I told very few of my friends one of my darkest pop culture secrets: I still hadn’t seen the movie Cabaret. However, I discovered a way to more than make up for one of my biggest, most shameful cinephile lapses when I learned that the movie would be showing at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. In 35mm, no less. Needless to say, I purchased a ticket in eager anticipation of the night, which I knew would be quite different from the fantastic stage play I had been fortunate enough to see.
And it truly was, albeit in a far more unsettling fashion than I had expected. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Cabaret follows the experiences of Brian Roberts (Michael York), who arrives in Germany in 1931 just in time to witness the rise of the Nazis. He’s also trying to figure out just what his sexual identity is, having not had great experiences with women. And he just happens to befriend the now iconic Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), who introduces him to her wild, bohemian lifestyle in Berlin, especially the Kit Kat Klub where she performs.
Many of the changes from stage to screen were for the better, and some were outright demanded by Liza Minnelli’s performance as Bowles. The stage play treated her ambitions more like pipe dreams, but Minnelli demands that you take them, and her, seriously. Watch her onstage, and it is impossible to deny she’s not only born to be there, but be a star. But while the Kit Kat Klub is kink-friendly haven for those deemed unnatural, a safe space it is not.
Director Bob Fosse makes this clear right from the beginning. One of the first things we see is the grinning, leering face of the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), whose garish makeup and yellow teeth unsettle from the start. He will not fill a role now commonplace in movies, that of the gay best friend the female lead turns to when she’s having romantic problems. He is a creature of pure id who follows wherever his pleasure leads, even if his desires could turn on him. When he sees Sally is unhappy one night, his idea of comforting her is grabbing her breasts.
It is also the MC who seems to know just how much the Nazis and those they scorn have in common. As the rise of fascism becomes impossible to ignore, he and the other performers incorporate many of their values onstage. And why not? The power they represent probably appeals to them, and the trappings of fascism-and the firm gender roles its followers demand-are just as much of a performance as the Kit Kat Klub’s campy musical numbers. It’s a far darker way of reminding us of just how much we have in common, and how we can all be seduced by a group offering ultimate power, even when it’s not offered to us. Most horrifying is to see those who’ve been subject to oppression embracing the values of their oppressors in the hopes of getting a taste of their power.
Just how does a group like the Nazis get that power? In the midst of their rise, they seem everywhere and nowhere. In “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” the only song that takes place outside of the club, a seemingly gentle patriotic song sung by a teenage boy at a beautiful outdoor setting soon turns into a dark, violent, Nazi tribute. The other people, save for one elderly man, passionately join in as the boy is revealed to be a member of the Hitler Youth. Even speaking out does little, as the characters who do generally gain little except a beating. What Cabaret seems to suggest is that if things are allowed to get this far, enabled by government and the populace alike, it’s probably already too late for one person to do much of anything about it.
Yes, tomorrow did indeed belong to them. But other forces intervened in time (just barely) to ensure the future did not. In the midst of the Trump Era, this begs the question of whether the resistance we’ve seen is strong enough to prevent our current state from transforming into something worse. Cabaret refuses to offer comfort. Instead, it demands accountability. Rescue did come, but it came too late for so many. Instead it asks us: will such drastic actions become necessary again?