WHY CABARET IS PERFECT MUSICAL FOR OUR TIME
Since November 2015, when Donald Trump first said that he’d be open to the idea of a national Muslim registry, I’ve re-watched Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s adaptation of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway musical, several times. Set in Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, it focuses on Sally Bowles, an American expatriate singer in the Kit Kat Klub who dreams of wider stardom. Sally is gregarious, and her adventures are exhilarating. It’s easy to relate to her artistic ambitions or get fascinated by her love triangle with Brian, a bisexual, British academic, and Maximilian, a German baron. But she’s often self-absorbed and oblivious in the face of growing bigotry. Perhaps she only seems callous to us viewers in retrospect because we know that the Holocaust is imminent.
Then as now, Cabaret is ambiguous and polarizing, frequently misinterpreted as glamorizing Nazism. In 1972, Roger Ebert wrote that the film promotes "the general idea that the rise of the Nazi party in Germany was accompanied by a rise in bisexuality, homosexuality, sadomasochism, and assorted other activities." http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/cabaret-1972) This falsely conflates the earlier, more permissive Weimar Republic with the Third Reich, which actively suppressed "decadent" entertainment and targeted LGBT people, among many other minorities. Not every movie about the Nazis needs to take us into the horror of the concentration camps. Far from soft-pedaling Nazism, Cabaret depicts its rise when it was still preventable.
Cabaret illustrates how insidiously prejudice can creep up among ordinary people, especially when minorities are scapegoated. "If all the Jews are bankers, then how could they be communist, too?" one Gentile woman asks. Although the specifics have changed, a contemporary version of this prejudice could be the belief that immigrants are paradoxically "lazy" and "stealing our jobs." The Kit Kat Klub’s unnamed Master of Ceremonies, played by Joel Grey, is a mysterious but unforgettable character. His musical acts often provide a wry, subtle mockery of the Nazis, while indulging in the hedonistic attitude of the era. In some recent stage productions, in the final scene, he wears a concentration camp uniform with a yellow star and a pink triangle, denoting him as both Jewish and gay. However, in the movie, which stops well before the camps, he is far more ambiguous. When The Atlantic posted footage of Richard Spencer’s white supremacist rally, I immediately thought of the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." The scene begins with Maximilian telling Brian that the Nazis might be useful, insofar as they’d stop Communists. A member of the Hitler Youth spontaneously leads the crowd in a nationalist song, a paean to a mythical past of Aryan superiority. The crowd joins in because they feel included in this vision, at the exclusion of Jews, LGBT people, disabled people, and all other minorities. The M. C. appears at the end of this scene, smiling knowingly. This is the only scene in which we see him outside of the cabaret, blurring the distinction between the escapist entertainment inside and the political upheaval outside. Is he smiling because he approves of the Nazis, or simply pointing silently to future events?
One of the most ironic subplots is the romance between Fritz and Natalia. Fritz is Jewish but pretends to be Protestant for his own protection. Ironically, he falls in love with Natalia, an openly Jewish heiress who worries that he’d be unsafe if he married her. Fritz and Natalia eventually have a Jewish wedding ceremony, but it’s brilliantly framed by the M. C.’s number "If You Could See Her." He brings a gorilla onstage, explains that he’s fallen in love with her, and laments that society misunderstands them. Then, he delivers the song’s brutal punchline: "If you could see her through my eyes … she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!" This is probably the most ambiguous, controversial example of the M. C.’s humor. Is he literally comparing interreligious relationships to bestiality, agreeing with the Nazis that Jews are subhuman? Or is he mocking the Nazis for that idea? A third option is that he’s noncommittal, using controversy for shock value, as many comedians do.
Through its masterful editing, Cabaret juxtaposes musical numbers with events in characters’ lives. Anti-Semitic hate crimes escalate, and Natalia’s dog is murdered by attackers repeatedly shouting, "Juden! (Jew!)" At the moment that she discovers her dog’s body, the film intercuts to Kit Kat Klub dancers, goose-stepping and playfully imitating the Nazis. It’s impossible for me to watch scenes like these without thinking that hate crimes against Muslims have risen to the highest level since 2001—yet so gradually that we can become desensitized.
Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966, 21 years after World War II ended, with the movie in 1972. So, I can understand why many people, including Roger Ebert, found it a distasteful subject for a musical. However, the unease might be even deeper because of what Cabaret reveals about our own culture. When faced with growing xenophobia and nationalism, we often feel helpless. Or we fail to see the mounting threats, trying to keep our lives as normal as possible. Sally performs in the club until the moment that the Nazis enter to arrest everyone. The characters’ ambitions and obsession with entertainment desensitize them to the changes around them. With constant entertainment available online, we can now distract ourselves more easily than ever before.Satire can be a powerful tool, but by its nature, it’s often misunderstood. Some viewers originally accused Kander and Ebb of antisemitism before learning that both were Jewish themselves. It can also trivialize threats, even unintentionally, by making them seem harmless. At the beginning of Trump’s campaign, I was terrified by the prospect of his presidency. Eventually, satire like Alec Baldwin’s impressions on SNL convinced me that Trump was too absurd to be elected or even taken seriously. Each time a new Trump cabinet member is confirmed, I think of Brian’s words to Maximilian after the crowd begins singing a Nazi anthem: "You still think you can control them?"