'It's an absurd profession': the world's most infamous bouncers tell all

They have a fearsome reputation for excluding eager clubbers – but as a documentary about Berlin’s doormen is released, three of them explain why their policies are ‘all about tolerance’

The door policies for Berlin’s nightclubs are some of the most talked about in the world. Online forums detail appropriate clothing, what to say and how to act in line in order to get in. In the German capital, bouncers don’t just play the role of security, but also curator, sussing out who can handle the extreme depths of hedonism and who might gawk or yuck at what they see.

Today, far removed from the sexual freedom, relentless techno and ample substance use that defines Berlin’s nightlife, I’m sitting in a plain white room with grey carpet and unforgiving lights. Across from me are three men who’ve become infamous for this curation, playing a key part in creating the renowned and secretive door policies. They’re the subject of a new documentary, Berlin Bouncer, by German film-maker David Dietl: a humanising look at people who have reached this bizarre level of celebrity.

“In the early 90s all I did was party,” says Sven Marquardt, the face-tattooed doorman of the city’s most revered club, Berghain. “Just party non-stop.” Coming from the east Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Marquardt spent his youth photographing the counterculture communities in communist Germany. When the wall fell, he was eager to embrace the heightened freedom that lay on the other side; going out so frequently ended up landing him a door job.

The trailer for Berlin Bouncer – video.

The two men sitting beside him followed the same path: finding fun and then employment in the lawless DIY parties that occupied the city’s squats and abandoned buildings. Frank Künster moved from Herzhausen to Berlin for university before nightlife eclipsed his studies – he worked at now-defunct clubs like Cookies and Delicious Donuts before becoming the bouncer and eventually owner of King Size Bar, which shut its doors in 2017. Smiley Baldwin, an ex-American GI who was stationed at the east-west border, also did a long spell at Cookies, and now owns his own security company.

Berlin Bouncer pulls back the curtain to reveal the personal histories and artistic ambitions of these figures, and the realities of living and ageing in a city once again undergoing rapid change. Künster is filmed putting logs of wood on his fire, Baldwin going home to visit family, Marquardt shopping for black designer T-shirts: these mundane moments are reminders of the regular people that stand between clubbers and a weekend of debauchery.

“It’s an absurd profession,” Künster explains in the film. “I’m giving people something. That’s why people give me positive attention.” While he seems to enjoy this significantly more than the other two, not shy to share pictures of young girls flashing him at the door, all three are keenly aware of how temporary the admiration is. “You have to separate between private and professional life, fake and real friends,” Marquardt says in a soft Berlin accent. “Sometimes people approach me or yell from the queue: ‘Hey, Sven we took a picture together once, remember?’ and I have no recollection of that person whatsoever.”

Secretive door policy ... Berghain, Berlin’s most revered nightclub.
Secretive door policy ... Berghain, Berlin’s most revered nightclub. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex

While some people could view door policies in Berlin – which rely mainly on a bouncers’ intuition to decide who comes and goes – as infuriatingly exclusive or absurdly random, others view bouncers as the original stewards of safe spaces. Marquardt says he has “a responsibility towards the guests and protecting their freedom of expression. I try to create an environment where no one feels threatened by their sexual orientation and disposition. What’s important is the combination of different people. If ‘curated’ well, then I am sure you can say it’s political. It’s all about tolerance.”

‘It’s an absurd profession’ ... Frank Künster.
‘It’s an absurd profession’ ... Frank Künster. Photograph: Flare Film GmbH

Marquardt insists my use of the word “curation” makes them sound pompous, but all agree that the most satisfying part of the job is when they know the people they’ve selected fit perfectly together, and the night has been euphoric as a result. “When you see the crowd inside, and what you curated rises up into ecstasy, and you know you played a part in that, that’s special,” Künster says.

As Berlin goes through another period of regeneration, with people from wealthier German states, western Europe and north America pouring in to get their taste of the wild weekends and cheap rent, many wonder if its nightlife will survive another increase in gentrification. Courts may have ruled that Berghain must receive the same generous tax breaks as other German cultural institutions such as museums and theatres, but smaller venues face problems unique to Berlin, as Baldwin explains.

“Most big cities have a party area where all the club licenses are given out, and everything’s there. Berlin, on the other hand, allowed the licensing to be done just about everywhere. And if a neighbour says that the music is too loud, even if the neighbour moved in after the club, the person who is complaining has the right.” (A residential noise complaint ended up being the nail in the coffin for Künster’s King Size Bar.)

‘It’s all about youth culture and youth power’ ... Smiley Baldwin.
‘It’s all about youth culture and youth power’ ... Smiley Baldwin. Photograph: Flare Film GmbH

“A city’s party scene is inevitably shaped by its slickness and gentrification,” Marquardt says. “The more gentrified, the more slick, the more boring the city’s party scene.” He cites a recent trip to Australia. “In Sydney, for example, there simply is nothing going on.”

They now see the DIY energy that carved out Berlin’s niche cropping up in neighbouring countries. “Eastern Europe has a thriving, wonderful club scene that is somewhat reminiscent of Berlin in the 90s,” Marquardt explains. “Belgrade and Tbilisi are amazing for partying right now.” And in their own city, they remain optimistic that a new generation of club kids will carry the torch. “It’s all about youth culture and youth power, and it always was all about youth culture and youth power,” Baldwin says. “I just hope it keeps going. I want to find my space within that power.”

The interview wraps up, and I leave with Marquardt down the long staircase of the Berlinale Palast theatre. The staff guarding each floor joke with each other: “Should we let him in?” It’s a gag he’s all too aware of. “I always imagine when I depart from this life, I’ll enter an intermediate circle of hell. Like a Hieronymus Bosch painting,” he laughs in the film. “I’ll have to repeatedly knock. And they’ll say, “No. Not you.’”

• Berlin Bouncer is out now.

Maya-Roisin Slater

The GuardianTramp

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