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The Berlin Beard Club: Jürgen Draheim (center). Photo by Marta Domínguez
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Freedom Brothers: Christian Wölbeling (left). Photo by Marta Domínguez
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Club Culture Houze. Photo by Marta Domínguez
Club Culture Houze
Even post-gender Berlin has its share of “Men only” signs. From fathers to fraternities to fisting, we found our way inside five temples of testosterone.
Step into the cosy Neukölln pub Zum Heinzelmann and you might be treated to an unusual sight: a group of men with beards, two-piece suits and black hats, all wearing hammer-shaped earrings and carrying walking sticks. Who are they?
‘When we walked into a new city, the first thing people thought was that we were dancers or performers.” Christian Wölbeling is a retired journeyman from the Freiheitsschacht (Freedom Brothers, one of seven such societies in the country), a brotherhood of craftsmen (carpenters, masons, roofers and so on) aged 30-78 who have all been on the so-called ‘Walz’, plying their trade wherever they go. They are Wandergesellen or journeymen, participants in a noble tradition dating back to the Middle Ages when artisans would leave their hometown to become masters of their craft.
“I think it’s really good for growing up,” says Wölbeling. “When I wear the clothes to the bar, I always hope a young craftsman will see me and follow me.” As a member of the Freedom Brothers, he sports a small red scarf around his neck, a relic of the brotherhood’s communist sympathies during Weimar times.
The society follows a strict set of rules. Wandergesellen must be single, childless and debt-free. Their journey must take at least three years and one day. Their few belongings are bundled into a 80x80cm cloth (the “Charlottenburger”) and can’t contain anything other than their uniform, tools, a sleeping bag, a book and the ‘Stenz’, their trademark walking stick.
I can't say it wouldn't be good with women also, but I like it the way it is, with my brothers.
Their ear is pierced by an older Geselle with a hammer and hand-made nail, traditionally so that the valuable silver or gold earring can pay for a funeral if they die in their travels. “I drank a bottle of vodka and placed my ear on a bench,” says Wölbeling.
The journey can take them halfway around the world – Wölbeling’s been everywhere from Canada to Mongolia. Being auf der Walz isn’t a walk in the park, and Wölbeling had his bad days, although he got in “surprisingly little trouble” during the five years he was journeying. “Germany was actually the worst,” he says.
When a Geselle gets hungry, he can go to the nearest bakery and recite a secret poem, whereupon the baker has to give him food. “It’s never been written down anywhere and I will not tell you what it is. Unfortunately it only works in German-speaking countries,” Wölbeling explains with a laugh.
The tradition has gone through hard times, both under the Nazis, where Wandergesellen were persecuted because of their links to communism, and in the GDR. After the Wall came down, there was a revival. Today around 500 journeymen are travelling around the world, though the exact number isn’t known.
Although modern times have brought in a few ‘sisters’ among Gesellen, Wölbeling’s brotherhood is a strictly male affair. “We don’t allow women in the Freedom Brothers. I can’t say it wouldn’t be good with women also, but I like it the way it is, with my brothers,” he says with a crooked smile.
Meet the journeymen on the last Saturday of every month at Zum Heinzelmann on Karl-Marx-Platz 14 in Neukölln. AFK
The bearded brotherhood
What could be more manly than an organisation dedicated to face fuzz? Founded in 1996 by president Lutz Giese, the 1. Berliner Bart Club is the only beard and moustache club in Berlin. It’s the smallest club of its kind in Germany, but its 13 members take their organisation very seriously.
For such a small branch of beard-and-moustache enthusiasts, the group collectively holds an impressive list of titles. It’s the organisation’s monthly meeting and round the table is a collage of dark, grey and white beards (which can be curled, braided and manicured into zany shapes for the ‘freestyle’ category), moustaches, side-cabinets and mutton chops. In-house moustache master Karl-Heinz Hille won two World Champion titles in his category with the gravity-defying ‘Imperial’ beard-moustache combo.
Here, amidst the smoky setting of the ‘Uh-Lander’ pub in Wilmersdorf, outlandish facial hair is not a laughing matter. It is a competitive sport, it’s a passion and most of all – it’s a way of life. At what point does one decide to turn facial hair into an art form? President Lutz Giese recalls how as a child he saw photos of his ancestors proudly sporting beards and moustaches and knew that he too would grow a beard himself one day.
Theoretically, if he had seen a photo of his great-grandfather in ice skates, he might be a gold-medal Olympian by now, but instead he holds an accolade far superior. As well as several first-place titles, he recently scooped silver in the ‘Fu Manchu’ moustache category at the 2012 National Beard and Moustache Championships held this year in Las Vegas on November 11, losing only to a man who had the insight to style his mustachioed tendrils into ringlets.
For the group’s members, ostentatious facial hair is a symbol of much more than just masculine vanity. The club’s auditor and assessor, Jürgen Draheim (owner of a ‘Musketeer’-style moustache), says, “It was a rebellion against my parents. I went on a school trip when I was 18, and didn’t shave the whole time I was gone. When I returned, I kept growing it into a beard” – an appendage that wasn’t considered ‘proper’ at the time.
The desire to ‘be different’ seems to ring true for many of the club’s other members. The men, who range in age from 45 to 70, hold ordinary jobs outside their bearded commitments, but still find time for grooming – up to an hour before a championship.
“Young men have no patience,” says Draheim. “They say to me, ‘I want to have a beard like yours!’ but as soon as they’re faced with styling and upkeep they get bored and shave it off,” Patience is a virtue. So before you write off beards and moustaches for the hard work they entail, consider the advantages of joining the club: the looks of admiration and wonder, the travel opportunities and most of all, the money you’ll save on razors. HS
Penetrating the inner circle
As with just about any sex club, the entrance to Club Culture Houze is unremarkable. It’d be easy to mistake it for just another Kreuzberg Kneipe. In fact, an American colleague did just that on a previous Friday, stumbling into the weekly “Fist Factory” night only to get turned away on the spot: no women allowed on fisting Fridays.
A few seconds after we ring the doorbell, a man in his thirties with a shaved head wearing only white Adidas-style shiny shorts steps out and gives us the once-over twice, blocking the doorframe. Following a quick explanation – we know the bartender; yes indeed, we’re here for the game – he breaks into an understanding smile and leads us in. The €7.60 door price was converted from deutschmarks in 2002 and apparently hasn’t changed since.
It’s 9:30pm, but the small, dimly lit club is already quite packed. “The fisters are always early,” we had been warned. There’s a love seat and a screen playing porn to get patrons in the mood. Above the bar towers a mounted lion’s head alongside a portrait of a young, handsome man with a mohawk – recently deceased owner Bernd Sass, who started the club in 1997. His friend Veronika now rules the premises. The cosy atmosphere could be that of a hipster bar in Neukölln, but a look around dismisses the comparison.
Downstairs access means shirts off," he says. After stripping to the waist, we follow the denizens down into a cavernous chamber...
The men here are no Weekday-skinny-jeans dressers. What little they are wearing is made of rubber or leather – chest harnesses, chaps, black boots, and in the absence of pants, cock rings. One fellow sporting crotchless trousers lightly strokes his pierced penis, and it’s suddenly apparent that we’re wearing way too much – like tofu in a steakhouse, we are not the real meat. Confirming this, the bartender takes us aside and, over the thudding techno music, informs us that these men are here to leave their daily lives behind and immerse themselves in a world of pleasure... something we’re making more difficult. “Downstairs access means shirts off,” he says.
After stripping to the waist, we follow the denizens down into a cavernous chamber decorated with rubber jungle fauna and illuminated only by black and red lights.
A gynecologist’s chair, presently unmanned, is nestled against a corner, small cushions are set against a wall and the stairs are flanked by two alcoves from which moans and grunts are already escaping. It’s all surprisingly clean and odour-free, even the toilets.
A group of men sit around, waiting their turn or for a suitor. They are mostly middle-aged and reasonably fit – like construction workers with better pubic grooming. They chat with the familiarity of a knitting circle. Everyone seems to know each other in just about every sense of the word.
In an adjoining room, eight or nine playful ‘pigs’ (extreme sex fiends) are crowded around one honoured macho lying on a bench splattered with lube and other substances. His heavy set legs are propped up and his thick neck is bulging from a mix of effort and pleasure. Below him, his skinny, bald partner slides his latex-gloved fist in and out. Eventually the fister brings his mouth into the mix, eliciting deep, echoing groans from his burly fist-ee. As the action comes to a climax, they slow their movements to a halt. A gentle kiss on the lips brings a close to the intimate act.
They pay us little attention – our outsider status won’t burst their euphoric bubble, but nor will we be allowed into it. This club is a grown-up men’s affair, that can only be penetrated with time, trust and sensitivity.
Further down, the hallway opens to a darkroom where a muscular, older man with cropped gray hair cleans his partner’s genitals while sticking an interchanging number of fingers inside him. A man on a sex swing bars our entry without even a word. Time to leave.
“These men come early, but certainly don’t leave early. They take forever,” our bartender complains. It’s a few minutes past midnight when we decide to take off, leaving behind the fisting party in full swing. It will continue on, deep into every Friday night. FV
Frat boys gone ‘right’
Law students at the Free University of Berlin were receiving their diplomas at a ceremony on October 26. Among the attendees were four young men in militaristic uniforms. With their orange caps and black jackets, they looked like cadets, but in fact they belonged to one of Germany’s old-fashioned, right-wing student associations, or Burschenschaften – leftover “men’s clubs” in today’s Berlin.
Their presence at the ceremony caused a scandal. A student protested into the microphone – he couldn’t accept people from an “association that still requires an Aryan certificate!” Later, the head of the university wrote that the society’s uniforms should not be tolerated anywhere on campus.
Burschenschaften have always been nationalistic, anti-French and anti-semitic.
Neo-Nazi sects? Not exactly. But these German “fraternities”, started as liberal patriotic collectives in the early 19th century, are much more problematic than their American counterparts.
“Burschenschaften have always been nationalistic, anti-French and anti-Semitic,” says Timo Meier, the anti-fascist officer of the student government of the Free University. “They are elitist and sexist, and many of them are right-wing extremists.”
Meier has demanded the dissolution of all Burschenschaften. “About 300 people protested against the national meeting of the Burschenschaften in Eisenach this summer,” he explains. The student government published a free pamphlet attacking the right-wing associations.
There are only half a dozen Burschenschaften in Berlin – none of whom agreed to a visit from Exberliner – but their networks are influential. Besides the students who live at the house (called the “Aktivias”), there are also the former students (“Alt-Herren”) who pay for everything.
These “old men” include Bild editor Kai Diekmann, federal transportation minister Peter Ramsauer and Berlin’s Minister of Social Affairs, Michael Büge from the conservative party CDU. Büge is a member of “Gothia”, the same group that caused the scandal at the Free University, The social democratic youth have called on him to resign, and he is considering giving up his Burschenschaft membership.
At the moment, the national association Deutsche Burschenschaft (DB) is on the verge of splitting, with a more liberal wing objecting to the majority’s refusal to distance themselves from fascists. “In the last two years, they have gotten back in the news” because many refuse to accept non-Germans as members, Meier explained, and “today they have less than 10,000 members”.
Besides their political positions, they are also kind of strange. Their uniforms include colourful sashes and sometimes sabers, and many require that their members practice fencing, including getting a scar called a “Mensur” on the cheek. If you are looking for a room in a fancy old house with cheap rent, most Berlin Burschenschaften advertise they accept applications. But if you’re not German, don’t get your hopes up. JR
Cabal of fathers
It’s Tuesday night and a group of seven men huddle around a low table in a room that could be a kindergarten, decked out with a plush sofa, boxes of toys and a flip chart.
They are dads. They have entered this female-free zone – an advice centre for fathers – to talk about the emotional, legal and financial toll of family separation. Breaking the solemn silence of the AA-style circle, the moderator, an outdoorsy type in a black fleece, places some bottles of Bionade on the tables and introduces himself as Andreas. Herr Siegel, an expert from the local child services office with a seen-it-all air about him, is also at hand to help out with advice tonight. With minimal small talk, Andreas asks newcomers to briefly outline their situation.
Jens, a lean man in his late thirties with pressed, pleated trousers, begins: “Five years ago, we spent a holiday with our three children and another couple. After a week, my wife had fallen in love with the other woman. She took the kids out of school for a road trip with her lover, then they settled down together.” After five years of living apart and chaotic child care arrangements, they’re still not divorced. “I have a new partner, but now she tells me she wants me back...”
Next is Ralph, a 49-year-old with a long, thin nose and sad, nervous eyes – you could imagine him as a world-weary Tatort detective. “When I went to pick up my kids from my ex and her new partner, they told me they don’t want to see me. The mother isn’t sticking to our visitation agreement. I don’t know what to do.”
Last is Mario, a short, 40-ish bearded guy with the ageing skateboarder look: “My wife and I have decided to separate, but we don’t have enough money to move out. It’s hell. My seven-year-old son is really suffering.”
The group plunges into the work of Kollegiale Beratung – peer counselling. One by one, the three newbies describe their cases in more detail – the court battles, the frustration, the despair. Group brainstorming produces phrases that Andreas jots on the flip chart – “guilty feelings towards the children”, “coping with a queer family situation”, “financial strain” and so on. Each man picks keywords that he feels are most relevant, and the others suggest possible paths of action.
“You need to think about what is best for you!” seems to come up again and again.
A plan for Jens is to “get everything into a written separation agreement in order to move along the path to divorce”. Ralph is advised to “try to initiate a meeting with the mother and a mediator”. For Mario, Andreas proposes the rather avant-garde “nest model” – the family gets two flats, the kid stays in one of them and the parents take turns staying with the kid – though Herr Siegel adds that he’s seen this model work only once in his entire career. Mario reaps praise from the entire group for “looking for help” so early in his family crisis.
After two hours of peer guidance, the cabal of fathers disbands. The men leave as quietly as they arrived, returning to their difficult lives with the knowledge that they are not alone in their despondency. SG