Sven Marquardt is a true Berlin Original. He is the bouncer at Berghain, arguably Berlin’s most famous club, and a photographer who used to be a punk. And although Berghain now tends to attract tourists willing to queue for hours to get a glimpse of the place that epitomized Berlin’s cool at the turn of the millennium, Mr. Marquardt, who decides who gets in to the club and who gets turned away according to a code that clubbers worldwide spend hours trying to crack, still has a legendary reputation. His biography, “Nacht ist Leben, ” which translates as The Night is Life, but has a working title “Shadows and Lights,” was published recently in Germany. He lives in Berlin’s former East, in the district of Pankow.
Tagesspiegel: Mr Marquardt, you just visited New York for the first time. What image do you have of the city?
Sven Marquardt: The way we drove in from New York’s JFK airport. We saw a bridge with monumental pillars, to the left we saw a huge cemetery and on the other side of the river I saw the Manhattan sky line in the sunlight of the last days of summer. I sat in my cab, completely exhausted and thought to myself: someone pinch me.
Some people say Berlin is the new New York.
On my return flight, I fell asleep right before the touch down in Berlin. The city suddenly looked tiny.
But Berlin has become more international.
I agree. In Williamsburg, this hipster part of Brooklyn, I had the feeling that I was walking through the queues outside the Berghain…
… the legendary club at which you are a bouncer.
Everyone wore exactly the same stuff as in Berlin. Full beards, shaven heads, tattoos, and oversized shirts with plunging necklines.
Was it a dream, when you lived in the GDR, to travel to the United States?
In the 80s this was a topic in my conversations with Robert…
You mean Robert Paris, the son of the photographer Helga Paris, who has been a close friend of yours…
We had the lines from a song by Nina Hagen in our heads: “New York City is the hottest place
For a honeymoon in a hotel room.” I don’t want to live there but I think that because the city is so tough, people challenge themselves to see if they can survive there.
You write: When I see pictures of myself back then, I always look so defiant.
We were young, arrogant and snotty. That’s why nothing bad ever happened to us.
What do you mean by that?
In my Stasi file there is a section in which an officer described my personality. It wasn’t wrong, per se, but it weirdly written: “Sven Marquardt has no political attitude despite his punk outfit. He takes pictures of young men who could be homosexuals in his apartment.”
So you never posed a threat to the state. Did you find out who spied on you?
No, I didn’t want to know. I only looked at the part of the file which talked about my job, not about my family.
You went in front of the camera at age 16, as a model.
In my book I wrote that I wanted to work for Dior, but instead I ended up at Hertie (once one of Germany’s biggest department stores), I didn’t get taken on by a fashion house because I was too short. I was only allowed to do department store shows.
Did modeling fit in with your lifestyle as a punk?
I became a punk at age 18 when I had had enough of over-sweet sparkling wine. As a model I had long and blow-dried hair. It suited my lifestyle, to earn cash on the side, and to hang out in bars and make contacts. It was easy money.
At the end of the 80s you were not allowed in Berlin-Mitte (a district in central Berlin) because of your looks. Did you ever think about cutting your hair?
I tried that towards the end of the 80s when I was drunk, using a hair trimmer that didn’t work properly. My hair was so tangled from teasing my hair and using hairspray. Oh my God, it was torture.
You were once cited as saying: “The camera was just a means to soak up my unfulfilled desires.” Suddenly Germany reunified and you stopped taking photographs. Did the West overwhelm you?
No, I had just had enough of it. I think that we as people from the East were still dealing with the issues of the the GDR until the mid-90s. We disowned our homeland, the GDR. I never wanted to be defined as being from the East. We lacked self confidence. I didn’t want to seen as as a grey mouse who stood in line for bananas and the “welcome money” (which was given to East Germans after the Wall fell.) I wanted be part of the scene.
You never left Berlin. What keeps you here – your two cats?
Definitely familiarity. My colleagues, my friends. On 9 November I have an exhibition in Turin and many of my friends from Berlin will come, just for me. That’s what keeps me grounded.
Let’s be honest: you don’t want to leave Berlin because you fear the unknown.
I thought about this before. Maybe I need an anchor because of my unusual looks. And maybe that is something that Berlin can be for me: a piece of bourgeoisie.
This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. The author specializes in music and culture. To contact the author: email@example.com