A few doors down the street from the Berghain nightclub is a high-rise building that contains several anachronistic curiosities. Here, for example, are the offices of the former communist newspaper Neues Deutschland – once the state press of the DDR – still in publication. The newspaper’s signage looms above the heads of hopeful partygoers as they queue for the infamous club nearby.
Probably few of the dark-clad supplicants have ever turned their heads to the left to study this building. Some of them will later use chemical technology to elevate their senses; meanwhile, an antique form of elevation technology is still in use. The Neues Deutschland office contains a working Paternoster, one of the few functioning systems of its kind in the world.
A Paternoster is an old elevator system made out of many interlinked cabins. It runs constantly in a loop at medium pace. To ride up or down, the passenger must simply step into one of the doorless cabins as it reaches floor height. The first Paternoster was installed in the late 1800s, and for a while the technology rivalled the single carriage elevator that we know today. But the Paternoster’s questionable safety prevented mass adoption: the open-faced carriages require a degree of agility, sensibility and courage to use, something not every passenger possesses.
Only several hundred Paternoster systems were ever installed, most of them in Germany and Eastern Europe, though they also made it as far as Sri Lanka and Peru. They were found in office buildings, universities and department stores.
Germany banned the construction of any new Paternosters in the 1970s, though the existing ones were permitted to continue operation. In 2015, the German government attempted to ban their use entirely, but backed down after supporters mounted a public campaign to save the antique transport system from becoming obsolete.
There are now 393 Paternosters still in operation worldwide, according to an online registry that itself looks quite antique. They persist due to people’s fascination with out-dated curiosities, like Polaroid cameras and iPod Classics.
Neues Deutschland was one of the campaigning voices to save the Paternoster – unsurprising, given their ideological commitment to defending ideas that have fallen out of fashion. For a while, the paper’s editor Tom Strohschneider used the building’s Paternoster as an unconventional studio to record a podcast, providing commentary on political and economic topics from inside the slow-moving cabin. „The Paternoster is open for all. It is transparent. It is a forum. It’s made of wood. The Paternoster is, you could say, the socialist elevator,“ Strohschneider said.
Another example exists inside the Berlin offices of a very different newspaper publisher. The Springer tower on Rudi-Dutschke-Straße also contains a Paternoster, but it is not in use. Springer is famous for publishing the right-leaning populist yellow paper Bild. Make what you will of the symbolism between the still-running Neues Deutschland Paternoster, and the still-standing Bild Paternoster.
To take a ride in a Paternoster, try visiting the Neues Deutschland office at Franz-Mehring-Platz 1 during office hours, perhaps as you’re stumbling out of Berghain on a Monday morning. Ask the security guard nicely. As was the case in the old days, presenting small gratuities may help your cause. Vodka used to work nicely.