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Cabaret 1972 anniversary
Image: 20th Century Fox

Film

Cabaret at 50: The Exhilarating Story of Berlin Before the Fall 

A female girlie club entertainer in Weimar Republic era Berlin romances two men while the Nazi Party rises to power around them.

Life is a Cabaret

A half-century ago, one of the greatest Broadway musicals in history was adapted into one of the best-ever movie musicals. Bob Fosse’s 1972 adaptation of the 1966 musical by Kander and Ebb features a first-rate score and all-timer performances by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey while doubling as an ominous and ultimately tragic telling of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. 

Cabaret‘s lineage goes back to Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was in term adapted into  John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera” in 1951, and later to the Cabaret musical in the late 1960s. Like Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret has frequently been cited allegorically whenever the times start looking especially ominous, which since 1972 has been quite often; this is especially in the frequent cases when the show is revived on stage. 

Cabaret 1972
Image: 20th Century Fox

The film is set in Berlin in the early 1930s, during the dying days of the Weimar Republic, with hints growing louder and louder throughout that the Nazi rise is coming. The action is set at the  Kit Kat Klub, which is depicted as both ground zero of the gloriously libertine Weimar era and an extended metaphor for the rise of the Third Reich. The host of the Klub is the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, who won an Oscar for the part, one of several of the film, although it lost Best Picture to The Godfather.) 

Liza Minnelli stars as Sally Bowles, the American star of the cabaret, who ends up in a love triangle with a bisexual Brit (Michael York) and a German baron (Helmut Griem.) The musical numbers, directed with Fosse’s usual verve, are set entirely within the club, with the exception of one: The famous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in which a young man starts singing a catchy song and everyone in the beer garden joins him, in yet another metaphor for how fascism took over Germany. 

The songs in Cabaret were written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, two Jewish men, but that didn’t stop various Nazi and fascist groups over the year from appropriating the song for themselves. This included the Trump-era “dapper Nazi,” Richard Spencer, whose tweeting of the song was mocked in a memorable tweet by Senate candidate Jason Kander, who is John’s great-nephew:

Another big controversy is the number “If You Could See Her,” in which Grey’s Master of Ceremonies sings to a woman dressed as a monkey, and the song ends with the line “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” In context, this makes sense, and is absolutely chilling, in fitting with the way anti-semitism is normalized. But the line is so controversial that some versions of the show have changed it (indeed, there are often major changes in the show, in terms of characters, songs included, and especially the ending, across the long history of revivals and the movie.) 

Cabaret remains as powerful, uncomfortable, and exhilarating today as when it first arrived in 1972. 

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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