Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome! It’s Berlin in the early thirties. In a dimly-lit establishment called the Kit Kat Klub, guests dine, drink, and watch salacious performances. A clown-like master of ceremonies (Emcee or M.C) would often tell his guests, “Leave your troubles outside,” swinging his arm with an exaggerated flair. Sally Bowles, the club’s wild and starry-eyed singer, welcomed a reserved English teacher from Cambridge who just moved in. But out there in Weimar-era Germany, the Nazi Party grew ever more powerful.
Such was the setting of the 1972 Academy Award winning musical Cabaret. I don’t really know what originally compelled me to watch Cabaret. Fortunately, the fact that I carried no prior expectations allowed me to be surprised in many ways, some pleasant and some sadly not.
“It was a fine affair, but now it’s over”
That was a song verse from the madcap singer Sally Bowles, a role Liza Minnelli played so well she got an Oscar for it. The main storyline traces how an even-headed teacher named Brian becomes her best friend and lover. The relationship between Sally and Brian surprised and delighted me. The film even played with sexuality, although it was filmed back in 1972, an arguably more conservative period of time. At first, Brian declined Sally’s advances, telling her that he did not want to sleep with women, leading viewers to think he was gay. Later, he slept with her and enjoyed it, prompting the audience to think that he is straight instead. Then came Maximillian, a wealthy playboy who wooed Sally by inviting her and Brian to his estate, then secretly tried to woo Brian as well. Brian’s admittance to Sally that he “screwed Max” marks the third time the film subverts the viewer’s pre-existing notions of sexual norms. Yet after dawdling the line between friendship and romantic love and all the confusion, the story still managed to resolve all conflicts in great compassion. Both characters’ involvement with Maximilian should have destroyed their relationship, but it somehow persists. Till the end, Brian and Sally ultimately held no grudge nor ill-will for each other, ultimately becoming great friends.
Normally, love stories like this one would leave viewers with more sweet than bitter feelings, and perhaps a good dose of hope. But if you’ve ever finished Cabaret, you know there was no happy ending for anyone.
“Whoever dreams that I shall fall in love with a Jewish girl?”
There is another love story in Cabaret. Both Fritz, an average merchant and Natalia, a rich Jewish heiress, learned English at Brian’s apartment. Initially, Fritz pursued Natalia for her wealth, and Natalia first feared that he was a “gigolo” – a male escort working for money. However, despite many tribulations, their relationship grew from distrust to mutual and genuine love. Even then, a difference in their expressed religious beliefs stood between them (she was Jewish and he was not). Little did she know he was also Jewish. To escape being Jewish in the increasingly anti-Semitic Germany, he lied, legally declaring himself a Protestant. Talking about his life as a pretender, Fritz said in his own words: “The work comes. The friends come. The parties come.” Fritz’s final trial in the movie was to finally be honest with Natalia, at the expense of the “work” the “friends” the “parties,” and with virulent anti-semitism spread by the Nazis, his admittance of his Jewish identity ultimately ended in his death.
Through the stories of the two lovers, viewers can also recognize an unrelenting prejudice against the Jewish people. I find this exchange between Brian’s landlord and his friend fitting to describe one sort of twisted logic used to justify the hatred:
“If all the Jews were bankers, then how can they be Communists, too?”
“Subtle. Very subtle, Fraulein Kost. If they can’t destroy us one way, they try the other.”
The movie seems to offer a multi-layered explanation for the animosity directed towards Jews during this part of Germany’s history. Plagued by economic woes as the Great Depression’s effect reached Germany, the angry mobs, including the one who picketed in front of Natalia’s house, seemed to hate the Jews for their control of wealth. Yet Fritz, a not-so-wealthy Jew, also faces heavy discrimination, showing in many ways that hatred towards Jews transcended economic class and was fueled by other, more sinister prejudices.
“Life is a cabaret, old chum”
Cabaret is hilarious, surreal, wacky and at the same time terrifying, a combination achieved in spite and because of its strange musical components. The best indicator of this unique cinematographic identity is the atmosphere, costume design, and other aesthetic intricacies such as florid make-up, grotesque fashion, and sleazy antics by the performers. These aesthetic choices reek of decadence. The brilliance of Cabaret’s music, however, lies in its narrative properties.
Unlike typical musicals, where crowds burst into songs and characters go into musical monologues, Cabaret reserves music for the stage. Taking place almost entirely within the Kit Kat Klub, music numbers are inserted without warning before or after the story’s pivotal moments. Yet it would be wrong to say that Cabaret’s music is separate from the characters, because it is in fact a reflection of their reality. Viewers are treated to a less-than-subtle example in the first half. The movie showed a slapstick routine inside the Kit Kat Klub, where a grinning Emcee struck at the air, pretending to slap other dancers. One second later, the screen shows a bloodied man in an empty alley repeatedly maimed by Nazis, with the same jolly music, then back to the stage. Similarly, between scenes of scantily-clad women and the Emcee dressed in drag are cuts where a group of people killed Natalia’s dog, threw it at her doorstep, and chanted “Jew, Jew, Jew” as she found the carcass. Then the film cuts right back to the performers putting on military helms and marching in files while the crowd laughed and applauded. The back and forth movement, sporadic and abrupt, blurs the line between the comic and the horror.
“In here, life is beautiful”
Said the Emcee to the club’s patrons, but only there could it be so. Life outside was under the steady corruption of Nazism, which the cabaret-goers in the film seemed to ignore in pursuit of the glamor and exhilarance of the cabaret shows.
One memorable moment is when Brian, Maximilian, and Sally see a murder scene left by a Nazi member just when their car was carrying them to a night of luxurious indulgence at Maximilian’s home. The baron remarked at the mess: “The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.” When asked what “we” meant, Maximilian said “Germany”. Maximilian’s mistake is a great allegory for the self-delusions of the powerful and the intellectual of the time: that a harmful force is somehow less dangerous and condemnable if the victims are somehow deemed bad, and that such a force could be controlled.
Max’s words came back to haunt him in the movie’s arguably most iconic scene and song – “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. At a beer garden party, a young boy began singing a rousing nationalist song, then the camera panned slowly to review his Nazi uniform. Everyone in the garden – girls, boys, women, and men – stood up and joined in the singing, some on the verge of tears. Then the camera moved around to Nazi members with armbands here and there in the garden, as if revealing to Brian and Maximilian that they have been sitting with Nazis all along. As it happened, Brian, Maximilian, and an unnamed elderly man sat still and speechless. When Brian finally bid Maximilian farewell, he left a piercing question for the baron: ““Do you still think you can control them?” “Germany” seemed to have already failed.
In the end, even the cabaret, with all its life-forgetting pleasures, could no longer isolate people from the ugliness outside. In the first half of the film, a Nazi is escorted out of the club, and the cabaret shows often discreetly mock the Nazis. A different image emerges in the last few seconds of the movie: Nazi officers in uniforms sit in the front row, seemingly comfortable and dissatisfied at the same time, leaving the fate of the club and its staff ambiguous. There I felt a sense of bitter irony, that people who went to the cabaret to escape politics would find their refuge lost to the same thing.
Leaving the cabaret
I don’t think a movie experience ends when the movie ends. I found myself looking up the songs, because they are great and thus get stuck in my heads for several days. In the same browsing session, I came across uncomfortable discoveries. I noticed that some YouTube users perceived the song by the Nazi youth – “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” – as benign. I learned that the same song was performed by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, despite the composers being Jewish and despite its context as a warning of the danger of Nazism which lurks behind a friendly appearance. Then I saw in the news that a nationalist, right-wing party successfully entered Germany’s Bundestag. I started to wonder: Are we sure we are not in a cabaret, laughing and repeating the same jokes about dangerous ideologies, but in the end doing nothing to prevent them?
Hardly will I ever forget the messages of Cabaret any time soon, and I truly hope that others won’t either.