Sex club becomes Covid-19 testing center as lockdown freezes German culture

The blood-red letters on the long metal door of the Kitkat Club are impossible to miss, but easy to misunderstand: KLUBSTERBEN – the death of the club. Exactly a year ago, I visited Berlin’s most notorious fetish and sex club as it faced an existential threat from plans to convert its dilapidated complex into luxury apartments.

A year later, the threat of “death in the club” persists, this time from an invisible virus. There’s always a queue outside to get in – Wednesday to Sunday – but it’s daytime, 9am to 4pm, rather than night.

The door policy is also noticeably more flexible: anyone with €24.90 can enter for a rapid Covid-19 antigen test. The dusty, windowless dance halls are filled with makeshift desks, cubicles and the ghost of pre-pandemic Berlin nightlife.

Was it just a year ago that I slipped into this damp space full of latex and leather lovers? In the corner, I can still see, on an illuminated circular platform, a lithe Josephine Baker look-alike dancing in a skin-tight jumpsuit and Louboutin platform pumps.

Even in February 2020, Kitkat was a hedonist’s paradise. In February 2021, it’s a more sober affair. Some are at the test center because they want to travel, others want to visit elderly relatives; all seem amused, amazed and depressed at the same time to see the interior of the legendary club in such unusual circumstances.

“I personally think a real lockdown would be more effective than all these tests,” said Elmar Fleischer, a local standing outside the club in the gray cold of February, “but it would only work if everyone was playing the game.”

Technically, Germany has been in lockdown since mid-December – with only essential shops open – but the vibrant midday trade at the kebab kiosk next to Kitkat gives an indication of how locals are interpreting the lockdown.

low cloud

Even at the best of times, post-Christmas Berlin is a grim place, with a landlocked Mitteleuropa climate guaranteeing a low cloud ceiling that can obscure the sun for weeks at a time.

Those who can afford it flee to the sun; many of those who remain take refuge in the Berlinale. But now even the Berlin Film Festival has been pushed back to June and the capital, which thrives on culture and international visitors, looks even gloomier than usual.

Live music is now the monopoly of churches and theaters; opera houses and cinemas remain closed.

The Club Commission, a lobby group for the capital’s nightlife operators, says many venues are slowly sinking into a vicious cycle of debt and liquidity problems.

“There is more prospect this year with a vaccine and rapid tests,” said commission spokesman Lutz Leichsenring. “Our goal is to find a way to make nightlife safe, nightlife that right now doesn’t exist.”

As the second lockdown tightens, German Federal Culture Minister Monika Grütters has pledged €1.5 billion in emergency funding on top of the initial €1 billion which had already attracted 34,000 applications from cultural providers.

“There is a clear need for even more funding,” Grütters said, warning of “tremendous damage to our cultural wealth.”

“Cultural Need”

While museum and orchestra lobby groups demand a concrete timetable, Grütters promised that “cultural venues were among the first to be closed and must be among the first to reopen”.

Despite the lockdown, likely to remain in place for most places until Easter at the earliest, the Irish Embassy in Berlin has kept its cultural flag flying.

“Corona has been a challenge and has pushed us to our limits, but we are able to do things that are impossible in normal times,” said Candice Gordon, the embassy’s new cultural officer. “There is a cultural need that people have that we were able to fill by thinking outside the box.”

Last month, she hosted An Irish Night In, bringing Irish music, puns and cooking videos online to more than 2,000 registered attendees.

This week, the Embassy’s Brigid Meets Berlin Festival of Irish Women’s Literary Creativity took advantage of its online presence to expand its reach to Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg.

Germany estimates its creative economy to be worth around 100 billion euros a year but, in the face of unlimited lockdown, the cultural cost of Covid-19 is being felt in every corner.

The latest victim is Schott, the 250-year-old publisher of 8,000 musical works by composers from Beethoven to contemporary composer Jörg Widmann, conductor of the Limerick-based Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Schott’s manager, Christiane Albiez, told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel that, with no venues performing works from her catalog, she and other historic music publishers are fighting for their survival. Whether you prefer Kitkat house music or a classical concert, pandemic Berlin is an exceptionally quiet place. Europe’s premier party town is grappling with a historic case of cultural cold turkey.