The outside of the building in East Berlin’s Auguststrasse looked as if it hadn’t been painted since the Second World War – and it probably hadn’t.
In the entrance hall a sign read “Jeans not allowed”. The air smelt of Trabant car exhaust fumes and a curious mixture of cheap, badly brewed beer and disinfectant.
But inside it was like walking into a set from Cabaret – but with an air of Communist decay. A decrepit band played strange, dreadfully old-fashioned music. Uniformed officers of East Germany’s Stasi regiment sat by telephones on lamp-lit tables. Occasionally one would dial a hapless woman seated at another telephone table and entice her to dance. They usually succeeded. Under Communism it was hard to refuse the Stasi. That was my first visit to Clärchens Ballhaus, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today the famous ballroom marked its hundredth birthday. It has survived the Kaiser, the Great War, the Weimar Republic, Nazi rule, the Second World War, Soviet occupation, reunification. Now it is enjoying a revival as one of the few original dance halls in the capital where almost anything goes. The no-jeans rule has gone and it pulls in a very mixed crowd. Its Lametta-covered walls ooze 1950s nostalgia.
A Stasi report hangs in the entrance hall. “Venue frequented by happy go lucky people – of both sexes,” wrote a secret police informer called Harald in 1981. Not much has changed.