Places in Berlin

Sweating Silence in the Stadtbad Mitte Sauna

The first time you come to the sauna of Stadtbad Mitte, the Bauhaus bath complex on Gartenstraße, certain things take getting used to. If you are from an English-speaking country, perhaps you are not used to the space being mixed, both men and women, and naked. If you are from the South, perhaps you are unnerved by the silence, that people here stare right through one another. For my own part, I am getting used to the rapid changes in temperature.

First, let’s freeze. There’s the ice plunge, rimmed in steel. You emerge shivering, gasping. Patches of colour fall on your skin from the four windows of stained glass (1930) that depict the seasons. You look to winter: the image of a man with an icy beard and hooded head, and you reach for your towel.

Now, let’s roast. Look to the window depicting summer: the same man is younger, relaxed, warmed by sunlight. All around him is abundance. But it’s not so easygoing here in the heat: your skin now prickling, each pore sealed shut, glazed it seems with ice, and then burnt open with the heat of the Aufguss, water poured on the rocks and hot air forced over our shoulders with a towel by the attendant. No one can come and go during these long sessions of suffocating endurance. We sweat together, but there is hardly the sound of a grunt or a sigh. Because Berliners do not come to the sauna to share and socialise. ‘Ruhe bitte’ (Silence please), says the note on the door. You absorb the high temperatures silently, and sweat out your silence. You are burning out your desire to speak.

A Swedish man arrives, new to the city, and engages everyone in conversation, without much success, and finds himself talking only to the other foreigners.

‘They’re a little cold, aren’t they, the Germans’, he confesses to me later. And I reply that I wish they talked more, but that’s not why they come here. ‘In Sweden, the sauna is a place to socialise’, he tells me, shaking his head.

When he leaves the sauna, I feel emboldened to chat with two young men, Kumpels, proletarian buddies, who are timing their steam sauna session. I think I saw their painting clothes hanging on a peg in the changing room. They are immaculately depilated and sit in severe silence. They don’t reply when I ask them whether they are comfortable with the temperature.

This introversion would have bothered me a year or even two years ago. Now, I do not expect anything from these strangers and respect their desire to be left alone. I am used to it, I know that I cannot force my expectations, my chumminess, on them. Other sauna guests pass by, defiantly silent, and I wonder whether I have spent too much time in Berlin, I realise it hardly bothers me anymore that no one speaks.

The long patches of colour stream through the windows onto the tiles of the Bauhaus-era space, and it’s back to the cold plunge. I submerge myself and emerge, with hardly a gasp or a cry, the change in temperature is barely perceptible now. And I wonder if I’ve finally learned something, or come to the Stadtbad too often.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

2 thoughts on “Sweating Silence in the Stadtbad Mitte Sauna

  • Went to the pool today for a swim – amazing building – difficult to believe it is over 80 years old, its design feels so contemporary and new.

    saw a sign inside the front door for a sauna, on the 3rd floor and reached through a rather clinical area – it seemed that you can swim or sauna but not both? (and is this the sauna to which you refer?) thanks

  • Yes, indeed, the entrance to the sauna area here feels a little institutional (like a clinic). It reflects perhaps on German ideas of saunas being places for a cure rather than simple pleasure. At Stadtbad Mitte, it’s actually part of a rehabilitation clinic, I believe. You need to pay a separate entrance, I think, unlike in Stadtbad Neukölln where sauna and swim are on the same ticket. Best wishes! Joseph

Comments are closed.