Berlin before the Wall
Living in the East, but heading for the cinema and concerts in the West — and vice versa. Before the Wall was built, Berlin was an open city. We revisit significant spaces of cultural exchange.
Cinemas along the Iron Curtain
In the 1950s, numerous "border cinemas" opened along the West Berlin sector border. The Corso, also known as Lichtburg, was one of the largest. The concept was the brainchild of Oscar Martay, the film officer of the American High Commission for Occupied Germany. The aim was to publicize the values of the West and the "free world" in the East.
Discounted admission for East Berliners
The City border cinema (in the background) at Checkpoint Charlie was also very popular. The cinemas offered discounted movie tickets to residents of the Soviet sector. While the official exchange rate between the East and West German Marks back then was 1:4, it was lowered for visiting cinema buffs from the East to the rate of 1:1.
The end of an era
Most border cinemas were located on the most important road links between East and West Berlin. They were allowed to open from the wee hours of the morning and screen programs throughout the day. The construction of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the era of border cinemas. They were either closed down or converted to something else.
Jazz concerts in the West
For a long time, jazz — like other Western music genres — was branded the "poison of imperialism" in the GDR. And so young East Berliners flocked to concerts in the West, such as for the legendary performance by Louis Armstrong in West Berlin's Sportpalast in 1955. That didn't please the East German regime at all. After all, it wanted to convince young people to embrace its ideals.
Relenting to popular demand
Racist East German authorities denigrated jazz as "imperialist monkey culture," but at some point they realized they could not hinder its growing popularity. They finally invited Armstrong to the GDR in the mid-1960s. He was the first US star to make a guest appearance there. By then, the Wall had already been standing for three and a half years, and it was the height of the Cold War.
A cultural landmark
In East Berlin, Clärchens Ballhaus — named after original co-owner Clara Bühler — was a popular dance hall and meeting space for East and West Germans alike. Founded around 1900, it remained privately owned throughout the GDR era. The legendary Berlin pub has survived two World Wars and the division of Germany. It remains a popular attraction in Berlin.
The House of Electronic Equipment
West Berliners didn't just go to the city's eastern parts to dance the night away, but also to shop. In addition to books, photography equipment and paper were in high demand, and were available at low prices at the Haus der Elektroindustrie on Alexanderplatz.
Heading East for a haircut
Services were also cheaper in the East, and this included visits to hair salons. Many West Berliners therefore headed to the eastern part of the city for chic new haircuts. The price was about 1.10 East German Marks, the equivalent of 25 West German pfennigs. In the West, one had to fork out up to 4 West German Marks for a similar cut.
Soaking up the culture
West Berliners who were into opera, theater, and museums, visited places like the Distel cabaret theater or the Berlin State Opera during trips to East Berlin. Most of the artists there were originally from West Berlin. But when the Wall was built in 1961, they had to give up their work at the State Opera. Many positions remained vacant due to the lack of personnel.