George Markakis’ film uses a cast of real-life partiers to truthfully portray Berlin’s nightlife, its communities, and the drug culture fuelling it
Berlin’s pleasure-seeking corners have a mythical reputation. The city’s subculture is famously secretive, still we’re familiar with the spaces it offers to escape in; spaces where the boundaries of everyday life seem to dissolve, and unhinged hedonism springs up instead. Spaces to lose yourself, find yourself, and where connectivity, sex and delirium breed under a cocktail of intoxicants. The most storied case is probably the club dancefloor. Much less in the spotlight is the engine room of the club the world over: its toilet cubicles, accommodating an endless churn of sticky bodies, substances, and over-sharing.
EX, a film by 46-year-old George Markakis, opens the door to this hedonistic hub. An artefact of a fiercely guarded scene, EX is a raw portrayal of Berlin nightlife, its communities, and the drug culture fuelling it. The idea for the film arose in 2018 when Markakis, a Berlin-based director originally from Crete, met 38-year-old Diana Kleimenova. Diana is a striking fixture of the sex club Kitkat where she works, who would become a central character in EX. “We fell in love instantly,” Diana tells me, “and after a few hours together we decided to make the film.” Both familiar with the claustrophobic high of the cubicle experience, they were particularly interested in the idea of the cubicle as a confessional space, of tight-walled intoxication fast-tracking a sense of connection. To Diana, talking to strangers in a club toilet while on drugs can be therapeutic: “it’s like psychoanalysis with people who don't judge me, plus it's free.”
Featuring a cast of real club ‘lifers’, EX is set over one night of self-destruction. The footage actually came together across six months in 2018. During this time the EX team spent weekends creating a wild private party every Sunday. They hired an empty warehouse venue and filled it with cast, crew and friends. The team engineered everything you’d expect from a typical Berlin club experience and an intimate group – as well as a wealth of substances on hand, provided by the production – kept the party ticking over in the backstage area. People filtered in and out over the time-warping sessions, while the cast bundled into cubicles with a camera.
From the offset, the film is a rush of euphoric nonsense, and like a great night out, it ultimately reveals something deeper, exploring the power of finding your people in an isolating society. Before its screening as part of Berlinale’s European film market, we spoke to the cast and crew about shooting a movie when you’re stupidly high, and whether there’s a deeper significance to all this over-indulgence.
THE CAST AND CREW HAVE A LONG HISTORY WITH BERLIN’S NIGHTLIFE
George: I’m kind of an outsider in Berlin’s club scene, with no intention to be in the spotlight. I love to hate this city – Berlin was an accident, I’m still trying to understand why I moved in here. After EX, the truth is clearer; freedom, people, music. The city made me what I am right now. I discovered myself and (the cast of EX), and I got inspired to make the film. In Berlin’s nightlife you can find the most interesting people in the world.
Diana: When I moved to Berlin in 2014, I had a strong feeling that something in me needed to be freed. I needed to express myself. Starting over in Berlin, I was looking for the right environment to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and the trauma from an oppressive environment. I started working at Kitkat club in 2015, and it’s given me the freedom and stability I needed. I feel lucky for the balance I found. Berlin is a tough city to find a stable ground for yourself.
THEY FILMED FOR DAYS ON END IN AN EMPTY CLUB
Mor Shauli (videographer): The cast were arriving at the shoot after partying. Some members of the cast were partying for three days in a row and stopping by the set pretty much whenever they felt like. The backstage crew was at the space preparing the atmosphere and scenes for hours prior. The vibe was so intense and trippy – I can't even remember how many hours we were there in total. There were no windows and I was losing sense of time. It was like going to Berghain, when you're finally out of the club and slowly realise you are jet lagged in reality. For sure, I wish to do my future films in sober surroundings!
Diana: As soon as you arrived on the set of EX, there was a euphoric community feeling that connected everyone. We were shooting on Sundays when the whole of Berlin is partying. On Saturday night I would work my shift at Kitkat Club and afterwards take a cab to the shoot. I’d have breakfast with the EX team and the talents who joined for the day. We would talk and share stories, to prepare for a memorable cubical “confession" moment. Some scenes had a script, but it was mostly improvisation. Authenticity was key to us. We were trying to portray our experience as genuinely as possible. Eventually, every day of shooting was a real trip and everything you see in the movie actually happened.
TO THEM, THE CULTURE IS MORE THAN PURE ESCAPISM
George: For me, the toilets can be the most social place in a club. I find it interesting how intense the experience is, friends and strangers taking drugs, having sex, and sharing such personal stories. People can connect so fast and so deep. In everyday life people can hide who they really are, so you need more time to find out the truth. In clubs that sense of time doesn’t exist and there is no way to escape from your ‘real self’.
Braulio Bandeira (cast): EX is about what I call ‘underground toilet culture’, which offers me the opposite of escapism. Life doesn’t become a fantasy in the cubicle. The struggles are real. And this culture can push you to face your own fears, desires and feelings. I am conscious of the negative side to Berlin’s hedonistic culture too, everyday. The movie is also about awareness. EX is more than a reflection of the nightlife in a city. It also portrays sides to the contemporary human condition, like oppression, and allows us to share our stories.
CAPTURING THE REALITIES OF A STORIED UNDERGROUND CULTURE
Diana: Drug abuse is of course one of the main topics of Berlin nightlife. When you are living in this subculture and you have people around you getting sick, going to rehab or even dying, you cannot pretend that the danger isn't real. Raver culture comes with basic ideas such as "take care of each other", but of course it’s important to take care of yourself. If everyone tries to be more careful and safe, the whole community can get better. The movie is about the reality of this community. We talk about collapse and rehab and everyday drug addiction. Drugs are dangerous, yes, and we use them, yes, but that's not everything there is to it, we are first and foremost people living in a community and caring for each other. There is an intention underlying this movie and it's close to, "be true to yourself and don't be ashamed of who you are". Through the eye of George, I feel the absence of judgment. It's a kind but raw vision of Berlin subculture but also an empathic one. I wish for people to understand why we choose to be 'freaky' and 'alternative'. And of course we want to convey a message of respect and hope for all the LGBTQI+ community.
George: Most of the cast didn’t have any shooting experience. It was a long process, and the project was entirely independent. Filming was intense and extreme, but it was the only way to catch the best moments from all the characters and be 100% real. I am very happy the results are so realistic – according to some feedback, maybe even too realistic. I believe we captured a unique point in time in Berlin’s club scene and how people are approaching and interacting with each other in the new decade. We wanted to show a diversity of sexuality, bring people together, create opportunities, support each other, and make our voices heard.