Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.
SCHÜTTORF, Germany — At his first gig in more than three months, Dopebwoy, a Dutch rapper, climbed the stairs to the stage, turned to the right, and stared out at the crowd.
Before him was a sea of cars.
“Germany!” shouted Michael Jalink, Dopebwoy’s master of ceremonies. “Are you ready for Dopebwoy?”
And the cars honked back.
Beyond cinema, the drive-in format never historically found a place within live-event culture. But amid a pandemic, its time has perhaps come.
Across Europe, pastors have set up drive-in churches, and promoters have set up drive-in concerts and drive-in plays, turning to the format as a means of hosting events while easily keeping audience members apart. In an era of social distancing, it turns out there are few better distancing devices than a car door.
Few have embraced this drive-in concept as avidly as the owners of Index, a family-run nightclub in Schüttorf, a small German town just east of the Dutch border, where Dopebwoy played last Friday.
Index has been one of the pioneers of the lockdown drive-in, holding what it has branded a drive-in disco every weekend since early May. Revelers arrive at the club in their cars, park in the adjacent lot — and then stay behind their wheels to listen to D.J.s and watch performers like Dopebwoy.
The events have proved surprisingly popular, despite lacking most of the physical experiences generally deemed essential to a successful club night. It’s a good thing, too, because nightclubs like Index are not expecting to reopen their dance floors until 2021.
“This feels like Saturday again!” said Ronan Zwaagstra, a 19-year-old student attending Dopebwoy’s show in his hatchback.
Then he paused.
“But without the drinking.”
“Or the dancing.”
Yet these were just minor concerns for Mr. Zwaagstra, a Dutchman who was here for the second weekend running.
He likes the drive-in club experience so much that he drives nearly 60 miles to attend — and crosses a national border in the process. (Travel between the Netherlands and Germany has been less tightly regulated than other European borders during the pandemic.)
This isn’t the kind of drive-in where lovers go to find privacy. Staff members wander the aisles between the cars, and the cars themselves are parked close together.
But can people still flirt in a disco without a dance floor?
“Yes,” said Jenny Kollak, 24, a bank manager attending with her sister, Anna. “Oh yes.”
People write their numbers on balloons, and hold them up to people in nearby cars.
Or, said Ms. Kollak: “We scream at them. They scream at us.”
“Then,” she added, “you meet them in the toilet.”
Truth be told, the drive-in disco feels more like a music festival than a club night.
Guests arrive at 9 p.m., when the sky is still bright. The music ends at midnight, so as not to annoy the neighbors. The only time guests can enter the club itself is to go to the bathroom — and even then, they must wear masks to satisfy German law.
At all other times, they have to stay put in their cars in the parking lot. The passengers can drink alcohol, but they’ve got to bring it themselves. If they want to dance, they must settle for wriggling in their seats.
Yet over 100 cars attended Dopebwoy’s gig, with a driver and one passenger paying about $35 for the privilege (extra occupants are $15 each). Several were there for the second or third time, like Mr. Zwaagstra and the Kollak sisters.
And dozens had driven for over an hour to be there, including several carloads from the Netherlands.
To get into the spirit, many had adapted their cars for the occasion. Some of the Dutch had put police lights on top of their car roofs.
Anna Kollak, a 26-year-old driving instructor from Bielefeld, Germany, finished her lessons for the day before driving to the club in the same car she teaches in. She had brought confetti and glow sticks, and covered the roof with twinkling Christmas lights.
But the car door still read: “Driving School.”
“It is a bit crazy,” Ms. Kollak conceded. “Tomorrow, I will have another lesson and there will be confetti everywhere.”
Eccentric though it is, the drive-in disco is just the latest bold endeavor by the owners of Index.
Founded in 1988 by Holger Bösch and his two brothers, the club itself was initially an outlandish idea. They built Index from scratch in an empty field outside the small and otherwise unremarkable town, hoping it might attract visitors living further afield by hosting all-night raves.
Their hunch paid off. Over the next three decades, Index became a destination venue, hosting international artists like Snoop Dogg and Sean Paul, and allowing the brothers to expand the club.
Now it has six dance floors, a climbing wall, a swimming pool and Mr. Bösch’s pride and joy — a vast room built of ice, complete with its own bobsled run.
When the pandemic forced Index to close in March, it was the club’s first pause in operations since the Bösch family opened its doors more than 30 years ago.
“My wife loves my new job,” Mr. Bösch said of his role as a drive-in disco pioneer. “Now I’m home at 1 a.m., not 8 a.m.”
For his D.J.s, the drive-in experience was initially daunting, but ultimately refreshing.
On a normal dance floor, a D.J. can alter the set depending on the reactions of the dancers, said VYT, one of Index’s resident D.J.s. At the drive-in, however, it’s harder to gauge people’s taste.
Still, the drive-in has its advantages, he said. At a regular club, it takes hours for guests to warm up. “But here, when they drive in, they’re already hyped up,” said VYT, known outside the music business as Veit Engelker.
The drive-in disco is nevertheless not to everyone’s taste. At the back, it was difficult to see the stage. And after three hours, sitting in a car becomes uncomfortable.
”My legs are hurting,” said Denise Schut, a 27-year-old day care worker who said she wouldn’t be returning. “And my back.”
But artists like Dopebwoy are steeling themselves for months of honking and revving engines as they await reopening for nightclubs.
“There will be a lot of these car shows,” said Dopebwoy, whose real name is Jordan Jacott.
“We better get used to it.”