BERLIN — Three men in their forties are standing by an old fireplace repeatedly smacking their wives’ behinds with the flat of their hands. Other couples three meters away are drinking cocktails.

The men lounge in chairs with their legs apart while the women, heads bowed, kneel on the floor. A twisted picture of domination, or so it would seem, but for these couples, it’s simply an evening’s entertainment — they want things to be this way.

These former horse stables in a cellar in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin have been converted into an S&M club called the DarkSide, one of the best-known such clubs in the city.

A sadist is someone who likes to inflict pain. The word is a reference to the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat who in the 1780s wrote an orgy-filled book called The 120 Days of Sodom. A masochist is someone who likes to receive pain, and that word comes from the name of 19th century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote several books describing how much he liked it when women inflicted pain on him.

Sadists and masochists go together like a horse and carriage.

The managing director of the DarkSide goes by the name of "Merlin." He’s 50 years old, dark-haired — a former banker. He’s an achievement-oriented kind of guy who once won the Silbernes Lorbeerblatt (Silver Laurel Leaf), Germany’s highest sports award. Merlin is a sadist. He is suave, friendly, and has a habit of running his tongue over his incisors.

Merlin explains what drives his customers. "People come here to get in the mood for sex they’ll have at home," he says. "It’s rather like going to a disco to dance. The sex happens afterwards in your own home."

In a dressing room equipped with lockers and keys, guests can don their dark S&M gear, and fetishists can put on their leather, patent leather and latex apparel. "A lot of our guests have families, and the babysitter doesn’t need to know where they’re headed for the evening," says Merlin.

Unlike what can be seen in swinger clubs, actual sex acts are unlikely to be observed here. Only a few couples slip off to the old, dark, wooden horse stalls. Mostly what goes on here is bondage and beating.

"There are some women who can only really let go when they’re tied up and can’t defend themselves," Merlin explains. He himself is a master of a Japanese bondage technique.

Shame and pain

Merlin watches an American with some rope staring fixedly at the twenty-something girlfriend of another guest as he hoists her up on a pully. The woman’s boyfriend is seated in an arm chair watching the doings with interest. From his expression it’s impossible to tell if he is enjoying what he’s seeing, if he came here because he wanted to or because she wanted to.

"He’s pretty good already, but just a beginner," Merlin says of the American.

Merlin himself discovered his own inclination to inflict fear and pain on women during sex when he was about 16 years old. But he eventually learned that his friends didn’t have the same fantasies. He felt ashamed and kept his preferences to himself. The Internet, which later helped him find other sado-masochists and bondage fans, didn’t exist at that point. It was only when he was 25, in Berlin, that he found places where people like him met, allowing him to live his preferences more openly. Eventually, he quit his day job at a bank to turn his private preferences into a business pursuit as well.

"I get turned on when I see fear in the eyes of a woman I’m having sex with," he says.

But if the fear should turn to panic, he immediately stops the sadistic play. At the DarkSide there’s a code word that if uttered means that "masters" and "mistresses" must stop whatever they’re doing. Nothing should happen without mutual consent.

In the club, sterile torture instruments that clients may borrow hang on the wall behind the bar. These include bondage devices, whips, canes and batons. Other items such as strap-on dildos are displayed in a showcase and can be purchased.

On weekends, admission to the club costs up to 40 euros. Dark, fancy, even extravagant garb is required, and there are often theme evenings devoted to bondage-only, or women dominating men. Then there is "Casual Thursday," when people can come dressed as they like, do what they want, and admission only costs 5 euros.

"It’s also intended for people who just want to give all this a try," says Merlin, who greets all newcomers personally.

Two such newcomers have apparently agreed via Internet communication to meet at the DarkSide. She is a Dutch woman in her mid-thirties with dreadlocks. He is a powerfully built white-haired man in his mid-fifties with a goatee. They chat with each other as if they were on an afternoon date in some café, but at some point he starts to tie her up.

At the bar, a young man covered in tattoos is sitting reading German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He’s scowling and drinking non-alcoholic beer. He’s visiting his blonde girlfriend who works behind the bar. After a while he exchanges the Nietzsche book for another one in his backpack — a book of dating tricks.

Meanwhile, a muscular naked man walks into the room with his (dressed) girlfriend. An iron ring hinders blood flow in his lumbar region. The two of them disappear around the corner where the girlfriend proceeds to cane the naked man. This can be heard, as the cane produces a loud thwack. The man’s pain is audible by the way he’s breathing. After about 30 minutes of this, the dominatrix emerges to fetch two glasses of water at the bar, then disappears around the corner again.

In the lounge area, the atmosphere is indeed as Merlin describes: "cozy and informal."

A blind woman of 60 or thereabouts walks into the club leading her husband by the collar around his neck. Around the same time, a half-bald grey-haired man who looks like a postal clerk hands over a riding crop to a staffer and asks him to keep it for him for next time. He says he doesn’t want to be seen carrying it on the street.