“You cannot really describe what happened at that time, during this cultural revolution, that’s so special about it. But I would say there was an incredible curiosity for the future.” Paul van Dyk, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“If I hadn’t had this Tresor family, I would have had much more problems to reposition in this new, reunificated Germany.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The documentary “Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor” is a fascinating insight into the social and cultural geography of post-Berlin Wall, Berlin and its dynamic interrelationship with urban political economy. There is a narrative here of a moment in which a youth subcultural mass came to experience and negotiate the transitioning space of a city through a radical appropriation of music and place.
i. Discovering the place of Tresor, and unravelling its space and time
In its heyday of the 1920s, the traffic intersection of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz was a space of motion and interaction emblematic of the age of modernity. It was a thoroughfare for trade and a centre for nightlife; a place of commerce and a hub of artistic creativity. Largely destroyed during the Second World War, Potsdamer Platz went on to become the “no man’s land” of a divided Berlin: a local barren place symbolic of the bipolar national and global space of the Cold War. When the Wall came down, in those early years of 1990, 1991 and 1992, Potsdamer Platz remained an urban desert.
“One day we were in a traffic jam at Potsdamer Platz … and we were going: every building here is empty, there must be some place to open a club. And Achim just went: what about over there? … At the front there were some barred windows to the cellar … we opened it and 40 to 50 year old air was coming out. We went downstairs with a lighter and we came into the room. … It was unbelievable.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“It was like the walls were talking to me. And then I saw the lockers with the numbers on. I was thinking about the life stories behind them, about the joyful moments and family tragedies.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The Tresor underground techno club was formed in March 1991. It was situated on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte, the former centre of East Berlin, next to Potsdamer Platz. Tresor occupied the vaults of the once Wertheim department store of Leipziger Platz, which was destroyed in the Second World War. Wertheim was one of the largest and most lavish department stores in the world.
“It reached from Wilhelmstrasse to Leipziger Platz and the basement had the same size. On the historical pictures you can see big storage boxes in the room where the dancefloor is now. And in the lockers there were probably lots of documents – none left!” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“During World War II the whole area between the Reich Air Force Ministry and the Reichstag was actually a complete underground city. Streets with four lanes, connection tunnels going from here to there. … In case of bombing attacks the staff just went four levels down and could still operate in the bunkers. And now we were next door.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
ii. Early Tresor: a convergent and transcendent space of an ‘in-between’ Berlin
“You have to look at the time that Tresor was founded in and how it developed. That’s not something you could create artificially. It happened after the fall of the Wall and it was the only club that was instantly accepted by both the East and the West people.” Regina, Tresor management (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall, Berlin became an extraordinary liminal space. Amidst a blurred legality / illegality and a confused urban political economy (‘who owns what?’) Tresor was born.
“In 1990 … it was wild, no laws, the police didn’t know what was legal and what wasn’t. Back then we broke into a lot of spaces and the police was just watching, because they didn’t know whom it belonged to, they thought we might have old ownership rights or whatever – nobody cared. It was just normal to open every basement and to have a glance inside.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“We seized the moment and also it was partly impossible to get permissions, because the authorities simply didn’t exist.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
In its early days, Tresor became home to a pioneering youth subculture that both transcended the East and the West and converged East Berliners and West Berliners on their own terms.
“You have to keep in mind that Berlin was more affected by the fall of the Wall than any other town. The city had become twice as big overnight. It was total chaos in 1990: the states were not reunified yet, officially it was still the GDR. We could already get in, but it was still a separate state.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“With the fall of the Wall in 1989 you really had to have guts to discover the East for yourself. You had to be brave to go over there, because nobody knew whether the situation would stay stable or would turn and become dangerous. You just had to go in and dare something.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“Both cultures clashed into each other and Techno seemed to be the connection. … It was equally new for both sides, for East and West, and that was the basis for a common understanding. The stereotype of the arrogant guy from the West didn’t exist anymore, because in this we were all unexperienced.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“Everybody was equal, there was no age difference, no dress code, everybody could do what they wanted to. And people wouldn’t directly ask whether you came from the East or West.” Mareen, early guest to Tresor from East Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
iii. Tresor: born of globalisation and killed by globalisation?
“It was the time of the first Gulf War, one was irritated by many of the news and in general there was a lot of technology in the air. You heard of some ground-to-air missiles, and at the same time I read everything of William Gibson, all these things fit together. You had this technological, this technical music, the news, the lectures, then the fractal theory, the chaos theory … Around ’89 / ’90 you had Acid parties in Berlin, very much influenced from England of course, because that kind of music came from England. For example early stuff from The Prodigy. You had a lot of breakbeat, the straight four-four time came with Detroit.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The end of the Cold War and collapse of Stalinist totalitarianism, along with the triumph of US imperialism, led to a reordering of the world in the early 1990s. By the mid to late 1990s, access to advances in information and communications technology and the emergence of cheap air travel were changing our perceptions and experiences of space and time. Tresor and Berlin techno were a unique local product of globalisation, with a special interlocution with Detroit.
“The whole House music thing came from the States. From Disco to House. Then the guys from Detroit brought more electronic stuff in and pushed it further.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
While early 1990s Berlin was a liminal space, the relations and forces of capital had well and truly moved in by the turn of a new century. The land that Tresor was on / in was sold by the city government to a property developer in 2001 for 20 million euros, and the developer invested 70 million euros in a project that included Tresor’s demolition. Tresor held its last night in the vaults on Leipziger Strasse in April 2005.
“Anyway, here in Tresor, treasures were born. How can they alone blow up the treasure chamber? For the sake of financial concepts? There must be something wrong with the idea of property! An error in the control centre!” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
iv. Techno Berlin: the sound of the city
The sound of Berlin techno echoes the city’s urban landscape – its post-Berlin Wall building sites, and its perennial grime and graffiti. Techno in Berlin is known for its really strong beat. It is best described as ‘bangy’, and for a reason.
“The sound was radical and unlimited and excessive just like the fall of the Wall.” Mark Reeder, MFS Records, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“The kids had a desire to celebrate their new freedom and we just had the right soundtrack.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)