a divided city between the eastern sector and the western sector, the eastern sector controlled by the Russians and the western sector controlled by the British, the French, and the Americans. And in the eastern part, there was a curfew at 10 p.m. So all the restaurants, bars, hotel bars, cabaret bars, et cetera, they had to close at 10 p.m. in the eastern part. In the western part, it was 9 p.m. So an hour earlier. And there was this, let’s say, representative, of the hotels and restaurants of Berlin. His name was Heinz Zellermayer. 

Heinz Zellermayer. There was no Club Commission back then, Heinz was instead the Deputy Director of the Guild of Berlin Hoteliers. In photos, Heinz has an enormous smile and combed-back hair. He looks like someone who’d held forth at a restaurant or two. Heinz did not like the curfew. He particularly did not like that his side of the city had an earlier curfew. The person to complain to was General Howley, of the U.S. Army, the American’s West Berlin commandant. A meeting was set and Heinz, supposedly, came prepared.

LUTZ: The story is that he brought a bottle of whiskey to that meeting so they met and they were talking about it and General Howley said, yeah, the British, and the French, they are not really supporting any idea of losing this, this curfew, they say it’s a security issue. So you have to give me an argument that I can give to the French and the British. And the problem was that at that moment in the Western part, people had to go out of the bar, and then they went to the Eastern sector for another hour, which was also not really liked by the Americans. So, he said, if you kick Germans who are partying at a certain hour, you kick them out of the street, you’re gonna have a security issue. So you have to better find a solution for it. 

It was a well-reasoned argument. The Allies didn’t want drunk Westerners crossing East search of a later last call. And worse, there’d been an emerging cold war of curfews, with each side, the East and the West, repeatedly extending an hour past each other to try to capture all the income from drunk Berliners. Eliminating curfew would solve the security issue and win the night war. Howley was sold.

Lutz: He said, okay, let’s try this out for two weeks. And since then, 1949, we have no curfew. 

Berlin, one of the rare cities that has no curfew at all. In 1949 when the city permanently deleted its curfew, obviously techno music did not exist. Raving was something people did in insane asylums. If anyone was listening to music in a club late at night, it was probably jazz? But this decision set Berlin on a path. Nightlife is funded more than anything via the sale of alcohol. A city without a curfew can have a legal party that runs through the night, even that runs multiple nights. Half a centuryish later, techno will hit Berlin. People will begin to throw raves in illegal spots, without permits. This will happen in a lot of cities at the same time. Detroit, New York, London. But what makes Berlin different from those places is that here, many of those raves can actually become legitimate businesses, can find permanent homes in clubs. General Howley’s 1949 agreement is the first precondition for Klub Nacht at Berghain. It sets the stage for a party that can last for three days. But years later, as the scene starts to mature, a second argument takes place, an argument which almost kills these nightclubs. Argument two is about taxes.

In the early 2000s, Berghain was a rising young club alongside already established spots, like Tresor and the Kit Kat Club. And Berlin’s tax authority started to take a closer look at these places. How much money were they bringing in? Shouldn’t the city be getting a bigger cut? Government tax agents walk into Berghain, presumably without needing permission from Sven. They’re there documenting everything they see. Asking a question. From a tax perspective: what is happening in these rooms? In Germany, if you pay money for a ticket and enter a venue where music is played, you may be having one of three different experiences. You might be experiencing high culture, like opera, in which case, the city will barely tax the ticket. You might be at a concert, like, The Rolling Stones, in which case, the city will moderately tax the ticket. Or, you might be experiencing entertainment. This happens in casinos, in porn theaters. In that case, the city will take a big tax bite, almost 20 percent. Before the tax officials began to take a closer look at the club scene, these venues had been taxed mostly as concert venues. But now, in 2008, the city started to ask pointed questions. Was a DJ really a musician? Was a techno show really like a concert?

LUTZ: The perception that people in government had says, a DJ is not a concert. People are going there to have sex or to drink or to whatever, but not because of the DJ. They even sent people to clubs and documented that people were not facing the artists. They were talking to each other. 

VOGT: Oh my god.

LUTZ: Stuff like that, yeah, so to kind of prove the point that it’s not a concert.

VOGT: Wow. I’ve been to concerts where people were not facing the artist and talking to each other.

LUTZ: Exactly, but they said, clubs is different. People go there to meet people, not because of the artists. They don’t even know who’s playing — these kind of argumentations. 

Berghain was the club that actually took this case all the way to the high courts. Berghain won. The Berghain, in the government’s books, was cemented as a concert venue: A place where people went because they loved techno music. Weirdly, this is one part of the answer to Chris and Dan’s question. What was the bouncer, Sven, scanning for at the door? He needed to ensure they were true techno heads, not people there simply for entertainment. That consideration — a funny side effect of this argument the club had had to make in court years ago — it may’ve been part of what filtered them out. Chris and Dan. Not true techno heads. Berghain’s victory in court meant that any German night club that could prove it was meeting Beghain’s cultural standards could be taxed like Berghain. Lower taxes meant they could keep their overhead low. The lower the overhead, the less pressure to make money. The less pressure to make money, the more they could continue to keep their nightclubs dedicated to preserving Berlin’s counterculture. We’re going to come back to this strange court case and its consequences, but before I left Lutz, I wanted to ask him specifically about Chris and Dan.  What was it about them  — the way they looked, the way they dressed — that had signaled they didn’t belong at Berghain? Lutz does not represent Berghain, but as spokesman for the Club Commission and as a regular, I thought he might be able to help.

VOGT: Can I show you a couple of photographs and you tell me if the person seems like —

LUTZ: I’m not a selector, so, I can only give you my personal opinion.

VOGT: Yeah, is it okay to ask you your opinion on it?

LUTZ: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Of course.

VOGT: Okay, this is one person.

LUTZ: Um, well, very friendly. Maybe queer person, very soft, happy. He’s wearing some kind of top that doesn’t really say anything. It’s like what is it —

VOGT: It’s too generic of a top, the vest?

LUTZ: I think it looks authentic to him. but this person looked very innocent, you know? And you also want to save some people for, you know, to not getting into something that they maybe don’t expect.

VOGT: Okay, can I show you, so this is the person he went with.

LUTZ: Yeah. I would probably send them to SchwuZ.

VOGT: What’s SchwuZ?

LUTZ: It’s a, it’s our oldest, um, best known gay club. And it’s, that’s the perfect vibe for those two guys.

VOGT: Because they don’t seem like techno guys to you. They seem like gay guys who are going out clubbing.

LUTZ: They don’t look like hard, you know, like standing in the middle of a sweaty club and going for hours and enjoying this and, you know, they’re standing more like, having a chat, you know, like, and that’s, that’s okay to have some of those folks in the venue, but it’s really about getting out of your inner self and showing your animalistic side of yourself.

For very good reason, we don’t celebrate the idea that you should judge people based on how they look on the outside. Those judgments often lead us astray. And yet. Lutz, from a photo, could tell Chris and Dan were after respectful, healthy, wholesome partying. Not the sort of darkness that occurs in Berghain’s techno dungeons.  They didn’t belong here. They belonged, he suspected, at another place called Schwuz. I wondered what Chris and Dan would make of that judgment. So later, I asked. Chris told me SchwuZ? They loved SchwuZ. It was the club they’d ended up at, after being rejected from Berghain. Berlin, this magical city, had somehow sent them to the place where they really belonged. Lutz was not a selector, but he did seem to have a selector’s eye.

VOGT: Your read is so good. Chris, who I know better, he’s a lovely, he’s one of my favorite people to spend time with. If I were having a party where it was really important that someone danced in the middle of the dance floor for eight hours, he would perhaps not make the cut for that party. 

LUTZ: I think the first question you have to ask yourself: are you a participant or are you a visitor? And that shouldn’t sound sophisticated or arrogant. It’s just like a club. The definition of club is being part of a club. If you’re, if you’re, if you’re not part of the club, why should you being able to enter?  I think the idea of just buying myself in is the opposite of a club, what it should actually be. A club should bring people together who have similar interests, similar preferences.

A club should bring together people of similar interests. Absolutely. But what if you’re someone who doesn’t belong, but still wants to just go check it out? Is there a way to sneak in? Is there some other way to get into Berghain, that is not going through the bouncer? Lutz did have advice about this.

LUTZ: My tip that I usually give is make a plan of exploring Berlin maybe from the outskirts. Go to venues that are not very known. Go to places that are somehow interesting for you because you did your research and you saw some artists that you want to see and they’re playing, so go there. And you get in very easy because venues that are not very known don’t have this kind of level of selection. Usually there’s not even a queue. And then you get friends with the bartenders, you make friends with the DJs there, and you have an amazing time in an unknown venue with unknown artists, basically. And the next time you’re coming, you’re going to reach out to them and because they like you or they connected to you, they will ask you to start in their home with dinner. Maybe you go to a bar, you make more friends, and even maybe they make sure that you get in on a guest list of some venue that they’re going at that night. But I think it’s part of that journey that you also have to, to make to be part of the scene.

Lutz said the process he’s describing — this is the real way into Klub Nacht. Make yourself a part of the scene. That line outside Berghain, he said, that’s for people who haven’t been able to, or who haven’t known to try. While Lutz was saying this to me, I was nodding yes furiously, my noggin like a broken bobblehead. Of course it all made sense! And as a person obsessed with belonging and exclusion, I was lapping it all up. We finished our conversation. We hung up. And then, not long afte, the spell of Lutz’s idea dissipated. What were we talking about? If you wanted to visit the most exclusive nightclub in the world, go to Germany and start methodically befriending Germans in the city’s electronic music scene? Okay.

Normally, that would have been the end of things, and perhaps it should have been the end of things. But not long after this, a friend of mine, an American, asked me a question. They were celebrating a big milestone in their life, and they wanted to do it in Germany. In Berlin actually. They wanted to spend some time there, perhaps even try to see some of the city’s famous nightlife. Did that sound like fun? Could I make time away from work? Yes, it did. No, I couldn’t. I bought myself a plane ticket.

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That, again, was PJ Vogt, with the first part of a two-part story. To hear what happened after he got to Berlin, look for Search Engine in your podcast app — the second part of the story will be available there on June 26.

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The Berghain nightclub sits at the intersection of what used to be East and West Berlin. Its name comes from the two districts on either side, Kreuzberg in the west and Friedrichshain in the east. PJ Vogt’s last name — which is spelled V-O-G-T — is also German.

VOGT: A vogt is — it referred to like, some sort of feudal landowner, kind of the middle manager of, whatever, the feudal era. It was not a very high status position, but high status enough that people might not like you.

DUBNER: Do you feel you have a little bit of ancestral, if only impressionistic, connection to your German roots? 

VOGT: I didn’t think so until I went. And I was not expecting to feel anything at all and I felt so much in a way that kind of shocked me, actually. 

DUBNER: When did you first go to Germany? 

VOGT: I actually went on a reporting — well, a reporting trip for this story. 

DUBNER: This was the first time you’d been to Germany! 

VOGT: I was there — okay, that’s not entirely true. I went once as a — like a 17-year-old. You could do that Eurorail thing, and so I did that for a minute, but I didn’t, like, crack the surface of the city in any meaningful way. And this was the first time where I really felt like, I don’t know, I felt the weight of the history. I felt this feeling that Berlin is a place that is both, like, I hate when people over-generalize about places that they visit for a week, but I thought these are people who believe in order and following rules, sometimes to great historical tragedy, but who also — like everything always exists in balance. And it’s also a place where people of love to let loose and break rules. And like, I feel like I could feel both of those forces in a way that felt very alive to me. 

DUBNER: Was it a place that you felt oddly at home, you’re saying? 

VOGT: A little bit, yeah, which really surprised me because I tend to be skeptical about a lot of claims that, like, our memories or our history are somehow encoded genetically, like, just I never experienced that feeling. And when other people talk about I was like, oh, that’s great for you, but I never expected to feel it. And I felt both — I felt — I got there and like, I’m not Jewish. My grandfather was Jewish and he converted, but I felt that stuff a little bit in a way that I wouldn’t have thought. And then I also felt German stuff in a way that I wouldn’t have thought. It was like someone having a mildly religious experience who is a pretty profound atheist. It really kind of wobbled me. 

DUBNER: In retrospect, do you think one reason you chose to answer this question about Berghain was because it afforded you the opportunity to go to your ancestral homeland, as faint as the connection might have been?

VOGT: Yeah, although I would not have known that until you asked that question. 

DUBNER: Did you spend time inside Berghain? 

VOGT: I did. 


VOGT: I made a promise that I wouldn’t talk about what I saw in detail, but I will say —

DUBNER: Who did you promise, and do I care that you promised to them? 

VOGT: I promised myself. I was like, I really — so it’s funny, when I walked up to the club, I felt like such a schmuck, Stephen. So one of the things about Berlin that also I thought was really brilliant is that they do not allow cell phones in any of these spaces. They’ll put a sticker over your camera. If you whip that thing out, you’re out. You’re out right away. And it really makes spaces feel different, to have people not be on their phones. Berghain, its roots are as a — a gay club and its real roots are as like a really profoundly dirty gay sex club. And I say dirty without judgment. Like, there’s one section that is still devoted to that that is easier to get into, but the dress code for like a Friday night is socks. So I didn’t go. But even the main club is like, it’s really — it’s like a space that’s devoted to that. And so you, you already feel like an interloper. And — and the rule is sort of like, this is a place where adults can do whatever they want, and where they’re guaranteed privacy and nobody talks about it.  It’s basically like, German cultures realized they really don’t like surveillance for very specific historical reasons. I found it to be like an entirely — oh, this just makes me feel like such a kook. But, like I was like this place is profound. Like it feels profound to be in a place where, like — I don’t know, really dedicated to complete self-expression, where nothing that happens gets judged. I mean, I went on a Sunday afternoon. It was like 2 p.m. There were Berliners there who were just — that was their Sunday. That’s what they always do. Those aren’t people who wait in line. There were people who’d probably been waiting for eight hours and just gotten in, and were so excited. I saw more expression of ways a human body could look or be dressed than I’ve seen in my whole life. And there were things that were happening that were like very Berghainy, like they’ve something called a dark room, which is a room you can go in that’s very underlit, where people can do what they want to do to each other, usually gay men. But there’s also like, they have an ice cream parlor. I had a really nice sorbet. And a cappuccino.

DUBNER: So, on Freakonomics Radio, we tend to talk to experts and academics, institutional people with credentials of one sort or another. What I love about your interviews is, you’ll often interview people whose formal credentials may not be that impressive, but they know a lot, and you’re really good at getting them to teach us things that we might not find out any other way. 

VOGT: That’s really nice of you to say. Yeah, I think we’re good at, like — sometimes people might have a really specific experience that has — given them like a really specific education, and you just want to share that. And it’s like — it’s weird. This is not a thing I expected to be talking about today, but something that — I got to interview the Serial team when they were launching their new season, and I asked them a bunch of questions about their work, and I asked them the question I wanted to ask them, which was, do you ever grapple with just the what are we doing here, of this. Like, besides that, it’s interesting and fun, why are we making this stuff every week? And they were like, we’re doing journalism. It’s very obviously important. It’s in the public interest. How is this a question you have? And I was like, yeah, me too. But it’s a thing I really — I’m really like, what is — what is in a deeper way, the point of this, and one of the answers I sometimes audition for myself, is // every one of us is going to die. Before we die, we’re going to survive some things. And one of the things stories can be are instruction maps. And they’re not perfect, but it’s sort of like, here’s how I got out of that place — with my soul intact. One of the things we do sometimes that I love when we get to do is like, talk to somebody who just navigated something psychologically complex and learned a couple of things about it. But in a way where you really do feel — it’s not like, “Drink water and exercise and be good to your spouse.” But more like, no, no, no, here’s how I got out of that. Like, this is — I really figured something out, let me tell you the trick.

That, again, was PJ Vogt, host of the Search Engine podcast. I hope you like hearing a new show in our feed once in a while; let me know; our email is If you’d like to hear more Search Engine, you can get it on any podcast app. Some questions that PJ has recently asked there are: “Where did all the roaches go?” And “Do political yard signs actually do anything?” We’ll be back, right here, very soon with a regular episode of Freakonomics Radio. Until then, take care of yourself — and, if you can, someone else, too.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. You can find our entire archive on any podcast app or at, where we also publish transcripts and show notes. For Search Engine, this episode was created by PJ Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni and produced by Garrott Graham and Noah John. Fact-checking this week by Claire Hyman, sound design and original composition by Armen Bazarian. For Freakonomics Radio, it was produced by Theo Jacobs, with help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Alina Kulman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,“ by the Hitchhikers; our composer is Luis Guerra.

VOGT: This is like asking the FBI agent who listens on your phone calls to just, like, pop in and reveal himself.

DUBNER: Does that work, always, for you?

VOGT: Almost always. Almost always. 

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  • Lutz Leichsenring, executive board member of Clubcommission Berlin and co-founder of VibeLab.
  • PJ Vogt, reporter, writer, and host of the podcast Search Engine.



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