Whenever I’m in a darkroom bar, I find myself weaving in and out its darker recesses more than once… playing cat and mouse with hot guys I see in the bar that have seemingly disappeared by twisting through the nooks and crannies of cubbies reeking of sex and sweat from one end to the other. And usually coming back for another round. I’ve written about them before, but just like me, Berlin can’t stop coming back to its darkrooms. They’re seemingly front and centre in gay conversation as exemplified in early 2020 by a film and an (almost literal) rise from the ashes after a Behörde blockade.
First up, Germany’s Grand Homosexual Filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim brings the true story of Berlin’s 2012 serial killer Dirk P. to the big screen in his most recent outing, Darkroom: Tödliche Tropfen. The 38-year-old real-life Berlin “darkroom” killer gave three men an overdose of GHB before robbing them and leaving them to die. He went on to take his own life in prison hospital in 2014. Only two of his victims were actually killed in darkrooms, but still the mythical place takes centre-stage in the title of Von Praunheim’s last film. Thankfully, Darkroom is less a cautionary tale of what anonymous sexual encounters in these hollowed homo grounds can bring than a telling of a novel moment in Berlin’s gay history.
More recent deaths spurred the latest talking point to darkroom culture in Berlin, initiated in early 2018 when authorities started closing darkrooms as a result of three deaths caused by a fire in Steam Works’ sauna on Kurfürstenstraße all the way back in February 2017. Steam Works is now permanently closed, and among those closed in the backlash were Motzstraße staples Scheune and Tom’s Bar. All the affected bars were closed due to fire code issues. It being Berlin, the men behind our beloved desecrated dark dens got to work and now at least both Scheune and Tom’s Bar are open again for some well-controlled heat. Encouraging, since in landlord greedy Berlin any hiccup in business usually results in “Bye-bye, beloved Berlin institution”. How did the city respond to the (minor) crisis? It’s holding roundtables for club owners and city representatives to meet and work more closely together in the future. The second roundtable happened just last month. Only here, queers! For some context on how strongly Berlin stands by our anonymous sex spaces, one only needs to look to our neighbours down south in Stuttgart, where the owner of their version of world-famous leather bar The Eagle had to bow to pressure and announce it would operate without a darkroom after authorities cited a threat to morality (this was later retracted and accompanied by an apology from Stuttgart’s Green Party mayor Fritz Kuhn).
In Berlin, we like our darkrooms like our Spätis on Sundays: open. And a few reminders of the very small chance of danger in the darkroom won’t keep us away – it just keeps darkrooms in the public discourse. And that does remind me… I haven’t been to one in a few weeks now!