At Munich's Contenance Club, women don't speak unless spoken to, and an annual membership costs up to €1 million.
All photos by Manuel Nieberle
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
It's 6PM when I meet German businessman Michael* in a car park behind Munich's Theresienwiese Square – the spot where millions of people gather every year for the city's famed Oktoberfest celebrations.
Michael isn't Michael's real name; he doesn't want to be attached to this article because he's already been at the receiving end of too much negative press over the last few months. At the centre of all that attention was his empire under this car park, four metres below my feet – a palatial space adorned with glittering chandeliers and pompous, rococo furniture that looks like it's been stolen from an opera house's prop department.
Michael's project is a private gentlemen's club called The Contenance Club. The venue opened in December of 2017 and currently only hosts private functions, but Michael hopes it will attract plenty of new members soon, who would be able to visit every night of the week.
Though "contenance" is an Old French term for moderation and restraint, Michael's vision is anything but. He wants his club to be a loud and brash haven for influential, rich men to socialise, while surrounded by beautiful women, who – according to the club's house rules – are only allowed to speak after being spoken to first.
Private social gentlemen's clubs started popping up in London in the 17th century, as spaces where upper class men could go to network. In Germany, the concept has never really existed in this form. Unlike The Contenance Club, the few members clubs that do exist in Germany don't market themselves as flashy party caves for rich men, which is why Michael's concept attracted so much negative media attention and public anger when it opened – and why I wanted to see whether that reaction is fair or not.
A little after 6PM, Michael steps out of a white door and onto the car park, where I'm waiting for him. He's dressed completely in black – a pretty slick look, but his eyes look tired. He's accompanied by his events manager, a dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties who doesn't want to tell me her name.
After a few rushed pleasantries, Michael leads me into the club. The first thing I see inside is a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling. On one side of the main room is a blue sofa with "Beluga" stitched in with gold lettering. "It's a type of caviar," Michael explains, assuming I wouldn't know, as we head down some more stairs. "€300 [£260] for 100 grams," he continues. "I've had so much of it, I can’t eat the stuff any more."
Below the main floor is a 400 square-metre, four-room cellar with brick walls and a domed ceiling. Michael plans to convert this space into a bar serving oysters and Kobe beef. "Kobe beef tastes insane," Michael says. "The meat is massaged and caressed all day."
Giant pictures hang from the walls – images of naked angels, the Last Supper and one of a woman having a foursome while suspended in the sky. Michael tells me it takes about a month to paint every picture, and that they were done by an art student taking night classes.
The only two facts I know about Michael's personal life are that he is 63 years old and that he was born in Munich. "I don't want the publicity any more," he says. A public perception he does revel in, however, is that of "friend to the rich, famous and beautiful". He's constantly name-dropping German rock stars, actors and socialites – for instance, when he tells me he once warned Boris Becker off his first wife.
Michael sits down on a sofa in the club’s cigar room-to-be, which will double as a space for members to watch live football matches. For now, it's being used as a storage room for what seems like the world's biggest supply of gold upholstered sofas. As he reclines further, he reveals he hasn’t put any of his own money into the club. The Contenance Club's main investor is a friend, while for his part Michael says he's made a number of sponsorship deals with champagne and vodka brands.
However, he takes full credit for the concept and design of the place: "I didn't need an interior decorator," he says, proudly. "I’ve been dreaming about this for the past five years."
Michael won’t tell me how many members his club already has, but he claims to field about two new membership requests a day. Recently, he boasts, the son of a famous footballer asked to join. If he's accepted, he will pay an annual membership fee between €10,000 and €1 million. "For a million, a private jet will pick you up from anywhere in Europe," Michael promises.
The difference between the price categories is simple: the less you pay, the further in advance you have to reserve your spot in the club on any given night. According to Michael, rich men don't like to wait, so he thinks paying a little more will always be worth it to them. "Normal people", he says, aren’t allowed in. "They complain too much. I don’t want anyone in here who just sits in the corner all night drinking Coke and looking sour."
Michael’s mysterious events manager is in charge of hiring the women who'll be working in the club. A German tabloid recently published the size, age, weight and personal requirements for all prospective female employees: they have to be taller than 1.75m, under 35, no heavier than nine stone and single.
According to Michael, these are just guidelines. "For example, I weigh more than nine stone," his associate offers. "The women here just need to be elegant," Michael adds, "and sexy."
Recently, a model turned down an offer to work at the The Contenance Club. "She didn’t want to work for €200 [£180] a night," says Michael, stunned. In his view, all women dream of owning expensive shoes and Gucci handbags, and the easiest way to get those is by securing a rich man. "Ninety percent of women prostitute themselves in one way or another," he explains to me.
However, he feels compelled to add that this isn't a sex club. "Look around you – there aren’t any beds here. We'll employ girls to spy on the others and make sure that no one offers themselves to the men. If they do, they’re fired. To be sure, we have a strict rule: women here aren’t allowed to initiate conversation with the male guests. But, if I'm being honest, I don't think we should need it as a rule, because a normal woman wouldn’t do that anyway." In return for staying mute unless spoken to, Michael claims to offer his female staff a safe working environment, where security will always be around to stop any members getting too hands-on.
Michael’s favourite room is the Bavarian chamber. On a glass column stands a bust of Ludwig II of Bavaria – the "Mad King" who built the kitschy Neuschwanstein Castle in the 19th century. Michael says he isn’t bothered if people think his taste in interior design is harrowingly corny. "Two million people a year visit Neuschwanstein Castle," he counters. "Are they all arseholes?"
The Contenance Club is no Neuschwanstein – it's mostly a cave filled with faux-gold and glitter – but the comparison clearly plays on Michael's mind. "I'm a monarchist," he says, before describing the beauty of another of King Ludwig's castles, Schloss Herrenchiemsee, with its sunken tables, ropeways and ornate ceiling decorations. "I’m also a dreamer, a madman," he proudly confesses.
He flicks some music on – "Also Sprach Zarathustra", by Richard Strauss. Zarathustra was a sixth century Iranian philosopher, who, according to Nietzsche, descended from a mountain to teach people that there were higher goals worth striving for.
Next up is Andrea Bocelli. Michael starts singing along – his arms raised like he's performing for a crowd, even though it's just his events manager and me. Soon, he's no longer singing, just randomly screaming to the music. I ask what wrong. "Honestly, I just like messing around with people," he says. "I want people around me to feel like anything could happen at any moment."
Looking around, it's clear that Michael wants to associate himself with the beautiful, the exclusive and the glamorous – but he mostly seems to have missed the point. The place feels like it's set in this bygone era, when men with his worldview were never challenged and women were objects to open the door for, but not take seriously enough to engage in actual conversation with.
Recently, Michael signed up to Instagram. "It's full of half-naked women taking selfies," he scoffs. "But if a man were to approach these women on the street and invite them back to his or give them a compliment, they'd say, 'I'm not that sort of girl.'" In a world where women have confusing things like "sexual agency", The Contenance Club is clearly his sanctuary.
Michael has turned the music off. He's suddenly in a hurry – another journalist is here to take pictures of the "most secretive place in Munich". He walks me back up to the car park. I ask if he's confident that the whole thing is going to work. "Of course," he says. "But either way, we're going to have some fun."