Movie Review: Cabaret

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I got my dates mixed up the other day. I rushed home to watch the final game of the World Series, only to remember it was a travel day, and I had to satisfy myself with the news. Then, as an after-dinner consolation prize, we watched Cabaret, and that juxtaposition of current politics and the Nazi rise to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic (the movie takes place in 1931) gave much food for thought.

Cabaret is based on a Broadway musical of the same name, which is based on the play I Am a Camera, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, which is based on Isherwood’s own experiences in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. Whew.

I had seen the movie when it first came out in 1972 or ’73, but I had forgotten what a brilliant piece of film-making it is. It won Bob Fosse an Academy Award as best director, making him the only man ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy in one year. The movie stars Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli (both of whom won Oscars) and Michael York who, despite an incredibly long and distinguished career, is one of the most underrated actors alive today, having—as far as I know—never won any major award, and having only been nominated for an Emmy. (I remember his “Tybalt” in Zeffirelli’sRomeo and Juliet as being spectacularly deserving of an award.)

If you simply watched it as mindless entertainment, Cabaret would be hard to beat, given the performances and the music and the choreography, but Fosse’s genius is to take that mindless entertainment and use it as part of his juxtaposition of all the many different kinds of evil that allowed the Nazi party—the ultimate evil—to rise and triumph. So what we see is the evil of decadence, the evil of moral turpitude, the evil of apathy, the evil of ennui, the evil of willful self-delusion, the evil of willing ignorance, the evil of thoughtless collusion, the evil of self-absorption, the evil of demonizing an entire people, all of it set against glimpses of the more obvious forms of evil: hatred, violence, lies, propaganda (which is just another form of lying). If it sounds like a morality play in musical form, to an extent it is, but like any work of art, it succeeds because of our emotional involvement. We care about Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the two doomed characters of the sub-plot, the beautiful and wealthy Jewish girl and the impoverished Jew-pretending-to-be-an-Aryan who loves her. Kristallnacht and the concentration camps are still several years in the future, but their coming is foreshadowed in ways that make you long to step into the film and into the past and say, Leave! Go now! Run! There is one moment when you see Marisa Berenson’s beautiful face through a veil at her wedding and for a moment it hints at the winding sheet her violated young body will never have.

So what does all this have to do with American politics? The news was showing some of the hearings currently under way about the debacle of Obamacare. I have no idea whether Obamacare is a good thing for America or a bad thing. I suspect it is something well-intentioned but economically unsustainable, but whatever it may or may not be is beside the point. What one sees in the hearings, on both sides of the aisle, is a smarmy, self-serving litany of lies and distortions, each senator and each congressman breathlessly eager to demonize the other side, and each of them, in their different ways, offering a fool’s paradise they cannot possibly provide. Toward the end of Cabaret, there is a scene where Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the young Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem) stop at a country inn to have bite, and suddenly a young boy stands up and begins to sing a lovely song with lovely lyrics full of hope for the future, for a better world, for love and peace and prosperity. The song is lovely, the sentiments are lovely, the imagery is lovely, the boy is lovely, his voice is lovely, the rural setting of the inn is lovely, the weather is lovely, and gradually, one by one, the normal, average citizens eating their lunch get caught up in the beauty of the moment and join passionately in the singing. Only gradually does the camera pull away to reveal the boy is a Nazi offering a dream that will only be good for a select few. If I had been sitting in that Gasthaus, in that day and age, I too would have probably joined the singing. It’s a sobering thought.

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