Fifty years ago this month, Bob Fosse’s movie “Cabaret” brought past and present into carnal collision, ushering the late-Weimar bohemian spirit into an era that was undergoing gender and sexual upheaval. After a stultifying stretch of postwar wholesomeness, “Cabaret”’s seedy aesthetic of divine decadence carried the ’30s era of opium, tobacco, and booze into the age of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Everything about the protagonist, Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minnelli — the garish chemises, the glinting black helmet of hair, the claw-like eyelashes, the sparkling emerald fingernails, the soigné cigarette holders, the curative prairie oyster cocktails, the infectious ebullience — seemed to glitter with seductive allure and emotional fragility. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael summed up the critical consensus when she raved on its release, “Minnelli has such gaiety and electricity that she becomes a star before our eyes.”
The irony about remembering “Cabaret” for its magnetic star is that the film is a stark warning that aesthetic spectacles blind us to the threat of authoritarianism. A film best remembered for sex and decadence is actually an indictment of the toadies, lackeys, voluptuaries, and blue bloods who failed to oppose the gathering storm of fascism.
The short version of the film’s labyrinthine origin story is that director Bob Fosse adapted the material from a mishmash of sources that began with “Goodbye Berlin,” Christopher Isherwood’s 1935 novel set in the twilight of the Jazz Age. In 1952, John van Druten refashioned the narrative into a play, “I Am Camera,” which was itself turned into a 1955 movie of the same name. A Broadway stage musical was adapted by Harold Prince in 1966, which served as the basis for the story that became the 1972 film “Cabaret.”
Stripped of razzle-dazzle, the plot is bleak. Brian Roberts, a doctoral student at Cambridge, in England, arrives by train in 1931 Berlin, where he lodges at a boardinghouse across the hall from Sally Bowles, a flamboyant American cabaret performer working at the Kit Kat Klub under the direction of an impish emcee. He and Sally strike up a romance, even as she toys with (or gets toyed with by) a handsome playboy and wealthy baron named Maximilian von Heune. On discovering she’s pregnant, Sally agrees to marry Brian (and celebrates with enough gin to stun a mule), and then pawns her fur coat to bribe a doctor to get an abortion. Brian returns to Britain and Sally stays behind to chase her dreams at the club. A subplot follows Brian’s friend Fritz Wendel, a German Jew passing as a Christian, as he courts a Jewish department store heiress, Natalia Landauer. When Sally belts her insouciant final number, “Cabaret,” extolling a hard-partying, carefree hedonism, the looming sense of dread finally takes shape before our eyes as a throng of Nazis pack the audience.
“Cabaret” wants us to understand several counterintuitive appeals of fascism. For one, it strikes a handsome pose. Our first glimpse of the fascist threat arrives looking innocuous enough, when a jaunty brownshirt sporting a swastika on his armband politely maneuvers around the club soliciting political donations. He is amiable, charming, and orderly, cutting a sharp contrast to a chaotic mud-wrestling match unfolding on stage.
For fascists, beauty is a seductive facade camouflaging the threat of violence. The maître d’ shoves the young brownshirt to the exit, but moments later we’re shown an alleyway where two brownshirts, obscured from public view, brutally beat the maître d’ to death. This scene sets a pattern in which violence will get carried out by people wielding surface-level charm.
But the real seductive power of fascist aesthetics comes into focus after Max and Brian pull over from a ride through the bucolic countryside to stop in at a Bavarian beer garden. It’s an agrarian idyll: lights strung above picnic tables, old men hunched over chessboards, beer-quaffing countryfolk sporting dirndls and lederhosen. An innocent young man’s voice carries a ballad above the din as his cherubic Aryan face gazes upward with longing. Then the camera pans down to reveal the uniform of a Hitler Youth. One by one, the people leap to their feet as they join the chorus, their voices gathering force and zeal, as though effacing their individuality and amassing as one fierce and fanatical will. They’ve answered the fascist call for unity, succumbing to a fiction of an idealized past.
This scene borrows from the Hitler Youth rally on the parade ground in Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Riefenstahl’s sublime tableaus are chillingly seductive. The faces show frenzied adulation, a welter of emotion recollected in tranquility, as though bedazzled by scenes of symmetry and coordination. Susan Sontag regarded the film as the quintessential falsification of fact, whereby “‘reality’ has been reconstructed to serve the image.” Images of “Triumph of the Will” ricochet through “Cabaret.”
That said, “Cabaret” isn’t really concerned with fascism itself. Lots of films straightforwardly depict an authoritarian or kleptocrat. Not here. The film takes Hitler’s looming malevolence as a given. Instead, it’s interested in the enablers, the capitulators, and the bystanders who failed to intervene to protect German democracy. Brian, the learned liberal who in his ivory-tower pedantry fails to grasp the urgency of the moment. Max, the bon vivant oligarch who thinks the Nazi Party is his puppet. Sally, the booze-swilling cabaret crooner who scorns responsibility in her pursuit of fame. Fritz, the gigolo gold digger who dissociates from his Jewish heritage to go social climbing. Natalia, the Jewish heiress who clings to the hope that wealth can safeguard her family.
We expect, of course, that the Kit Kat Klub, as a hub of aesthetes, dancers, cross-dressers, bisexuals, and musicians, would be a kind of home base for agitators primed to pit themselves against a rising fascist dictatorship. But “Cabaret” is keen on showing that the bohemian political left isn’t necessarily well equipped to mobilize political resistance.
Sally, for one, epitomizes heedless solipsism. She fashions herself worldly, exotic, but she’s striking a pose as an international woman of mystery and can’t understand the political discourse roiling Germany. She brushes past legions of political posters — some torn, others graffitied with hammer and sickle — without pause, babbling about her wistful adoration of a film actress, and later she hurries by a motorcycle laden with swastikas. When the blood of Communists literally runs through the streets after a Nazi crackdown on a rally, Sally merely presses onward to a hoity-toity bar to flaunt her fur coat.
If all this got mostly overlooked in 1972, it’s safe to say that it lands harder at its half-century anniversary. Fanatical rallies, enablers who glom onto power, incantatory repetition of a brazen lie, political discourse swamped by an anesthetizing entertainment culture — it’s as though reality has caught its reflection in a dark mirror of the past.
Tom Joudrey is a writer in State College, Pa., who has also contributed to Slate and The Guardian.