By Megan Bianco
I remember after the housing market crashed in late 2008, I watched a video essay that film critic A.O. Scott did on John Ford’s film adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and how surprised he was that the film had suddenly become socially relevant for the first time since 1940. In this crazy aftermath of the 2016 election, I find myself mystified at how I feel Bob Fosse’s 1972 “Cabaret” could possibly become relevant to modern times. The movie musical was a hip, artsy screen adaptation of the popular 1966 stage musical of the same name from composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, which in turn was based on the 1939 novella “Goodbye Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood. In between that, there was also a straight play production called “I am a Camera” in 1951 that influenced the movie.
The 1972 film was a huge hit at the time of release and became infamous for beating out “The Godfather“ for most of the Oscars the following year. With wins including Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, Best Director to Fosse, Best Art Direction and Best Musical Score. “Cabaret“ is set in 1931 Berlin, during the calm before the storm as the Nazi party was speedily rising, but hadn’t yet proclaimed war. Cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) is the protagonist, along with her roommate turned boyfriend Brian Roberts (Michael York), who teaches English lessons to Germans. At the time of production, Minnelli still hadn’t completely stopped being referred to as “Judy Garland’s daughter,” and her Americanized portrayal of the formerly British character would become just the push she needed to fly into superstardom.
Her nightclub numbers, along with Grey’s numbers, create the eerie, sexy vibe that underground Berlin was feeling at the time while the country was politically changing outside. The title song and “Mein Herr” would be staples for Minnelli, and the ballad “Maybe This Time” compares to her mother’s “The Man That Got Away.” The one number not performed in the Kit Kat Klub is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” chillingly sung by the Nazi youth in town. I’ve seen some bloggers online compare the sequence to some of the sudden open hatred and prejudice that’s occurred on social media the past week, and I couldn’t help but feel a similar vibe when I watched the musical again this week. The satirical duet “Money” performed by Minnelli’s Sally and Grey’s Emcee is always relevant, and Grey’s opening number “Willkommen” completely sets the mood for the club setting.
Fosse, originally a dance choreographer before he ventured into film directing, not only stages the musical numbers expertly, but also wasn’t afraid to show the violence and harassment the Jewish citizens were facing. Most of which is blissfully second-thought to our female lead, most likely aware of her protection as an American gentile. Sally is foolishly more focused on her barely existent showbiz career than what’s going on in the city, similar to how blasé Scarlett O’Hara was to the Civil War. The Emcee is almost like an imaginary character, only existing in the club. Brian is firmly against the new movement, and young German lovers Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) get married despite fearing for their safety as Jews.
Since Donald Trump shockingly won the presidential election last week, there have been ugly incidents, such as are in the Berlin storyline. Ours, like theirs, is a society that is unhinged. We have a new president with no political background and thus no expectations as to what the next four years will be like. While I hope I don’t ever see a group of neo-Nazis singing an anthem at my local cafe, I wouldn’t be surprised if people try to discover their own equivalent of the Kit Kat Klub for the rest of the decade. I don’t know what to predict for the next four years, but I know when I’m down or anxious, movie musicals are my type of escapism. And at the moment it looks like that’s what I’m going to be watching for the rest of the holiday season.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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