What Tilman Brembs can’t remember of the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he probably has stored somewhere on a film negative. 25 years later, we look back at his shots of the now famous Berlin club scene, captured in those renegade early days
Brembs’ images depict a period from ’91 – ’96 when enterprising hedonists saw opportunity in the gaping chasm that was left where the wall once stood. Up to forty percent of Berlin’s city centre was left vacant; and the abandoned spaces of a partition hinterland offered up the perfect spot to try something new.
“It was like the Woodstock Summer of Love,” says Brembs, “Berlin was united. The wall was down. We met people from the East and realised that they were as normal as we were. It was kind of a hippy thing.”
Prior to ’89, musicians from both sides of the divide were experimenting with industrial electronic sounds in their own microcosms, but as Brembs explains – “A lot of clubs didn’t exist before the wall. So the wall came down and new clubs were founded in this new area. Old houses, factories, cellars and basements were left behind. It was like squatting. A lot of them were illegal. We called it the Wild Wild East.”
Left to their own devices, a new generation ran riot in a zone that was virtually unpoliced. Brembs describes a ‘big family’ of clubs working in harmony, not competition. Old Queens, young and excitable East Berliners and a musical avant-garde traipsed from party to after-party. Many spaces were clubs for just one weekend, before word of mouth moved the story on. Superstar DJs were not a thing. The likes of DJ Tanith and Dr Motte, now legendary names, existed within their own bubble, with whispers of the scene slowly starting to spread to a more clued-up international crowd. This is where a young Paul Van Dyck would start out and Jeff Mills and his Underground Resistance crew would come for inspiration. It was the foundation for the Berlin Techno scene that’s famous worldwide today.
Despite some clubs only managing to last a few weeks before shutting down or moving on, a few laid deeper roots – UFO, E-Werk and Frisseur to name a few. The most famous – Tresor – was housed in a former bank vault. Metal cases lined the walls and the ceilings were two metres high. One night the fire brigade famously showed up after being tipped off about a fire, but missed out on the chase to play with their hose when it turned out this new generation of ravers had just got a little heavy handed with the smoke machine.
Catching rays© Tilman Brembs
Brembs took shots on a 35mm film, documenting the mayhem for Frontpage Magazine and later opening up his archives for the Zeitmaschine project. His images from the coalface capture a world where drag is the norm, the sounds of Detroit takes on a new utopian meaning in a re-unified world and the blissful joy in the long walk home over-rides the decades of dark politics that came before.
His favourite shot is of the girl with the broken tooth. “She was from the British band GTO. She was a dancer and she broke her teeth when they were performing. This picture’s very special to me because it’s a symbol – everything was possible. Nobody cared about anything – their outfit, their pain, nothing.”
And how did Brembs celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the wall this weekend? He headed out with his crew of misfit ravers for a night at Berghain. “It’s like a family reunion – we’ll be telling stories. That’s what old people do – they talk about old times.” Here’s hoping the veterans showed the new-school how it’s done. Email correspondence with Brembs has been sketchy since Sunday. Somebody check inside – there’s a good chance he’s still there now.
Check on Tilman Brembs’ well-being: @zeitmaschine
Inform Clare Considine he’s probably dead: @ClareBConsidine