Come Hear the Music Play
By Nicky Charlish.
‘Come to the cabaret, old chum.’ Let’s follow singer fraulein Sally Bowles’ exhortation, as 2012 sees the 40th anniversary of the release of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Our table’s waiting, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that we’re going to be making endless libations to Nazi-tinged nostalgia.
Based on the 1966 eponymous Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb – itself derived from John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am A Camera, which in turn took its inspiration from Christopher Isherwood‘s pre-war novels Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin – the film is set in Berlin in the final years of Weimar Germany. Brian Roberts (Michael York), a writer and academic living in Berlin who supports himself by giving English lessons (as did Isherwood – the Herr Issyvoo of Goodbye to Berlin – during his stay in pre-Nazi Berlin), finds himself living in a boarding house along with, among others, nightclub singer and aspiring film actress Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). Via her work at the Kit Kat Klub she introduces him into the world of the city’s cabaret clubs where political comedy rubs shoulders – or whatever else comes to hand – with the more traditional forms of hedonistic nightlife: transvestite hookers, women wrestling in mud, the usual stuff. A three-way affair between Brian, Sally and her wealthy friend Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) follows, then fails to work out. An ensuing relationship, between Brian and Sally, also ends in failure – he wants an academic life at Cambridge but she cannot see herself as the wife of a don. Meanwhile, in a subplot, one of Brian’s language pupils, Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), the refined daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman, meets and eventually marries another of his pupils, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), a playboy on his uppers who has hidden his Jewish origins in order to succeed socially in Berlin. We glimpse a Jewish world which we know, with the rise of Hitler, is destined to be shattered like a shop window struck by a brick. Throughout the film, the Kit Kat Klub’s MC (Joel Grey) acts as a sardonic commentator on the unfolding socio-political scene.
Cabaret was a critical, award-winning success. It effectively evoked Berlin before Hitler’s rise to power and the precarious six years’ peace which preceded the outbreak of war in 1939. It seemed to bring to life the bitter depictions of Weimar Germany made by Otto Dix and Georg Grosz (the former’s Portrait of Journalist, Sylvia Von Harden is said to form the basis of a posed scene in the Kit Kat Klub during the film). Its poster, showing a bowlerhatted Sally Bowles, belongs with other iconic ones of that decade, such as those for Chinatown and The French Connection.
But, four decades on, what associations does Cabaret have for us today? The answer is rather disturbing ones, for several aspects of the film give disquieting food for thought.
Given the present economic situation it’s easy to comment on the film’s ‘Money Song’ where Sally and the MC’s song, and its accompanying stage routine, enlivened with the aid of strategically-dropped coins, remind us of the Depression which forms part of the film’s backdrop. But we shouldn’t forget the economic confidence – some might say innocence – which prevailed when Cabaret was released. The Depression was then regarded as history which careful economic regulation would ensure was not repeated; Globalism was yet to make its appearance; few would have imagined that the Western jobs-for-life culture would come to an end or that, from Durham to Detroit, traditional industries would be permitted to disappear into a rust belt with little, if any, thought about what would replace them.
People seeing Cabaret when it was first released could look back at the troubled pre-war geo-political world with a sense of security. Theirs was a politically tough, yet simpler, existence. For them, the film’s beer-garden scene – where almost all the customers are roused to dreams of military glory when two brown-shirted SA boys sing the Nazi song ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – would have been mildly disturbing. (Incidentally, this pseudo-Nazi song was specially written for the film.) But the war, to which such attitudes had contributed, was long past. Anti-Semitism, and the other religious and political conflicts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, were distant memories, banished by the Allied victory of 1945 and the subsequent emergence of two power blocks: the West, and Russian-dominated Eastern Europe. Despite the Cold War being fought between these two political entities, a ‘hot line’ existed between Washington and Moscow to neutralise the threat of situations which might initiate nuclear conflict. War could happen, but the possibility of nuclear annihilation – mutually assured destruction (MAD) – arguably acted as a check on bellicosity.
Today, this comparatively secure world has disappeared. When Cabaret was strutting its stuff on Western cinema screens, a stronger adherence to traditional Balkan and Eastern European cultural, political and religious beliefs existed, along with the simmering (underground) hatreds which accompanied them, more than might have been expected given the firm military and political control exercised by Moscow over its satellite states. But these beliefs were merely dormant, not extinct. In the following decade the rubble from the fall of the Berlin Wall would, via the changes which swept Eastern Europe and the Balkans in 1989, feed these old attitudes. War and dislocation, fuelled by ethnic, political and religious issues, would again come to the Balkans, and instability to Eastern Europe. The threat once represented by the Soviet Empire would be replaced by that of Islamic extremism, a belief-system seemingly impervious to notions of compromise. No wonder some people have felt the pull of nostalgia for a pre-1989 world, or even for the old European order which existed before it was changed forever in June 1914 by some pistol shots in a Sarajevo street.
Cabaret also manifested a relaxed and hopeful attitude about the possibilities of sex, reflecting a post-Sixties spirit of sexual openness and optimism. In the film, the bisexuality of Brian and Maximilian is accepted as part of the natural order of things, as is the polysexual behaviour on display in the Kit Kat Klub. Plenty of sexually-confused or worried gays, glam rockers and pubescent putative New Romantics – boys and girls – were doubtless helped by Cabaret to come to terms with their sexuality, to realise that they were not alone. And Cabaret would, along with Krautrock and Bowie‘s Berlin phase, help enshrine Germany and its pre-war capital within the pantheon of New Romantic influences.
Now, sexuality is an ideological minefield. Expecting it to bear the weight of heralding a social utopia, as the visionaries of the Sixties generation did, was even then straining credulity. It was like imagining that an old bedstead could sustain indefinitely the exertions of a sexually-active young couple. Since the Seventies some might say sex has become fraught with, not free from, fresh taboos. Feminism has contributed to – among other things – a wide-ranging, uncomfortable re-evaluation of the relationships between men and women and the place of sexuality within them. There has been the rise of AIDS, bringing in its wake militancy from gays and the American Religious Right alike. And doctrinal divisions within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lGBT) scene have arisen, too, with the emergence of theories of psycho-sexual politics which now set lGBT people at one another throats. And it’s not difficult to suspect that, along with other minorities, lGBT people are simply regarded as electoral cannon fodder by political parties which have either been deserted by their traditional supporters or who wish to enhance their credentials with powerful metropolitan elites.
Cabaret concludes with Brian setting-off from Berlin back to Britain, Sally continuing her quest for stardom – and the Kit Kat Klub full of brown-shirted Nazis. For cinema-goers of the Seventies those boys in brown could symbolise not only a historical period, but also a whole range of socio-political threats, whose time had seemed to have passed. Today they are a symbolic reminder of the dangers which can arise in the wake of new economic and social upheavals.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek, Penpusher and the Culture Wars reviews of the Institute of Ideas.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 27th, 2012.