“The Nazi musical,” as star Liza Minnelli glibly put it, has felt pertinent for a long time, but rarely as much as this weekend, when the events of Charlottesville again revealed just how far our society can sink. It may prove a watershed moment, as much for 45’s mealy-mouthed non-reply as the sight of Americans marching with torches and throwing Nazi salutes at every camera in sight. The murder of Heather Heyer added a gruesome punctuation to a singularly horrifying event… and yet none were surprised when Trump couldn’t manage the basics of sympathy exhibited by most warm-blooded species.
The hate and rage on display have been with us for centuries: stretching back to the founding of the country and revealed more recently in incidents like GamerGate and the Cliven Bundy standoff. Trump merely gave it permission to come into the open: fed by his noxious racism, his obscene pandering to the alt-right, and his indefensible perpetration of the birther myth that paved his way to the White House. That slow percolation remains the primary focus of Cabaret, and the reason it retains much of its power. It shows us the rot of the Weimar Republic slowly giving way to something far worse: obvious in retrospect but hidden just out of sight as the characters go about their lives.
Director Bob Fosse certainly recognized how the Nazis came to power, and finds amazing ways to demonstrate the steady advance of fascism in the hearts and minds of people who should know better. Some of it appears in the background, such as the political posters and graffiti lining the walls behind Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her friend Brian (Michael York) as they discuss the vagaries of being young and bohemian. But the real rabbit punches come in the musical numbers, most powerfully in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” which – in simple, straightforward terms – shows us how a tiny group of fringe lunatics managed to seize control of an enlightened nation.
The scene starts slowly and subtly, with a smiling lad at a biergarten singing about forests and the Rhine. Fosse pulls the camera down from his face with slow, dreadful certainty to reveal the swastika on his arm. He recites a few lines alone, enraptured by the attention he’s gained, but still standing by himself. Then a few other young men join him. Then a girl. Then more men and women, standing one by one and singing with increasing confidence. By the time the boy actually flashes the salute, the entire crowd is with him: his hate now fully reflected in their faces and a few rightfully appalled people in his audience suddenly in the minority.
It’s a chilling sight, and the feeling runs through the film like a live wire: unnoticed by the characters until the terrifying jolts hit them from out of the blue. Brian spots it early on – even mixing it up with the brownshirts in the street – yet in the end can do nothing but save himself from its effects. The odds were against him from the beginning, particularly with the sinister MC (Joel Grey) keeping the populace slumbering and distracted while the horror show around them all gets worse and worse.
Fosse makes no bones about the MC’s infernal nature, even cutting back to him at key points to stress who and what he is (check out his grin at the end of the clip above). But the true purpose of his tricks remains as subtle as the growing danger they facilitate. He’s not simply distracting the public from the Nazis’ growing power. He’s conditioning them to accept the dehumanization and barbarity to come. His “outlandish” onstage skits embrace pure ugliness, often disguised as earthy dalliances or flat-out jokes. The most obvious example comes with “If You Could See Her From My Eyes,” a seemingly harmless bit of vaudevillian ridiculousness with a terrifying anti-Semitic sting. Its awful nature pales before the fact that it passes without comment from his audience. Hey, it’s just a little fun right? A harmless, politically incorrect gag! It’s not like they’re going to end up in ovens or anything…
Blaming the entertainment industry when society goes haywire is a fool’s errand – Hollywood responds to trends rather than setting them – but it’s not hard to link the sordid displays of the Kit-Kat Klub to the realty-show swamp from which Trump slithered. 45 can’t match the MC for Machiavellian cunning, but he shares the character’s cruel and ugly showmanship: his way of harnessing our gaze no matter how much we may wish otherwise and inducing those who hunger for such hate to let their id loose.
Fosse adds an air of surrealism to punctuate the film’s ostensibly normal surface. Unlike most musicals, Cabaret keeps all of its numbers in the context of reality: besides “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung at a public event, the rest take place onstage at the club. That realism is undercut by the dreamlike haze covering the rest of Berlin: the way everyone seems to move in slow motion without ever looking up. Indeed, the characters onscreen stop dead in their tracks from time to time, literally frozen in the face of the monstrosity before them. It appears in the club during the MC’s opening number, then later (and much more disturbingly) amid onlookers watching a corpse dribble blood onto the street.
The vibe echoes life in 2017 with terrifying familiarity, though there are at least some indicators that we’re not as asleep as the figures in Cabaret are. The backlash against both the events of Charlottesville and Trump’s weaksauce response suggest that longtime resistors are still going strong. Even some fence sitters seem to be shaking out of their lethargy as fascism walks unafraid through our cities. It gives one hope, though the danger has yet to abate.
Indeed, it may just be getting started, and while we have potent new weapons at our disposal (social media can get us organized in a big hurry), the same old siren song still ensnares far more than it should. “It’s not a big deal.” “They’re just acting out.” “They’re not REALLY Nazis.” Cabaret never lets the “good people” who spout such nonsense off the hook, even those, like poor Sally, who stick with the show without realizing its terrible cost. But mostly it shows us the signposts on the road to damnation, and pleads with us to heed them before it’s too late. It remains to be seen whether we can change course for good or not.
At least many of us have the self-respect to be disgusted by what we’ve seen… and thankfully there’s no shortage of Brians ready to call the stormtroopers out on their shit. We need as many of them as we can if we’re going to stop this.