“Willkommen, bienvenu, welcome…” These words, sung by Joel Grey, open the classic 1972 musical/drama film Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse, which is based on the 1966 Broadway musical, itself based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 memoirs The Berlin Stories. Without a doubt Cabaret is one of the most famous and best-loved musical films of all time, and despite being made nearly 45 years ago it ages extremely well. Grey, Fosse and star Liza Minnelli all took home Oscars for their work–not easy when the film was up against The Godfather in most of the top categories–and in 1995 it was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as a movie with particular historical and cultural importance. Probably millions of words have been written about this film, but re-watching it recently I was struck by how topical many of its themes and commentaries have become given recent events, especially those parts of the film dealing with cultural inclusion and the rise of fascism. Cabaret may indeed be a more interesting and relevant film in 2015 than it was in 1972.
Cabaret is primarily the story of Brian Roberts (Michael York), a bisexual British academic who arrives in Berlin in 1931 and his somewhat haphazard love affair with American-born showgirl Sally Bowles (Minnelli), the lead performer at a bawdy nightclub called the Kit Kat Club. Much of the cultural mystique of late Weimar-era Germany is shown allegorically through the various musical numbers, most of which involve Sally and the bizarre “Emcee” (Joel Grey) who sings and introduces most of the songs. While struggling to earn a living in Depression-racked Berlin, Brian encounters various other characters in states of crisis, including a young man in love with a Jewish girl, and a dashing rake who seems to want to be Brian’s sugar daddy. All of these characterizations reflect the cultural and political conflicts roiling in early 1930s Berlin. The seamless meld of catchy music and social commentary is one of the things that gives Cabaret its power. It’s neither purely a musical nor a history lesson, but combines both in a totally inventive way.
The social and political backdrop of Cabaret is Germany on the brink of its transition from the tolerant, social democratic Weimar regime, which had replaced the Imperial German monarchy after World War I, and the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. Indeed the film depicts this transition pretty graphically. The opening shot of the film glimpses the Kit Kat Club audience reflected in a sort of lumpy mirror on the back of the stage, and we see well-dressed but Bohemian-looking people. The club is very LGBT friendly, as was Weimar Germany in general; Brian easily pursues both gay and straight relationships and gender-bending is ubiquitous in the club’s dance numbers. At one point the Kit Kat manager throws a Nazi brownshirt out of the club. But then things change. Later in the movie several Nazis get revenge by beating the manager senseless and leaving him in a bloody heap. At the beginning the Emcee seems to regard Nazis as buffoons, and even does a derisive impersonation of Hitler. Toward the end of the film, however, the Emcee sings a disgustingly bigoted song (“If You Could See Her”) comparing Jews to apes, and in the film’s final shot we see the lumpy mirror again, except this time reflecting a number of the club’s patrons as wearing Nazi uniforms. At the beginning of the film Berlin seems decadent and fun, if dysfunctional; by the end it’s a dark and ugly place that Brian hastens to leave, though Sally seems somewhat trapped.
The story of the Nazis’ rise to power is more than just a narrative about authority or authority figures. It wasn’t just about Hitler garnering the allegiance of the German public to follow him, or at least not oppose him. It had a cultural dimension too. This is what Cabaret stresses, and why it’s relevant to us today in 2015. In the United States we have, in recent decades and especially since the turn of the century, seen a shift in cultural attitudes toward inclusiveness and progressive values. We see that with the legalization of marriage equality, the election of an African-American President, and increased attention to issues of social and economic stratification. But we’ve also seen significant backlash to these changes, with xenophobia, racist or sexist rhetoric, and the increasing organization–especially through the Internet–among adherents of reactionary and right-wing ideologies. Weimar Germany’s cultural inclusiveness and political liberalism mobilized the forces of reaction to these values, which manifested themselves, certainly not inevitably, in popular support for the Nazi regime. This is one of the subtexts that Cabaret plays with.
The “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” number in Cabaret is chilling, one of the film’s subtle dark undercurrents.
I’m taken by two scenes in Cabaret that go to this theme. One is where Brian and friends go to a beer garden for a relaxing drink, and end up witnessing Nazis singing a hopeful-sounding song (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”) that becomes a blustery self-congratulatory anthem that darkly hints at the Nazis’ arrogant assurance that they alone controlled Germany’s fate. Seeing this scene today I can’t help thinking of the same sort of bluster that comes from figures like Donald Trump, who seek power on what’s essentially a cultural-backlash narrative with an implicit (or not) promise to roll back the cultural shifts that chagrin many of his supporters. Another scene is the one where the Nazi toughs beat up the Kit Kat Club manager. Street brawling, depicted or hinted at a couple of times in Cabaret, was one of the Nazis’ keys to gaining power. In 2015 we see this same sort of mob mentality not in the streets or alleyways, but often on the Internet; the “GamerGate” controversy is a distasteful example. These examples are not directly congruous of course, but there are common threads there: my point is that culturally and politically reactionary forces (which usually go together) often follow episodes of significant social change, especially in a progressive direction. Cabaret reminds us of this in ways both subtle and flashy.
Cabaret is a wonderful and timeless movie, fun as well as thought-provoking, sad as well as funny. The best movies and the ones that endure the most are films that retain their capacity to provoke meaningful reflection long after the exact circumstances they depict (or in which they are made) have passed away. Cabaret is definitely in that category. Its story and songs still have something to say to us today.