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I don’t care for musicals.

I’m not enamoured with Broadway productions and generally avoid the films that are based upon them. Perhaps part of my problem was being inundated with a particular form of the genre when I was young. An unnerving number of Disney films, and thus “kid fare,” were made as musicals in the 1960s and 70s. At the same time, many of the “classics” of Broadway theater seemed to be making their way onto film at the time. At some point, I just could take no more.

Cabaret, therefore, never made it onto my lists of films I wanted to see. In some ways, it promised to be not only a “typical” early 1970s musical but might have been considered the archetypal Broadway musical. Doesn’t every Broadway actor, male or female, aspire to be Liza Minnelli? How many productions must imitate Joel Gray’s over-emoting? Perhaps my avoidance of the whole lot means that I over-weight some of these vague impressions I’ve developed on little evidence. So while I don’t know how influential Cabaret actually is on what came after it, it sure seems to me like a road map for how to perform show tunes on the stage and on the screen.

It took a one/two punch for me to finally decide to watch it. First, I read a review in the Wall St. Journal of a summer staging of Cabaret at, of all places, the Ogunquit Playhouse in the Maine resort town (for we who don’t indulge in expensive vacations, it is the fictional home of Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder in The Stand). The Ogunquit production of the musical is based on the Sam Mendes 1993 London revival, which I also haven’t seen, but it was described as a “lewd, pitch-black production.” Punch number two is that Netflix removed Cabaret from streaming at the end of September. Finally, as I was wavering (a bunch of interesting stuff disappeared September 30th, all vying for my viewing attention), someone posted the beer hall clip from the film. The scene features a young Nazi leading revelers young and old in singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The social media post drew a connection between the teen-aged “Hitler Youth” and celebrity du jour Greta Thunberg. I had to watch now.

First of all, even when I wasn’t enjoying the film, I was admiring it. It is a technical masterpiece. It is no accident that it earned five technical Academy Awards (cinematography, art direction, sound, film editing, and score). Watching the camera work in the night-club scenes would make many of today’s directors wish they could go back to film school. This is not to say that the film was unenjoyable, just that some parts were better than others. One out-of-place example has Fritz Wepper, playing the secretly Jewish confidence man Fritz Wendel, acting the Borsch-belt fool opposite the elegant and straight Marisa Berenson’s teenage* heiress Natalia Landauer. It’s not that its bad; it is just not consistently engaging.

In contrast to most musicals of the time, characters don’t spontaneously break out into song as a way of expressing themselves. Musical numbers are either in the context of a night-club performance or background music played on a Victrola. The one standout, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, is all the more powerful a scene in that it does have characters standing up and spontaneously singing, although still in a plausible context (I’ve been known to start singing in beer halls at the slightest provocation, myself).

The source material of this film, the various Broadway musicals, and a 1950s musical/film interpretation called I Am a Camera, is a collection of short stories called Goodbye to Berlin** by English author Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood wrote the stories based, roughly, on his time in Berlin in the early 1930s and published them in 1939. It was a contemporary account lived, written, and published all before the full and horrible impact of the Nazi takeover of Germany was realized. George Orwell contemporaneously described the work as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay.***” I’ll come back to this analysis after working my way backwards through time.

The urgency of this story in the contemporary is obvious and, although less obviously, universal. From the left, we see a story about recognizing or, perhaps, failing to recognize evil as it is growing strong. I’m going to assume, without any evidence whatsoever, that the minds behind the Ogunquit staging see their performance as a tale about Trump’s America and the need to, as Michael York’s Brian Roberts rather unproductive does, punch a Nazi. On the right, folks hear the shrill, absolutest ragings issuing from the mouths of babes echoed in the strains of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Check the young lady at 2:07 for some righteous anger.

The context of 1972 is probably similarly obvious. Several years after the Stonewall Riots, the movement for gay rights was changing into one demanding open acceptance and normalcy within larger society. This heralded a new integration and, perhaps, power for the gay community but would also provoke a backlash. In 1972, that backlash could be easily compared to the early support for Nazism; perhaps harmless enough as it existed but capable of growing into something terrible.

What’s not entirely obvious to me is Orwell’s point in 1939 (assuming he made it contemporaneously with the book’s publication). Surely the “society in decay” refers to the emerging Nazism, which had clearly become and uncontrollable force by 1939. Could it also refer to the decadence and hedonism of the early-30s Berlin? Is there a connection between the collapse of traditional morality and the rise of authoritarianism? Besides the red armbands and petty thuggery, what early warning signs do we see in Cabaret that would foreshadow the coming storm. What warning signs might we be seeing right now, today?

Das eine Mal als Tragödie, das andere Mal als Farce

Watching the film in 2019 invokes very different reactions that it would have in 1972. In terms of actual “adult content,” it is on-the-whole rather mild. There is no outright depiction sexual acts. There is a level of casual nudity that, while it was becoming acceptable in the early 70s, is a tad bold by today’s standards. At the same time, the implied sexual content is perhaps more intense than expected. Homosexuality and bisexuality, while not portrayed on the screen, are key elements of the plot. Sexual congress results in an unplanned pregnancy which prompts an abortion. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching Glee and other times it’s A Clockwork Orange.

While the topless scenes may have seemed simply artistic in the 70s, the sexual undercurrents were not considered mainstream. The film initially received an X rating (albeit at a time before X was synonymous with pornography) in the U.S. and the U.K., although these ratings were later revised.

Anger over the content was not restricted to those who were concerned about its subversion of traditional morals. Tomorrow Belongs to Me caused quite a stir as people objected to the glorified use of a “Nazi song” in the film. In point of fact, the song was an original composition, as were all the music numbers, by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Both composers are Jewish. Yet, the misconception and anger were enough to have the song cut from the film when it was first shown in West Berlin. As with the rating reconsideration, however, the deleted number was later restored.

Another Kander/Ebb song also drew anger from the left. If You Could See Her begins a scene with an extremely large woman on a scale and Joel Gray expounds:
“I know what you’re thinking. You wonder why I chose her […] If you could see her thru my eyes, you wouldn’t wonder at all.” The woman then turns around and is revealed to be a chimpanzee. Gray’s character continues to sing of her hidden virtues, finally ending with the line, “But if you could see her thru my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”

This last twist, again, upset many at the time, seeing it as an expression of antisemitism. It’s a comparison that echos in modern controversies where any juxtaposition of animals and ethnic minorities is bound to be called out as hate speech, regardless of intent. Furthermore, the contemporary explanation (in Wikipedia) says that the song “reveals the growing acceptance of anti-Semitism.” Apparently, the inability of an audience to discern satire from contempt remains unchanged from the 30s through the 70s into the twenty-teens.

It seems to me that our collective inability to recognize subtlety – whether in art, literature, or even the daily news – will continue to define us. The importance of this work (encompassing everything from the short stories, the films, and the theatrical productions) is its portrayal of an early and outsider’s view of the rise of one of the most destructive forces of the 20th century. In reading it, we wonder if we could have anticipated the violence and death that sprung from Nazism. We wonder if we will spot it the next time arises. However, if we’re all only looking out for anti-homosexual bigotry coming from blonde kids wearing red armbands, I think we’ve missed the point.

*The actors and actresses are all their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s, which seems consistent with the source material. An exception is the character of Natalia, who in the original book is a teenager.

**Published, also, in a combined volume with the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains and called The Berlin Stories. This more extensive packaging also seems to be the cheaper option, if you happen to be looking to read it for yourself.

***This publishers blurb is quoted in all the sale-oriented reviews but, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, without context.