Dancing in East Berlin. Again.
First opened nearly a century ago, Clärchens Ballhaus has reemerged as a landmark of the city’s famous nightlife.
A few years ago painter David Regehr and actor Christian Schulz took over the lease at 24 Auguststrasse, in a section of former East Berlin that has been popular with artists and the young since the wall came down in 1989. The building is home to Clärchens Ballhaus, the legendary dance hall that opened in the fall of 1913, a year before the outbreak of the Great War. The club’s new owners did little in the way of remodeling the main space, but they opened the large mirrored room on the top floor—baroque, high-ceilinged, with a small gilded stage—for the first time since World War II.
The Ballhaus is now a fashionable place to meet. Regehr brings in a DJ and live bands. The music ranges from Eurovision singers, tango, classic funk, and Motown to awful Eastern European pop, Johann Strauss, and salsa—in other words, just about everything. (During the winter Gypsy street musicians play through the night.) The crowd is a seamless mix of elderly East Berlin couples, young hipsters, Turkish gentlemen, and artists and writers. One of the nights I was there, a dozen American investment bankers arrived at midnight, in town for an IMF conference, to stand in bemusement at the edge of the enormous dance floor, glasses of local beer in their hands. When I left a few hours later, they were waltzing.
Europe has a long tradition of working-class dance halls, of course. Although Clärchens’s records were lost in the destruction of World War II, one story claims that the Ballhaus was commissioned by an enterprising butler of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. During the decadent twenties, it was notorious as a place of assignation and revelry. In Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz the ex-con protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, stops for a drink at an unnamed dance hall on Auguststrasse and announces, "Come in and look at me dance with one arm." The painter Otto Dix designed the poster that Clärchens continues to use today.
According to Ballhaus lore, the top floor served as a private club for Nazi officers during the war. The apartment building across the courtyard was badly bombed and coal was stored in the ruins. Later, under the East Germans, Clärchens—like much of the surrounding district—remained in a state of disrepair.
Still, neighborhood people began to meet in the ground-level hall, dressed in their best, dancing shoes tucked in their coat pockets. Although it was very cold in winter and every lady wore a heavy sweater over her party dress, the Ballhaus offered romance, hope, ritual. Despite the vicissitudes of history, Clärchens has remained a refuge where a man can ask a respectable (or not so respectable) woman to take a turn around the dance floor—a place redolent of beer, face powder, and gardenia corsages.
When Regehr and Schulz took over, they added a popular pizzeria, which serves at outdoor tables in the courtyard during warm weather. Last year they brought a dismantled log cabin from Poland and reassembled it in a muddy vacant lot across the street from the Ballhaus. There, on winter evenings, a repertory company performs the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm by candlelight. The actors dish up borscht, mulled wine, and black bread for the audience, seated at long wooden tables. Inside the warm room one is transported back to the 19th century, on the eastern border of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, where wandering players might have arrived to perform the story of Rapunzel in exchange for supper and a pallet of straw in the barn before leaving at dawn for the next village. Then, as now, there may even have been a polka or two before bed.
Clärchens Ballhaus is at 24 Auguststrasse, Berlin. For information, call 49-30/282-9295 or visit ballhaus.de (in German only).