(Content Warning: this piece deals with heavy topics including, but not limited to, racism and genocide. It also features graphic photographs, as well as hate group symbology.)
It is no secret that the specter of fascism plagues our modern world. We have seen the rise of authoritarian leaders and politics in every corner of the globe, from Hungary to the Philippines. The United States is dealing with an ongoing assault on its democratic institutions from a demagogue and his loyal subjects, and our allies are barely keeping the Huns at the gate.
Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” depicts the subtle creep that defines the ways in which fascism is able to corrupt democracies from within. The populist leader who captures the imagination of the people, the troubles at home and abroad that undermine confidence in democratic institutions, the reactionary response to progress and liberalism. All of these ingredients have enabled human beings to inflict horrific cruelty upon each other in the name of “stability” or “tradition.”
Unlike Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” a story which deals with a fictitious fascist takeover of the United States of America, “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, explores the very real rise of Nazism in Weimar Republic Germany in 1931 — 2 years prior to Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor.
The movie masterfully weaves musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb from the original Broadway production, as well as a few pieces written specifically for the film including “Money,” into the harsh reality that was Germany in the time of the Great Depression. Unlike the Broadway production, the movie itself is not a traditional musical. Rather, the Kit Kat Club serves as the setting for all of the musical breaks within the context of the world in which the characters inhibit.
The world of 1931 Berlin is bleak, as are the prospects of the youthful German republic. Forged from the ashes of The Great War, the Weimar Republic was unable to resist the reactionary waves that led to Adolf Hitler and his “National Socialists” party’s ascent to power. Power struggles between the centre-left and Marxist-Leninist groups allowed the right-wing to abuse this wedge to their own benefit. The Nazis utilized a greed-driven corporate class, the antisemitic prejudices of average Germans, and the clamor for stability that a majority of the nation was unable to find in the midst of the economic downturn to fill the role of their nation’s “saviors.”
Brian Roberts, a graduate student in philosophy at Cambridge, serves as the stand in for the war-weary English people in the inter-war period. He has come to Berlin to complete his studies and aims to pay for his excursion by offering English lessons to pupils. Sally Bowles, an aspiring actress at the Kit Kat Club, serves the role of an America in denial. The nationalities of these characters are reversed in stage productions.
The English were battered by the Great War, suffering almost a million casualties in the span of 4 years. An entire generation of men were lost, and the heavy mental toll of the trenches and zeppelin bombings remained omnipresent in the minds of the British people. The United States emerged from the war as a tried and true superpower, able to stand head-to-head against the great powers of the Old World. Prior to the collapse of the stock market in 1929, and the resulting depression, the United States was riding high with no end in sight — as was Sally Bowles.
Sally is the daughter of a prominent American diplomat. Her relationship with her father is contentious — she believes he tries to love her but is simply unable to. She is stunted, childlike in her mannerisms and behavior. She drinks heavily, enjoys the company of many suitors, and finds joy in a bohemian lifestyle. She is cosmopolitan America in the 1920s personified to a tee, including a penchant for vaudeville and jazz.
Brian, in contrast, fills the role of the dignified Englishman. Though Sally is eventually able to wear down his “stiff upper lip,” he remains the moral lodestar of the tragedy. Brian is one of the only characters to acknowledge the ongoing shifts in German society, the slow but steady creep of fascism. The rest live in a state of perpetual denial, making excuse after excuse to brush away the ever-visible Nazi threat as nothing more than a passing trend. One of the characters, a bisexual baron named Maximilian Von Heune, even vocalizes what he sees as the useful nature of the Nazi’s presence:
“The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.”
This quote is a perfect evocation of the general mentality of the German ruling class at this time. The Social Democratic Party, centre-leftists who were the dominant political party of Weimar Germany, tolerated what they viewed as a conflict by fringe groups that weakened both the far-right and the far-left simultaneously. The communists, with guidance from Moscow and the Comintern, viewed the centre-left as more of a threat than the fascists. The capitalists were delighted by the Nazi attacks on organized labor and socialists groups, although they looked down on the Nazis as lower-class rabble all the same. To the ruling class, a class that Max very much embodies in the film, the Nazis were a necessary evil.
The Nazis would purge Germany of troublemakers, and then Germany would purge itself of the Nazis. This, of course, was not to be the case.
A visual motif that Fosse uses throughout the course of the film is the background scenery and characters that exist parallel to Sally and Brian. We see the pair strolling down a Berlin street, behind them stands a wall plastered with communist posters — all vandalized. We see a young Brownshirt providing water to the patrons of the Kit Kat Club, only to be viciously kicked out by the manager.
This shows us the first stage of reactionary activity: the fringe group.
At this point in the film, the Nazis are a minor annoyance. They are just a few overzealous troublemakers: kids looking for structure and acting out, or disgruntled men acting like hooligans while trying to hide behind a veneer of politics.
The Master of Ceremonies, portrayed hauntingly by Joel Gray, even mocks the failed leader of the Beer Hall Putsch by smearing mud under his nose, and giving a Roman salute to the audience.
Then, the Nazis kill the manager of the club.
What was once a gang of unorganized thugs, previously mocked by the German public for their failed coup attempt, is now becoming a major political movement. What was once a small organization, consisting mainly of older, disenfranchised men, is now surging in membership and establishing a youth engagement wing. What was once a minor, fringe philosophical school of conservatism is quickly becoming the dominant voice of conservatism in the country. What was once a general societal tension between Jews and gentiles is now becoming an openly antagonistic and violent conflict aiming to drive Jews from Germany as a whole.
What was once a leaky sink is now becoming a flood.
And Sally sings, Brian writes.
The secondary story of the film concerns a gigolo named Fritz Wendel who falls in love with a prominent heiress from a Jewish family, Natalia Landauer. Fritz initially begins a courtship with Natalia in pursuit of her family’s wealth, but he is quick to develop genuine feelings and soon falls head over heels for her. She remains suspicious of his intentions, but realizes she feels similar passion towards Fritz following Fritz’s rather liberal interpretation of Brian’s romantic advice to “pounce.”
Natalia consults with Sally, expressing her feelings but acknowledging the reality of the two lover’s situation — Fritz is a gentile, non-Jewish. She expresses her concern that Fritz’s attraction towards her is dangerous for him due to the rise in antisemitism. It is revealed later that Fritz is in fact Jewish, only hiding this fact due to the aforementioned antisemitism that was dominating German society in the final days of the Weimar Republic. The two marry after Fritz realizes that his love for Natalie is greater than his fear of the Nazis.
This confession of faith follows one of the cruelest musical numbers in the musical, titled “If You Could See Her”.
The Master of Ceremonies takes the stage alongside a Gorilla in a dress; a proper lady, parasol and all. He defends his love for the beast to the audience by highlighting her civilized qualities, including her ability to read music and her abstention from alcohol. The lovers waltz across the stage, share longing looks into each others eyes, and the MC even provides a nose ring for his ape love.
His final plea to the audience is a request for the world to “leben und leben lassen, live and let live.” He then concludes the song as follows:
“Oh, I understand your objection,
I grant you the problem’s not small;
But if you could see her thru my eyes,
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”
For American audiences of both the movie and musical, the presence of an “ape-person” on stage, presented in a comedic manner, would undeniably be reminiscent of the heinous depiction of Black people within the world of minstrelsy. Yet, from what I’ve seen in the footage of multiple productions of the show, the instinct of the audience is always to laugh once the ape is revealed to the audience. This can easily be attributed to shock, if you haven’t seen the show before the ape will undoubtedly come as a surprise. But I’d argue it is much more sinister than that, and that this number highlights the genius of both the original creators of the musical, as well as Bob Fosse’s direction of the film.
We laugh because we know what is coming, albeit subconsciously. It is funny to compare people to animals, to stereotype and use humor as a shield against backlash when we express hatred or suspicion towards an “out-group.” It’s the same reason that “it’s just a joke” is used endlessly as an excuse by those who act in bad faith. They use that excuse because they know the truth about people, or at least what society has made truthful about people, and why we will often give them the benefit of the doubt — we are all susceptible to this hatred.
We laugh because, as it is presented, it is a humorous skit and nothing more. The joke is that a man is attracted to an ape, a non-human, who bears all the signs of civility and humanity. Yet, she isn’t human. It reminds us of the saying “lipstick on a pig,” or “pearls before swine.” We find it humorous when those we view as uncivilized act civilized, when the out-group acts like the in-group. We feel safe laughing because its a harmless joke, a quiet nod to a familiar sentiment. And, as long as it remains vague and non-specific, we can hide behind the fact that its humorous — any perceived slight is simply in the mind of those who are easily offended.
But then, the MC rips the veil off. He specifies who the out-group is — Jews.
Now we can no longer hide behind the vague humor, we are all complicit in the targeted hatred.
This is why the use of faux-irony and irreverent humor is utilized so heavily by modern fascist groups, such as the “alt-right.” “It’s just a joke,” until it isn’t.
When the veil is finally ripped off, and the intention of these groups is made abundantly clear. They are no longer in the stage of fringe annoyance, they are now in a stage of action.
This action includes fielding large enough numbers to influence the levers of power, vigilante activity against targeted groups, infiltration of existing institutions such as law enforcement and governmental offices, and a much more brazen approach to public relations.
Now, their line will read something more akin to: “It was never a joke, and its time to get serious.”
This is when books get burned.
The most powerful scene of the film is a masterclass in manipulation. Max has brought Sally and Brian into a world of careless hedonism, culminating in an awkward moment of sexual tension between the 3 lovers. The following morning, after a day of gluttony and sexual escapism, the trio leave Max’s familial estate. Sally stays behind to nap in the car as Brian and Max enjoy a country Biergarten and hold a toast towards their never-to-be-realized trip to Africa.
“The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to me…”
The young man has captured the attention of all in attendance. Young and old, women and men, all alike and transported to the pastoral scene the singer paints. The camera pans down.
The singer is a Brownshirt, a member of the Hitler Youth. We, the audience, recoil, all too aware of the threat this man represents. But the patrons of the Biergarten look on in admiration, reciprocating the inviting smile of the youth. Some of the younger adults in the crowd bear anger on their faces, but the anger is not targeted towards the singer. We listen to the singer’s words.
“The branch of the linden is leafy and green,
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen.
Tomorrow belongs to me…”
He continues to entrance us with images of the natural beauty of Germany, no different to America’s “purple mountain majesties” or the “fruited plain.” And he hints at a destiny awaiting us, an unrealized glory to be achieved, a future to be secured. A future belonging to me, us.
“Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me…”
A call to arms, the signal to finally rip off the veil. A promise of the world, a dream that will be realized in the morning, not in the far future or in the afterlife. And the patrons are swept in the surge, rising from their seats and singing in unison. An older man, no doubt a witness to the death and destruction that ravaged his nation in the very recent past, shakes his head in quiet condemnation. He is all too aware of what follows.
All too aware of what follows when people willingly enslave themselves to their anger, to the whispered sweet nothings that say this in their ear — “you are better than them.”
Who is “them”?
“Them” are those who end up behind barbed wire, shot en masse, sent to gas chambers, incinerated in ovens.
Yet, the patrons are smiling, empowered and rapturous. Are they aware of what will be the end result of this unabashed pride, this fervorous piety? Of course not, they are simply submitting to the training that was conditioned into them by their society since birth — might makes right. The only difference between this moment and the last is that, previously, the message was muted.
Brian and Max return to the car. Brian, referring to Max’s earlier comment on the Nazis, asks, “do you still think you can control them?”
Max provides no answer.
Now, the veil has been ripped off. They are willing to crush the out-group beneath their feet in pursuit of this promised glory, this return to perfection.
This is how human beings are slaughtered.
We can judge, we have hindsight. We know what happened to these so-called “Übermensch,” these “superior Aryans.” Maybe we can even judge them from a nationalist perspective as Americans, with a nose lifted in superiority and bolstered by meaningless phrases like “all men are created equal.” In reality, Hitler’s discriminatory laws were based heavily on America’s Jim Crow laws.
After Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he returned to America hoping to leverage this success and earn a living. Instead, he was essentially blacklisted by the major athletic organizations and forced to race horses to earn a few bucks for years. When a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria was held in his honor, he was told to take the service elevator. American society appreciated the wins, but not the man. Owens, when asked if Hitler snubbed him, said this:
“While at the Olympic Games, I had the opportunity to meet the King of England. I had the opportunity to wave at Hitler, and I had the opportunity to talk with the King of Sweden, and some of the greatest men in Europe. Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
— Jesse Owens
The president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who led America into World War Two.
The Berlin Olympics served as the perfect opportunity for Hitler and the Nazis to showcase their purported “Aryan supremacy” and the perfection of German society, amid its ongoing “cleansing.” The most obscene antisemitic literature and posters were hidden from the foreign public, and the most violent tendencies of the regime were muted while the games took place. This was all PR, a sanitized depiction of fascist authoritarianism to appease, and trick, the liberal democracies.
Fascism is never presented as death camps, as secret police, as total war. It is presented as salvation, a return to greatness, empowerment of a silent majority. A belief that the leader alone can fix it, that only those who agree with us are worthy to call themselves patriots.
In the musical, a character revealed to be a Nazi prepares to leave a party in anger when he learns it is celebrating a forthcoming marriage between a gentile woman and a Jew. He confronts the woman, a fellow German, and implies that her very safety is at risk if she goes through with the marriage.
“He’s not a German,” the Nazi says.
“But he was born here,” responds the bride-to-be.
“He’s not a German.”
Owens highlighted a tragic reality — this type of prejudice can live in, and corrupt, anyone. It is not limited to nationality, race, creed, ethnicity, or status. The spell of fascism can turn “civilized” people into those who willingly allow a genocide to take place right under their noses, or, directly participate in it. Fascism is not a thing of the past, nor is it confined to any national, or rational, boundaries.
It is a threat to all societies, all nations, all communities, all people.
And Sally sings, Brian writes.
Sally and Brian’s love affair in Berlin is a sordid one. The two are constantly at odds, lying to one another and avoiding the reality of their respective situations. Sally is a hedonist, unwilling to even acknowledge the fast approaching sound of goosestepping stormtroopers. Brian is trying to inhibit two worlds simultaneously, one of the foreigner who rationalizes that the affairs of his host nation are not his concern, and the other of the liberal academic who is opposed to the Nazis, but impotent in his ability to stop them.
After becoming angry with Sally, he picks a fight with two Brownshirts handing out literature on the street. He ends up with a bruised face, a cast, and a fractured ego — a rather on the nose depiction of the initial efforts of liberalism to halt the march of fascism. Brian yells at a fellow lodger at the boarding house he resides in with Sally when the man defends the conspiracy theory of the “international Jewish bankers,” the fictitious group that the Nazis blamed for Germany’s defeat, and betrayal, in the First World War. The landlord, one of the captive audience members of her lodger, ruefully laments for the days of the Kaiser.
“Then we had order.”
Brian is aimlessly lashing out against the rise of fascism, acting as a one man army, but eventually succumbs to defeat. Sally, unable to confront the realities that her surprise pregnancy forced upon her, sells the fur coat that Max gifted her and gets an abortion. Brian, heartbroken, realizes that his relationship with Sally can never become more than a careless fling. He returns to England, leaving Sally behind.
Sally is unwilling to wake up from the pleasant dream of isolation. Unwilling to address the problem, unwilling to acknowledge the thunder in the distance.
So, she sings.
“What good is sitting alone In your room?
Come hear the music play,
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret…”
Here is the siren song of imposed isolation, self-delusion in the face of disaster. The desire to avoid uncomfortable realities and instead surround oneself with vice and ecstasy — the ostrich finding comfort by placing its head in the sand.
“What good’s permitting
Some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away?
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret…”
“Sure, things are getting crazy now, but its just a passing phase, a flare up! Things will work out, they always do. They don’t mean half of what they say! It’s just a joke, you’re too easily offended. You’re paranoid, you love drama. Nothing is going to happen.”
“Alright, something happened, but its not as bad as you’re saying it is.”
“Alright, that was bad, but it couldn’t get any worse.”
“Come taste the wine,
Come hear the band.
Come blow a horn,
Right this way,
Your table’s waiting…”
Sally continues this plea for ignorance, this celebration of avoidance. Suddenly, something resembling an acknowledgment of the severity of the situation comes.
“I used to have a 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.”
Here we see fear in her eyes for the first time, the long awaited realization.
“I think of Elsie to this very day.
I remember how she’d turn to me and say:”
The look of fear morphs into a twisted smile, the smile of a mind lost the second it peered into the abyss.
“‘What good is sitting all alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret...’”
Sally has committed fully to her delusion, content with her refusal to fight the seemingly unstoppable tide of history.
“And as for me, as for me,
I made my mind up back in Chelsea,
When I go, I’m going like Elsie.”
With her final acceptance complete, and the approach of the films end, she provides her rationality to the audience.
“Start by admitting
From cradle to tomb
It isn’t that long a stay.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Only a Cabaret, old chum
And I love a Cabaret.”
We all love a cabaret. The “bread and circuses” that allow us to momentarily ignore the realities that linger over us every passing second. Enable us to escape into a separate reality, a reality where our family members aren’t seemingly lost in a cycle of increasing disillusionment and hostility, where neighbors aren’t suspicious of each other and those passing through their community, where we aren’t second guessing each other’s intentions and loyalties.
Where the thunder is far away.
The MC returns to bid us farewell, reiterating the question he asked of us at the beginning of the film.
“Where are your troubles now? Forgotten? I told you so. Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.”
The familiar introductory music plays, but it is warped and distorted now. The melody is haunting, the rhythm erratic. Even this den of hedonism, this shelter for the bleeding hearts, the queer, the cosmopolitan, the outsiders, is corrupted by the all-encompassing approach of the thunder. The MC bids us farewell.
“Auf wiedersehen. A bientot…”
He leaves out the final, English, farewell — “goodbye.” He exits behind a curtain in a hurried motion. The camera pans to face the audience. Glassware acts as a fun house mirror, distorting the image of the Kit Kat Club’s patrons. All seems normal, though no one appears to be smiling.
Suddenly, one armband. Two. A few more.
The final shot: two Brownshirts, sitting comfortably in the best seats of a club that once forbade their presence.
The flood has arrived.
What does Cabaret teach us that we don’t already know?
Sinclair Lewis aimed to tackle the same delusion that defined Sally Bowles, the belief that America is impervious to the siren call of fascism. Or, at the very least, powerful enough to stop it. This confidence engenders the hedonism that defines America, provides the mentality necessary for a culture of consumption and willful ignorance. The cracks in the foundation did not start to form within the last few years, they were present when the nation was formed. They have only grown, expanded, widened.
As the divide grows, and issues remain unaddressed, the cracks will only continue to worsen.
Then, the flood.
“Cabaret” is a powerful reminder of how natural of a reaction it is for us to avoid the horror of reality, freeze in the face of terror. We all believe we are impervious to propaganda and manipulation, more intelligent than the generations that came before us. And, confident in this knowledge, we grab a drink and start celebrating. After all, life is short, and our table is waiting…
We scratch our heads at the past and wonder how they could have been so gullible!
Gullible enough to fall under the sway of a megalomaniac's words, succumb to extreme political partisanship, support wars that were justified by authorities with flimsy rationalizations or outright lies, accept the need to imprison individuals under dubious circumstances or even keep them in camps, vote for corrupt individuals who aim to destroy the very institution they sought election to, or scapegoat an entire demographic of people.
That would be impossible in the 21st Century.