not in our stars, but in ourselves
27/52: A musical
By 1972, the classical Hollywood musical was more or less a thing of the past. No more Fred and Ginger, no more Busby Berkeley, no more dance as a dream of romance – no, not for the morally ambiguous and utterly cynical 1970s. In many ways, then, Cabaret is a sort of anti-musical: yes, it’s a movie with song-and-dance numbers, but this isn’t the escapist fare of the 1930s. Indeed, Cabaret posits itself as anti-escapist, anti-fantastic, anti-illusion; all rather revolutionary stances for a musical film to take, especially one that stars the offspring of two of the genre’s greatest talents: Liza Minnelli, daughter of Vincente Minnelli (director of classics like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon) and Judy Garland (star of Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, A Star is Born, Easter Parade, Summer Stock, a million “c’mon, gang, let’s put on a show!!!” pictures with Mickey Rooney, etc., etc., etc…). Bob Fosse – no slouch when it came to hit Broadway musicals – had something to say with this one.
In 1931, a Cambridge student named Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin. He finds a boarding house, and meets Sally Bowles (Minnelli). She’s a performer at a seedy joint called the Kit Kat Club – presided over by a daemonic Emcee (Joel Grey) – and has dreams of being a great film star, femme fatale, international woman of mystery, and so on. She tries to seduce her new housemate, but his cool response leads her to assume that he must be gay, so she agrees to stop “pestering” him and just be friends. Eventually, however, he takes pity on her, and they become lovers. (See: Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity – a very different story, but one with a message Brian probably would have/should have taken to heart.) A handsome baron, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), meets Sally in the street one day, and sets about wining and dining her – and, eventually, Brian as well. Max tires of them once he’s slept with them both, and leaves them to each other. Meanwhile, two of Brian’s pupils – Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) – have fallen in love. Natalia is Jewish, and she argues that they cannot possibly marry, since Germany is increasingly hostile to Jews; “the big joke,” as Fritz tells Brian, is that he’s secretly Jewish himself. Admitting his true identity would bring him the woman he loves, but it would also spell exile or ruin or worse. All in all, the movie doesn’t take a terribly optimistic view of true love everlasting. Where is there room for love, after all, in a city and country that’s being swept away by a Nazi riptide?
There may not be room for love, but there’s plenty of room for delusion and ignorance – fiddling while Berlin burns, you might say. As David E. Isaacs writes in “We Have No Troubles Here: Considering Nazi Motifs in The Sound of Music and Cabaret“:
[…] in Cabaret Bob Fosse shows the subtle rise of Nazism albeit in pre-war Berlin; we see how sexual license and decadence led to a gradual acceptance of the Third Reich’s ideals. […Lack] of engagement is the point, and the failure to confront evil is, in a sense, seen as a form of evil itself and gives the film a stronger dramatic punch. By borrowing stylistically more from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and building on the real styles of Berlin cabarets, Fosse breaks out of the traditional American musical formula, and his use of Nazi motifs sends a provocative message […].
He continues, discussing the dancers at the Kit Kat Club:
The girls are posed oddly, dance oddly, and are not really seductive except in the most seamy way. This is gaudy, seedy, cheap amusement designed to pass the time and make empty people feel alive. It creates an unsettling feeling: we should be careful of appearances. The act is meant to both entertain and deceive us. In this way, the cabaret becomes the metaphor for the country (and the wider world) and its attitudes towards the Third Reich, and one of the most dominant motifs of the film is not seeing reality. Characters either choose to be blind to things around them, or they dismiss them as inconsequential. When they do acknowledge the growing Nazi threat, it either causes them injury or causes them to leave for safer places.
In other words, Fosse’s deliberately chintzy and amateurish staging of the musical numbers (all of which take place within the diegesis and in “reality”; there’s no one bursting into song due to an excess of emotion in Cabaret, as Fred might have serenaded Ginger) serve a greater purpose. Here was the Weimar Republic, fragile enough before the Great Depression and downright volatile afterwards, infected by more and more unsavory political elements: the ineffectual Communists and the brutal Nazis. Here were people looking to escape their ever more grim and horrifying lives, ogling third-rate nightclub acts while Nazi goons beat a man to death just outside. Cabaret is, in its way, a thorough rebuff of the very mission statement of classical Hollywood musicals – which flourished, remember, during the Depression and World War II, as escapist entertainment for a nation (and world) that was down on its luck and preferred to forget about it.
Even at the more micro level of the plot and characters (as opposed to the macro, or maybe meta, level of the thematic content), we see Cabaret‘s caution against escapism and illusion. Sally is a great singer, but as she complains to Brian, “But what I really wanna be is an actress!” In fact, while she’s far too great of a singer for a dive like the Kit Kat Club, she’s exactly enough of a ham to ensure that, if her fantasy of Max Reinhardt coming to visit ever did come true, he wouldn’t look at her twice. She’s acting all the time: on stage, with Brian, with Max, likely with herself. However it was that she ended up in Berlin, she’s unlikely to make it out intact – whether psychologically or physically – because she cannot stop pretending for one moment. She hardly registers the rising threat from the Nazis; she worries too much about juggling her two lovers (neither of which, she realizes eventually, cared as much about her as she about them) and being spotted by a big-shot from Ufa. The film ends with her singing the title song, a bitterly cynical song about not being able to get off the merry-go-round disguised as a jazzy little number:
I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie
With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea.
She wasn’t what you’d call a blushing flower;
As a matter of fact, she rented by the hour.
The day she died, the neighbors came to snicker:
“Well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor!”
But when I saw her laid out like a Queen,
She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.
Minnelli’s bright delivery (tinged by the heartbreaking quality that saturated every note her mother ever sang) is belied by the look of panicked, forced cheer on her face. She’s chosen to remain in Hell, hellbent as she is on pursuing her ridiculous dream, and it will be her doom.
The film doesn’t have an agenda, despite all this stern condemnation of escapism, but it points repeatedly to the necessity of confronting reality, rather than let evil spin out of control. It’s not just Sally who buries her head in the sand: Brian flees Berlin for Cambridge, seeing the situation as hopeless; Max flees Germany for Argentina, in part to get away from Sally and Brian, and in part to get away from the Nazis (whom he blithely assumes, early on, that Germany will be able to control). Running away from the problem won’t fix it. Escaping to a fantasy world, to another country, won’t fix it. Singing and dancing – the panacea in so many movies from the advent of sound through the collapse of the studio era – won’t fix it. Life is not a cabaret, old chum. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no 4th of July.