Berghain’s Sven Marquadt on banned records, sexuality and punk kids in East Berlin

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Though he’s known to most as gatekeeper to the world’s most notorious club, Sven Marquadt is also an analogue photographer whose career started under Stasi surveillance.

You came-of-age in the ’80s in GDR-controlled East Berlin, in Prenzlauer Berg, where we are sitting now. What was that like? 

Growing up in East Berlin meant growing up in a dictatorship, but my memories are first of a pretty normal childhood. Only when I was becoming an adult I started to notice that something’s different: that you couldn’t go everywhere you wanted.

At that time, I started to delve into this neighbourhood, Prenzlauer Berg. Two blocks from the café where we are sitting right now, on Wichertstraße, I had my first flat. It was squatted, which was indeed also possible in East Berlin, because there were so many evacuated flats in the backyards due to the lack of money. Living there was much more interesting for the way we wanted to live, compared to those neighbourhoods that were more adjusted to the regime’s ideas.

The flat that I moved into had been the studio of some graphic designer who had emigrated. This punk and new wave era was a parallel universe in a way, the same as in West Berlin. When I talked to my colleague and good friend Marc Brandenburg, who is a painter, he had been living through the same things in West Berlin that we experienced in the East, only more opulent and free, of course.

But you were aware at the time that the same things were happening in the West?

We tried to absorb every aspect of the lifestyle “over there”. Ten blocks away the city was divided, and we all had friends and relatives on the other side, so we could get books illegally, or really threadbare newspapers, or the Stern [the German weekly magazine] or at that time Christiane F. – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo.

One book would always pass through the hands of hundreds of people, because we only had one copy, but everyone wanted to have a piece of the sense of life in the West. And the music scene – well, the scene was more a circle of very creative people, some of whom did fashion, some were painters, writers, photographers… It emerged slowly with illegally founded bands. Even though we did go to the occasional punk show later in the ’80s, for us it seemed more interesting to get our hands on Patti Smith’s first record or The Cure, anything like that really.

How did you obtain records from the West?

Through friends who were coming from families of artists and who were growing up in an entirely different way compared to me with my normal middle-class background. They were much more free in their surroundings: they were friends with intellectuals and other artists who were visiting from the West. And of course those friends knew about the circumstances and knew how happy we’d be about a book or a record.

But there was no record store in East Berlin that would sell western records under the table or something like that?

No. There were black markets here, it was always quite an adventure to acquire such LPs. The craving for Western influences was always stronger than what was happening in the scene here. At least that’s true for me and my surroundings. We knew tons of people who were in bands, for example Ornament und Verbrechen.

What other ways were there for you to get your hands on music from the West?

Cassettes played a big role. They were used to record punk shows on the radio…

So you would tune into West Berlin radio?

All the time. We all did. I mean that was so easy in Berlin. We simply tried to absorb everything from the West. For example, as kids we didn’t have flea markets to buy clothes, but there was some sort of clothing drive for church facilities, outside of Berlin, where we’d go on the weekend, and they sometimes had clothes that had been donated in the West. Leather biker jackets and stuff like that. And then there were those girls we knew who were incredibly talented in tailoring. You could purchase leather wholesale, and they would make us pants. The lack of so many things really made us more creative.

What did record stores in the GDR offer? Mainly music from the Eastern bloc?

Exactly. In the final years they would sometimes have records from the West, such as Bruce Springsteen, published with a special license, and people would queue up down the entire street, all those people who didn’t have any contacts to the West. I was always feeling sorry for them, they had such a craving, they were actually hungry for just anything that had some glamour, something not mundane.

In what way was the punk music coming out of East Berlin explicitly directed against the regime?

Well, there used to be venues where we always met for as long as we were tolerated, such as the one here in Schönhauser Allee, next to the S-Bahn station where the mall is today. There was a house with a café on the ground floor. Those venues were run by the state. And in retrospect I don’t know if the Staatssicherheit [Stasi, GDR Ministry for State Security] left those places untouched and didn’t shut them down so they could retain control over us.

Apart from that, much of the punk scene happened in private homes and flats. A lot of people had quite big flats as everything was so cheap, and because there were no clubs, many private parties happened.

Once we did a legendary punk boat trip on the Spree; some people had rented a steamboat out in Treptow. Of course the people didn’t know who rented the boat, and after three or four hours of punk shows on the water, when the boat returned to the dock there were tons of policemen with dogs waiting for us.

What were the repercussions of such incidents?

Eventually I got the legendary “Mitteverbot” [Mitte ban]. I even considered naming my autobiography Mitteverbot, but I doubt anyone would have understood that properly. We had this constraint that we were not allowed to enter the district of Mitte, because it was supposed to be the representative part of town with the Palace of the Republic, the TV Tower, all those structures that are still there today. I mean Alexanderplatz really isn’t the most attractive neighbourhood, but still for me it means home.

When did you start taking photos? 

Towards the end of the ’70s, when I was still extremely young, I got into the East Berlin gay scene as a kind of escape from what my parents had been expecting. That was pretty extreme. My parents got wind of it when I was 18, and then I also had my official outing, something I guess no parent was very excited about at any time.

What about the state? Was there any kind of anti-gay suppression?

As far as I remember there was no anti-gay legislation, and the scene was very progressive. I didn’t experience any repercussions. I mean, I guess stuff happened sometimes against gays, in parks for instance, but that is still the same today.

Meeting these people in Prenzlauer Berg, they just didn’t care about my sexuality. But for me it completely defined me – they just invited me to parties and weren’t interested in that, they were interested in me. And then I started training as a photographer and began taking pictures of the people surrounding me, to capture our way of life.

So I started taking more pictures of the people around me, those who inspired me by being different, which then became a part of myself. Suddenly I became an outsider in society in two ways, being punk and being gay. That wasn’t always easy.

So it was mainly about capturing the sentiment that you saw around you?

My sense of life and that of the people that I spend my time with. The protagonists are different of course. I have some long-term friendships from my time in East Berlin, people who have accompanied me, but there’s only a few left; we all went in different ways. I don’t know, some things are only meant to last for so long, and then they’re gone again.

Of course I’ve been thinking about that, after the fall of the Wall, whether it all had been just some kind of emergency association. But even if that’s true, there were people with so much creative potential, and everyone collaborated, even if only for a few years.

In 1984 I had my first exhibition together with Robert Paris, in some communal arts centre, in Eichenstraße in Treptow in some villa. It was run by the state, but the director was open enough to show a piece of counterculture now and again. And of course, that was the first time that I got some form of acknowledgement for my photographs. Quite a lot of people came to the opening, that was an important moment for me.

I read that you took pictures in black and white mainly because colour films weren’t really available.

My memories are mostly in black and white too. But the photographers of the previous generation, such as Helga Paris and others, they had shaped a certain visual language which was always black and white as well. And those artists were role models or teachers. That aside, it was very difficult to obtain colour film.

But you do feel like you were able to express the atmosphere of the surveillance state more appropriately in black and white?

After the fall of the Wall I went to Hamburg with my pictures to show them to various publications, such as at the Stern, or to Munich to the zeitgeist magazine Tempo, and none of the editors knew what to do with my photos. Because they had an entirely different black and white image of the East, of isolated people sitting in dire socialist high rises with sad faces, dull and desolate.

Of course my photos were expressing a certain kind of melancholy too. The editors would ask me whether the people were still alive as they were looking like drug addicts, even though none of us ever really got into drugs at all. Anyway, I think I mainly took portraits of people who could have existed in the West as well, and they didn’t find that interesting enough.

That’s interesting. So people in the West wanted to see this cliché GDR.

I do think so, yes. The Stern had a supplement for all GDR households and it included a double page with a photo that pictured me together with a policeman on the U-Bahn. I had a Mohawk cut, was chubby, had a punkish face, and was sitting there petulantly. My mother almost went crazy that I could be seen like that in all households, but then again no one knew it was me, there was no caption that said “Sven Marquardt”, yet still my mother was not very proud of me.

That photo came up again on occasion of the publication of my autobiography. And that was the kind of photo everyone wanted to see. This contrast: pictures of people getting arrested or being incarcerated. And I mean sure those stories existed, we were just incredibly lucky to have gotten away with a slap on the wrist really. Of course there were outrageously tragic stories of other people. But we were not really political enough for that, we didn’t stand on rooftops dropping leaflets.

At the same time, years later I looked into my file at the Stasi, and indeed they had gone into my flat. I had thought some burglar had broken in because they hadn’t had enough time to properly tidy up, so they’d made it look like that and had taken a camera. Back then I was living on the ground floor. The revelation, 25 years later, that the Stasi had been in my flat did cause a sleepless night.

How was it for you in November, 1989, when the wall came down? What did that feel like?

I was somehow sceptical. And my friends were pretty calm, too. I remember the doorbell ringing at night and my best friends were standing at the door, because almost no one had a telephone, so everyone would always visit other people. The day before we had been drunk again so I had gone to bed early and suddenly they said, the Wall is open, so we drove there. There was an extreme atmosphere on the streets. It was an amazing energy.

When I stopped using my camera at the beginning of the ’90s, it didn’t seem to me like I was losing something. There were just other things more important now. Whole houses, whole streets were being squatted, I found my first tattooist, everyone was listening to new music and was watching MTV while being in a frenzy, and I was thinking, no one’s really interested in photographs anymore.

Looking back though, we were losing something, we were losing our own identities. Delving into this whole new club scene that had suddenly emerged. Somehow we were numbing ourselves, suddenly the East and the West were partying together in some clubs and in the West discos were shut down because no one went there anymore. It felt great at the time and that’s why I thought, maybe the camera was just some symbol for unfulfilled desires during the time in the East.

When I look back at the first nights at E-Werk, all the people suddenly partying together, I was standing there thinking, wow, where are they all coming from – fetish people, and this new type of man in the gay scene back then with bald heads and bomber jacket, and drag queens – there was this amazing mix of people all of a sudden. That did evoke a sense of freedom in the city. However, in the past years I have realised that personally, I had to learn this idea of freedom for myself.

In what way is the role of the bouncer, a job of observation, connected to the photographer’s role?

Well, I mean I’m not standing there in order to cast. Maybe it seems like that for the patrons somehow, and sometimes me and my colleagues will joke that it’s like Britain’s Next Top Model but of course in most cases, by rejecting a person, you will offend them. But from the very beginning I haven’t been standing at the door as some sort of one-man-show to embody what the club represents. That’s not been my idea. But in consideration of to my own time of partying, and after all the years at Berghain, which has been growing and always needed to redefine itself, for us as well, due to new generations of club-goers – maybe some of all that influences me in some way, when I see people that inspire me.

That’s what I meant, yes.

Yeah, in that sense definitely. I have this strict rule that I will never approach a person at the door for the purpose of taking pictures of them. I’ve broken that rule twice, but it doesn’t work because it erases this distance that’s very important for me, and suddenly there’s this obligation towards this person who I’ve portrayed. That’s not good.

The way I imagine it is that taking portraits of someone requires a certain intimate bond between the photographer and the subject, where as it needs to be the exact opposite at the door of a club.

Exactly, the distance is so crucial. But of course I see and perceive a lot of things, and there will be faces or styles or trends that I will notice and if I like them then I’ll take them as inspiration for projects.

You grew up in the ultimate surveillance state. To what extent is the idea of freedom connected to not being observed or watched – I’m thinking about the photography ban at Berghain –  in particular if you are part of the queer community or other marginalised groups, how important is that?

Personally, thanks to being styled differently, during my time as a punk, it would be absurd to suggest that I was ever not being watched, be it shopping for groceries or on the tram. It’s still like that today, I often run into situations where people recognise me. I guess having lived through the time in the East, if you have that predisposition, it will have made you a little more paranoid, I don’t know.

But to get to your question, to what extent is not being watched important for freedom – well, looking at Berghain, of course there is this sense of being among yourselves, without 35,000 voyeurs who only want a quick Instagram post or whatever. That’s such a phenomenon anyway that you need to take a picture of everything you see immediately, I find that strange, but maybe I’m just too old for that. But this being-among-yourselves at Berghain, in connection with the rule that whatever happens in Berghain will stay in Berghain, that’s a great rule for sure.

There was this recent court ruling recognising Berghain as an institute of high culture. Do you see that as an acknowledgment of your work as a bouncer, or do you not care?

I only learned about it through the media, there was no official announcement to all employees. I can only speak from my perspective; I think it is important financially. But if Berghain wants to be perceived as high culture… I mean when all these things were happening that were new to club culture, the collaboration with the Deutsches Theater or the state ballet, those things, we thought, wow, really? But we shouldn’t forget that it’s a place for partying.


Conducted by Henning Lahmann and Amar Ediriwira, this interview has been translated from German.