After shattering defeat in the First World War and the devastation of hyperinflation (which effectively wiped out Germany’s middle class in a single stroke), Germans in the 1920s were ready to hit the reset button. Rebelling against a Prussian absolutist orthodoxy that had crushed them under its bootheel, people began to embrace freedom of personal expression and unfettered hedonism.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the German capital.
1920s Berlin revelled in its reputation as the ‘city of degenerates’. Creativity flourished: the city became a cornucopia of cinema thanks to luminaries such as Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, and Marlene Dietrich (figures who would go on to build the bedrock of Hollywood); literature and drama both tried to capture the essence of the excitement (Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz) and engage with ongoing political turmoil (Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera). Sex and eroticism, in every possible form imaginable, exploded from the private into the public sphere, and Germany’s world-leading pharmaceuticals industry was exploited for recreational purposes.
Soundtracking it all were the new sounds of North American jazz. People danced until dawn and beyond to the free-flowing rhythms that so well articulated the cultural renaissance in the capital.
You might consider contemporary nightlife in the city to be directly descended from those heady Weimar days – people still dance all night, personal and sexual freedom in the club space is still protected, and experimentation is still prized. Nowadays, though, the pulse that drives it all is different. Where jazz once held sway, techno now rules. Electronic music is ubiquitous.
There are, however, one or two spots where you can drink in that bygone era. Best among them is Clärchens Ballhaus.
Opened in 1913 by Fritz Bühler and his wife Clara (affectionately known as ‘little Clara’, hence Clärchens), this centenarian has seen it all. It survived the allied bombing raids of the Second World War (just) and the widespread dilapidation of the urban centre on the eastern side of the Wall when the city was divided. The Spiegelsaal (mirror hall) upstairs even played host to the aforementioned raucous abandon of Berlin in the golden 20s.
To bow to cliché and hail the ballhouse as a ‘best kept secret’ or some such would be hyperbole at the very least. It’s received too much air time recently on high profile TV dramas – most notably in Weimar-era noir series Babylon Berlin and US CIA spy drama Berlin Station – for that. The crumbling facade, though, the peeling paint and the doors leading to nowhere four storeys high (thanks to a WW2 bomb blast that destroyed the building in front), all set back from the street behind a courtyard shrouded in messy greenery, conspire to create a palpable sense of the clandestine.
Said courtyard plays restaurant in the summer months, when schnitzels that swamp the plates upon which they are served are ferried from kitchen to customer by waiters in crisp white shirts, waistcoats and bow ties.
Come the evening dancing takes precedence over dining. Each weeknight is a different discipline – Monday is salsa, Tuesday tango, Wednesday swing etc. From 6/7pm there’s classes for the uninitiated and from 9pm the dancing really begins with trendy millennials, septuagenarians and all else in between taking to the floor. Music comes courtesy of either a live band, on special occasions, or a DJ. There’s regular concerts, too, with music ranging from classical, to gypsy (house band Gypsy Restaurant play candlelit concerts upstairs every month), to the jazz that would have reverberated through the halls one hundred years ago.
The decor downstairs is charming – a nostalgic jumble of dark wood-panelling, GDR-era light fittings and, inexplicably, an exuberance of tinsel all year round. The real treat lies upstairs on the second floor, though. Up a shabby stairway, past an elegant but threadbare chaise longue, and through some creaky double doors is the faded grandeur of the chanderliered Spiegelsaal. Still bearing the scars of the bomb blast which destroyed the building out front, the huge mirrors that surround the hall are either chipped or rent with great spidery cracks, and some of the intricate baroque detailing is conspicuous via its partial absence. It never fails to draw a gasp from first-time visitors.
Maybe not hidden, but certainly a gem.Clärchens Ballhaus | Auguststraße 24, 10117, Berlin | S-Bhf: Oranienburger Str. S1, S2, S25