Wilkommen to the Future
Released fifty years ago, Bob Fosse’s masterpiece is not only a celebration of sexual freedom, but a warning about apathy in the face of evil.
As anyone who knows me is well aware, I co-host a podcast all about my first love: old movies. It’s called The Rewind Project, and each episode revisits a famous (or infamous) film on a significant milestone anniversary. We talk about the film itself, naturally — but where things really get interesting is when we discuss what it’s like to watch a film today, 25, 50, or 75 years after it was made. These movies, frozen in celluloid, technically don’t change — but we sure do, and sometimes what we see in them now is very different from what people saw in their original theatrical run.
Recently, my friends and I discussed a film I’ve been waiting to tackle for three-and-a-half seasons: Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical, Cabaret. I’ve loved this movie since I was fifteen years old, and have seen it over twenty times, easily. Recently, I included it in a list of films that support a woman’s right to choose (there’s a pregnancy subplot in the third act).
For those who have never seen it (wie kannst du es wagen!), the primary story revolves around a doomed romance between Sally, a dynamic American showgirl (Liza Minnelli in an iconic, Oscar-winning performance), and Brian, a mild-mannered British graduate student (Michael York) in Berlin, 1931. In the episode (release date: July 29), we discussed many of the topics you might expect. Was Liza too good a singer to play Sally? Why were the landlady and the Jewish fruit vendor, so adorable in the stage musical, cut from the film? Was Brian gay or bisexual, and does it matter?
But there was one aspect of Cabaret that seemed to take all our attention in the year 2022, and while it was something I’d thought about before, it never seemed as urgent as it does today. As I noted above, the story takes place in Germany in the early 1930s. The slow rise of the Nazi party is depicted in fleeting scenes. At the beginning of the film, a Nazi youth is ejected from the nightclub where Sally sings, for panhandling in the audience. Later, the bouncer who did the ejecting is violently killed in the alley behind the club by a group of Nazis. As the film ends, several audience members with swastikas on their armbands sit in the front row of the club, enjoying the show. This tableau is chilling, precisely because any audience member with a scant knowledge of history knows that the story of the Nazis won’t end here, but only after their Holocaust will eventually claim the lives of six million Jews and five million other prisoners of war, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romany, and gay people.
But this isn’t the dynamic that captured our attention. We’d seen movies about Nazis before, after all. What was striking, almost terrifying, about watching Cabaret in 2022 was how little the characters cared. Brian was a man who paid attention to the world, and he was certainly concerned. His friends Fritz and Natalia were frightened, as they were both (spoiler!) Jewish, and knew what a rising anti-Semetic movement could cost them. But others in the film were entirely dismissive, or worse. At one point, a member of the German aristocracy describes the Nazi party as a “gang of stupid hooligans” that will be easily disposed of once they get rid of the equally pesky Communists. The enigmatic and nameless Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club (another Oscar-winning performance by Joel Grey) mines the rise of fascism as a source of jokes onstage; toward the end of the film, when a number featuring him alongside a tutu-clad gorilla ends with an anti-Semetic punchline, it’s difficult to tell if he’s poking fun at Nazis or Jews. Worst of all is Sally herself, who seems wholly ignorant of politics at all. In the entirety of the film, she says the word “Nazi” once — and at the time, is far more concerned about the recent departure of a rich lover and his deep pockets.
In Sally’s final moments on screen, she sings the title song of Cabaret, an ode to embracing freedom and living life to the fullest. What the audience knows is that life won’t be a “just a cabaret” for much longer. Soon, a movement that embodies hatred, intolerance and violence will change everything. And Sally won’t be ready.
The correlation to present-day America is alarming. Recently, the Supreme Court allowed states to determine whether women have the right to bodily autonomy. Soon, they could allow state legislatures to elect the Presidential candidates of their choice, disregarding how their own citizens vote. The rights to marriage equality and contraception may be next. Where this will lead and how quickly is not known to us yet. But how many of us, like the doomed denizens of the Kit Kat Club, will be caught unawares?
Eric Peterson is a Diversity & Inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available at all online book retailers. The Rewind Project is available wherever you listen to podcasts.