The photos on Berlin Festival’s website don’t really prepare you for the layout - and the absurdity - of the location. But once you get used to the idea of it being in a disused airport in the south of the city, shoulders are shrugged and off you go.
Flughafen Berlin Templehof closed as a commercial airport as recently as 2008 and became the monolith it is today in the 1930s. Part of the biggest Nazi building ever built, and also thought to be the biggest building on earth at the time, it now lets revellers through its doors once a year to rejoice with music, and be a part of the arts fair that sits merrily at its heart. How times change.
The airport building's huge curved canopy is by far its most distinctive feature, and that provides the housing for the festival's stages. Then further out onto the airstrip are numerous bars, food stalls, dodgems, and other staples of your common-or-garden festival fare - not to mention a five-a-side football pitch. It is not small. Yet either side of the main entrance hall, where you exchange wristbands at the check-in desks with helpers dressed as airline hostesses, the festival only takes up two hangars. In each direction bending far and away from the festival perimeter, the building keeps on going and going… it should be creepy, but it isn’t.
The festival’s main stage (complete with huge aircraft wings either side) opened on the Friday with the sublime Of Monsters And Men; a great mood-setter inviting the crowd to join their beautiful Icelandic harmonies. A walk to the other end of the site to the Hangar 5 stage allowed for a brief flirtation with Clock Opera, providing a good upbeat indie-electro direction to the day, and allowing a first indication of the sheer wall of sound the stages could produce by in effect being indoors yet playing to crowds mostly outside.
Photo: Stephan Vlad
Over at Hangar 4, tucked in behind the main stage, was the mellow and somewhat uninspiring Daughter. Friends were up next back at Hangar 5. At first an interesting mix of pop and electro, and then suddenly and awfully a quite numbing experience. A band more suited to a live Nickelodeon show were it not for the fact that the singer is clearly a sex addict - and made various noises to make sure everyone knew.
Little Dragon really got the party going, creating such a frenzy among the crowd that it was a little difficult at times to take in what was going on – in a purely electro sense of course. Now well into a mix of beverages – such was the thoughtfulness of the organisers that every 10 metres or so was either a beer bar or a cocktail bar, allowing the day to be paced correctly – it proceeded to rain. The only real downside to an airport festival is the lack of grass to park on, and that when it isn’t sunny and is in fact chucking it down, it’s slightly miserable. However, the numerous sounds and lights and drinks put pay to that. We could have sheltered under the 1200m curved canopy but that would have been just too... English.
Next up, Hangar 5 brought us the fabulous Miike Snow. The fact that their set was effectively hidden at the opposite end of the festival from the main stage simply made for a more underground, private party feeling. A great set with the crowd loving every minute, but it was soon to be cut short to make sure that we arrived in time for the start of the next act: The Killers. If Miike Snow felt exclusive, The Killers felt like a mad party in your back garden. Albeit if your garden was a massive airport and everyone was invited. It didn’t feel like just another gig, and better than that – they left their new album at home and treated us to a greatest hits set that had as much vigour as when they first hit the circuit.
The second day was less fulfilling as line-ups go, but still as mixed and interesting as the first – Django Django providing sultry, spaced out, North African vibes to go with their matching t-shirts and pasty British pallor. A bizarre but no less brilliant band I Heart Sharks and Who Made Who provided solid background music to the comfort of the concrete runway that became our lounge for a few hours, while Friendly Fires hit the stage running and never stopped.
While the line-up was unbelievably varied, from chilled tunes to spacey electro dance via the mainstream, the one thing that all the acts had in common was the upbeat, friendly and universally chilled vibe that the festival shared with its visitors.
Happy, hippy party communes in Nazi airports don't come better than this.
Words: Craig Elderfield
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