I am a product of many components if you will. Some good. Some bad. The juxtaposition of that good and bad depends on who you talk to. But one thing I am not is a blasphemer. I do not take the Lord’s name in vain. I just don’t. Won’t.
So when I ask, Dear God, how could they do it? Or, more precisely, God how could they allow it to happen? I’m literally asking God how could the Wiemar Republic (pre Nazi Germany, 1919-1933) and, yes, especially, the German people allow the Nazis to overrun their country?
It’s a question that has been asked thousands upon thousands of times over the eighty-five years since it happened. Many–dare I say–hundreds and hundreds of books have been written on the subject. I’ve read a few myself. But, for me, the closest I’ve come to understanding how it happened is by watching Bob Fosse’s landmark 1972 musical drama Cabaret.
The film setting is 1931 Germany. The Nazis–Hitler’s fiercely devoted sycophant, Ernst Rohm’s, Brownshirts, especially–are making the big push. They are everywhere in German society, little pockets of them. They bully. They harass. They beat and kick and stab and vandalize. They rail against the press and torment homosexuals. And, of course, tragically, they have an especially purulent, cancerous hated for Jews. As a consequence of their vile behavior, most Germans have nothing but contempt for them. They snicker at the Nazis–behind their backs, of course.
Burlesque performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) thrives in this environment. Don’t misunderstand, she’s definitely not a Nazi. In fact she is very upfront with her sexual debauchery, something that early Nazism supposedly frowned upon. She makes a living from it day in and day out at the Kit Kat Klub where she, along side the master of ceremonies (Joel Grey), is the featured attraction.
Now the rub against Liza Minnelli has always gone something like this: She’s a try hard performer. She pours out her heart and wears it on her sleeve in a shameless display of love me…Love Me…Please! I’m begging you! LOVE ME!!
To this criticism I say simply say..
Yes. It’s true. Liza Minnelli tried hard. Exceptionally hard. She worked her ass off. She cared. She gave the people their money’s worth. When she was onstage, she owned it. No matter how garish or stark the background, how magnificent the props and lighting or how instep the other dancers–all eyes were on her.
And, yes, she wanted to be loved. All the great one’s do. That’s why they do it. Show business is an industry of narcissism. At least Liza Minnelli gave as much as she took–that’s the distinction that made her special. She was a great singer. No doubt. But there have been better. She was an amazing dancer. Undeniably. But, even here, there have been better. Goodness knows that there have been better actors, that’s not even up for debate. No one, though, has ever been a better performer because no one has wanted it more.
That’s a noble thing. That takes guts. That’s what made Liza Minnelli and Sally Bowles one.
Let’s take a look at Sally:
She is striking, but not pretty. She knows this and isn’t entirely comfortable with it–she wants to be beautiful–so she plays the exotic to the hilt. Green sparkling fingernails. Flamboyant costumes in the club and outside of it too. Her hair is severe. Cut short over her ears with wisps that curl toward her face. She has a window’s peak chopped into her bangs. Her eyes are big and black–expressive–made even bigger and blacker with lots of mascara. Everything is big with Sally. Big laughs. Big gestures. Big tears.
Onstage she is all raunch and debauchery. No nudity, but tantalizingly close at times, her act drips with prurient fetish, greed, corruption and all manner of excess. That and talent. Oh, yes. She is talented. But does she know it? Is she desperately trying to convince herself? It would seem so.
Now let’s look at her partner in the onstage debauchery, Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies:
He is demonic. Truly, there is no better word for him. Thin, precise, he is in full blown white pancake makeup with a little red cupid’s bow of a mouth painted on just so and rouge rounds on his cheeks. His hair is immaculately plastered to his head, parted down the middle. His costumes are crisp and clean. His teeth are yellow.
Provocative. Suggestive of all manner of averice. He is unquestionably male with flourishes of vile, festering femininity. He is MC, stage manager and narrator in song and dance. He cracks the whip. If hell has a burlesque club, the Kit Kat Klub is it, and the master of ceremonies is the proprietor.
The master of ceremonies does not exist outside the Kit Kat Klub, but Sally does. She lives in a boarding house. There she befriends Brian (Michael York), her bi-sexual British next door neighbor.
Brian is repressed and decent and smart. He is working on his doctorate and is teaching English on the side. He finds relief in Sally’s free spirit although he is sometimes troubled by her irresponsibility. When she comes onto him like gangbusters he gently rebuffs her. He finds her quite seductive he assures, but he’s never had much luck with women–literally getting lucky with only three in his entire life of twenty-eight years. She accepts this and shows him around town, and, of course, she takes him to the Kit Kat Klub. Gradually, tenderly, they fall in love.
Onstage Sally proclaims her love in the uncharacteristically hopeful and beautiful song Maybe This Time. She is radiant and at peak form. Unabashed sincerity transforms her into the magnificent performer she longs to be. But the audience response is ho hum. They don’t want hope. And they damn sure don’t want Sally Bowles to be happy. Neither does the orchestra, the dancers and especially the master of ceremonies.
Sally and Brian become involved with Maximillian Von Heaune (Helmut Griem) in a collusion of sex and soul killing indifference. Like his impressive name implies, Max is aristocracy. He buys whatever his taste and predilections will allow. He buys Sally outright when she proudly displays herself on the auction block. He seduces Brian.
It’s not that Max isn’t fond of Sally and Brian, he is. But they have entered into a contract with him. There are many, many strings attached and only Max possesses the means to cut those strings, because only Max has the will–and the money.
When Brian confronts Max with the violence of the Brownshirts, he merely shrugs his shoulders. They’re are just expendable thugs he says. The Wiemar Republic will use them to control the Communist (who Max is more afraid of because they pose a greater threat, superficially anyway, to his opulent quality of life). He is unconcerned because his money insulates him. But does it really?
Of course Sally and Brian are expendable too. When he tires of them he leaves, dropping off a letter of affection and some money; a rather pitiful amount really, considering what Sally and Brian have squandered, but at least it’s something.
In Bob Fosse’s brilliant masterpiece, Cabaret, all four major characters represent segments within the Wiemar German society. It is one big, fat metaphor of a movie, if you will.
The Sally Bowels character represents the typical German citizenry. They are not Nazis. But they are scarily self-absorbed with the issues of the day. And, yes, they were burdened: Unemployment. A loathsome and dire Depression. The crippling ramifications of the failed Versailles Treaty. The populace were, understandably, desperate for distraction. And distracted they were. They hardly noticed when six million of their fellow citizens were starved, tortured and annihilated. That is what they said.
We didn’t know!!!
Brian represents the German intelligentsia. He should know better and he does, but instead he intertwines himself with Sally and Max. He should be the brakes of the relationship, just as the German press should have thwarted the rise of Nazism, or a least rang the hell out of the warning bell, but he is seduced into complacency and normalcy.
Max’s metaphor is an obvious one. He represents the aristocracy who are only concerned with their wealth and position of power. They rub shoulders with the common folk (Sally), and the intellectuals (Brian) and the Nazis when it suits them. Otherwise they are aloof and insulated by their money and the comforts it can buy.
But what about the most vile, repugnant and evil character of all, the master of ceremonies? Who does he represent? The SS, perhaps? Could it be Hitler?
The master of ceremonies represents Fosse’s beloved community of artists. This contemptible monstrosity is: The actor. The dancer. The poet. The sculptor. The painter. The film director.
Fosse derides his community unmercifully. He holds them responsible. He makes no excuses for them. His moral indignation, his humanity, vomits all over them.
There is one other community that Bob Fosse thinks so little of that he doesn’t even include in his scathing commentary. Did he simply overlook them? Did he find their contribution to the demise of the moral compass of German society insignificant? I wonder even as, and because, first and foremost, I count myself one of this community. I ask the question that Fosse didn’t bother to.
Dear God, where were the Christians?