The train announces Orianenplatz and a worn-out Oma stirs her head. Between the shoulder pads of her winter coat she watches Berlin’s barren forest splinter behind the glass, and a young couple flirt over a pair of bikes. As the train crescendos into the last station she departs the RB22 carriage onto the pristinely paved station. The train continues to the departure point of Sauchsenhousen: Berlin’s largest concentration camp.
Past the gra ti-licked walls of Kotbossur Tor a young group of Middle Eastern men collect by the bannister. Down the rain and cigarette soaked stairwells, they violently begin to shout and pull out their phones.
In the centre of the crowd a young Turkish man clutches at his thigh and sits in a pool of raspberry-coloured blood. Sirens begin to wail as unassuming passengers pour down the opposite steps. A traveller picks up a sticky bun from the underground bakery before her journey.
The Berlin U-Bahn has many faces and a varied history. The U-Bahn is the capital city’s holy underground railway – but it’s also a world where addicts and enforcers frighten the everyday passenger into only skirting the law, and not completely disregarding it. The trains and their manic inhabitants flirt with cultural taboos and can teach a travelling tourist the laws which bind them.
Firstly, Berlin’s train systems carry over 500 million passengers each year. The first station, Stammstrecke, was built at the end of the nineteenth century and the current system has expanded into 170 stops from the a uent West to the jittering East.
For those unknowing to the social climate of Berlin, the fall of the wall in 1989 reopened the East of the city from 30 years of Soviet exclusion and the wreckage of World War II. A huge party of national reunification – featuring a tinsel-covered David Hassellho – fuelled the pent-up spirit of Eastern-Berlin and the city exploded.
The trains began to dutifully connect the city again. With Germany’s growing liberal legislations after the harshness of the Soviet and Third Reich rule, the U-Bahn became tantamount to the typical “Berlin experience.”
“Yeah I’m going to take you to a proper Berlin party, and it’ll be a late one so I’m guessing eight AM… Of course there will be techno.”
– Berlin experience defined by a local.
The nonstop Friday to Sunday trains are dotted with these expired partiers, but you aren’t exempt from seeing them during the working week. The U-Bahn connects
the ritzy bar area of Rosenthaler Platz to the abandoned warehouses of Jannowitzbrücke, where establishments like the infamous Berghain and About Blank reside.
These clubs don’t enforce the harshest of club policies and are legally permitted to stay open well into the next day. The state’s lax liberalism is Eden’s garden of freedoms, and a zoo.
This relaxed dogma also infiltrates the utopian underground, as a positive social see-saw is demonstrated by commuters disregarding the legal restrictions of food, alcohol and animals within stations and trains. Dogs without legislated muzzles trot through the U-Bahn and their owners willingly allow pats from strangers, while numerous blue-collared workers sit with a beer planted between their feet, and swig from it when they deem fit. As we hit Kotbussor Tor, hoards of coated-up kids ready themselves for a night of clubbing before taking one last drag of their cigarette and exhaling into the carriage. No one bats an eye.
As these groups become dangerously rambunctious, rowdy and rattier, the see-saw wanes. As gangs
of KAPPA track-panted junkies step into the carriage, caution is evoked and eyes are lowered. Organised crime and drug smuggling gained significance in the U-Bahn through the 80’s, but today it’s a crucible for the illicit Eastern European market and Berlin’s 200,000 high-risk drug users. This drug tra c is audible from the hooded dealers muttering “Marijuana? Ecstasy? Cocaine?”and the travelling sweat-slicked heroin addicts, ino ensive marijuana smokers and unassuming passengers are on the receiving end of these questions.
But the German government places a lot of trust in its passengers. Like the buses and trams, the U-Bahn runs on an honour system and there are no barriers prohibiting a person without a ticket. These passes can be purchased from a beaten-looking machine from two euros fifty, but if you shirk the system you run the risk of being nabbed by a plain clothed, and highly impatient, Kontrolleur. Kontrolleur, German for controller, are the outsourced employees of Berlin’s major transport company – the profane BVG – who can issue crippling fines up to 60 Euros for illegally riding the trains.
These underground enforcers had humbled my Berlin experience and demonstrated the social see-saw of what’s acceptable and what’s not. For a period my boyfriend and I belonged to the 4 per cent that annually travelled without tickets, but this was before we heard a projected and pronounced “tickets please” on the train one day.
Commuters began rifling through their pockets and we looked at each other in immediate defeat. A stout Kontroller neared our side of the train, and fully aware of our immediate apprehension, we attempted to cajole him: “Sorry we’re tourists, we don’t know what we’re doing and um and uh and um and uh uh.” He saw through it. “Get o the train!” He replied.
However, the 30-year-old Turkish man whom we hadn’t noticed caught our attention and without a word of English he told us stay seated. “Don’t worry,” his hands beckoned. Confused and caught out we hesitated, but the Kontroller could see us stuttering at our seats and verbally yanked us o the train: “STAND UP NOW.” We were then fined and berated while my boyfriend sneakily took sips of his beer beneath his jacket.
It’s crucial to the social see-saw that the Kontrollers are this intimidating. In a place that o ers complete freedoms, a strong enforcer keeps its travellers from completely abusing the system and not crossing the culturally established line. The Kontrollers that will bust you for not having a ticket are part of the same system that can turn a blind eye when you drink on the platform.
Paws, bikes, and brutes travel down the U-Bahn steps everyday. Enforcers like the Kontrollers man the exits while junkies shoot up to speeding trains. Hooded figures run from the tunnels while women scream Anti-Muslim sentiment at carriage screens. Berlin’s lax liberalism does reign free, but it’s ultimately up to the traveller to discern where the appropriate line is and if they have the guts to cross it.
Words and image by Angela Skujins