You and your sometime girlfriend are driving home to the city from a weekend at the estate of your wealthy new friend. She falls asleep between you in the back seat, still hungover from the previous night. You stop for a drink along the way while she rests. Your outdoor table is surrounded by locals enjoying the beautiful weather. The pastoral scene makes a pleasing backdrop for your conversation. Your friend has been talking about the wonders he had seen in Africa in the car, suggesting that you both would love it. He likes her. He likes you. And you like them both.
It’s a perfect love triangle, all the more exciting because no one is making you choose between them. You hand him a cigarette and light it for him, your hands touching in the process. When your eyes meet, everything around you seems to dissolve in waves of mutual longing. He raises his glass of wine to offer a toast and you follow. “To Africa!” he declares; “To Africa!” you reply. And then something pulls you out of this vortex of exotic possibility. A voice, clear as a sun-dappled stream, distils the wonder of this moment into a song of delicate beauty. You both turn to look. Suddenly, the spell is broken.
It’s hard to imagine anyone forgetting the sequence I’ve been describing here, one of the most powerful in cinematic history. I’ve been replaying it in my own mind over and over lately, worried that I will soon find myself in a similar situation, suddenly aware that I’m surrounded by people who hate what I love. Nevertheless, I want you to try to see it with fresh eyes, even if you can never forget what happens next. Because what makes those few minutes so powerful is the realization that the three main characters we have been following have let themselves be blinded by desire, not only for each other but for a world in which this pastoral setting and others like it remain a pleasing backdrop. And the way in which that failure to pay attention is communicated can provide a wealth of insight, not only about what happened during the period when their story takes place but in our own time, when the impulse to perceive a correspondence between those eras has never been stronger.
Earlier, while the wealthy friend is describing his experiences in Africa, we see the softer, gentler countryside of central Europe flashing by outside the car. The contrast is clear. Africa is vast and thrilling, the realm of the sublime; Europe is the opposite, the realm of the picturesque. When he raises his glass to toast Africa, then, immediately following a depiction of same-sex attraction that was quite bold for its time, he is communicating a double meaning. Maybe he will take his new lovers to Africa with him one day. In the meantime, though, “Africa” must be conjured by other means. Europe is a place where pursuit of the sublime must be undertaken, not in nature, but in culture.
Although this notion and the critique of those who held it was firmly established decades before the 1972 release of Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s award-winning film does an unparalleled job of hammering its implications home. Because the sequence I’ve been describing scrupulously adheres to the dictum that showing is superior to telling, the myopia of the film’s main characters is never explicitly denounced. But the relationship between what transpires inside the Kit Kat Club, the film’s eponymous nightspot, and what is going on outside of it, in the waning twilight of the Weimar Republic, is so effectively thematised that it is almost impossible to miss the point. The opening song, also in the Broadway musical, lays the groundwork: “Leave your troubles outside/So life is disappointing, forget it!/In here, life is beautiful.” And the title song, coming in the wake of the beer garden sequence and ample evidence of Nazi brutality – finishes the job: “What good’s permitting some prophet of doom/To wipe every smile away/Life is a cabaret, old chum/So come to the Cabaret!”
Although we are clearly meant to understand this retreat from politics as a partial explanation for Hitler’s rise to power, the message also resonated powerfully at the time of the film’s release. Many Americans, particularly young ones, still had hopes back then of continuing the momentum of the previous decade’s activism at the ballot box, as the ensuing McGovern campaign would demonstrate. Yet the retrenchment signalled by the Republican Party’s implementation of its Southern strategy in the 1960s and the success that Richard Nixon had with it during his 1968 presidential campaign, together with a broader emphasis on “law and order”, was obviously deepening throughout his first term.
Within this political context, the central conceit of Cabaret could be interpreted as a commentary, not only on where liberally minded people of the Weimar Republic went wrong, but also on the increasing tendency of progressives to group themselves in enclaves out of step with the rest of the country, in tony metropolitan areas and college towns. While it might seem unfair to stereotype places like Boulder, Eugene, and, above all, Berkeley as virtual cabarets, that is frequently how they were represented by people who felt threatened by the permissiveness and radicalism that they incubated. And it is how they have continued to be represented, with varying degrees of intensity, ever since.
It is important to note that, in the half decade between the debut of the Broadway show and the film’s release, the West German student movement had been assiduously confronting the complicity of their parents and grandparents in the NSDAP’s rise to power in the 1930s and the fact that many of the nation’s senior judges and bureaucrats had done little or nothing to resist the destruction of democratic institutions. In addition, its American counterpart had continued to do something similar, if less exhaustively, with regard to the legacy of institutionalized racism in the United States. In other words, they were aware of the mistakes made by their predecessors and keen to bring them to light.
Unfortunately, however, these efforts to come to terms with the past too often proceeded without sufficient self-reflexivity about the present. It is always easier to perceive other people as living in a so-called bubble than it is to recognize one’s own tendency to self-segregate within one. And it’s more difficult still to turn perception into action. Even when someone momentarily catches the glint of light that makes an otherwise transparent bubble visible, the courage to pop it and step outside tends to falter.
Returning to the sequence from Cabaret that I began this piece describing, it is crucial to pay attention to how the rest of it unfolds. After feeling compelled to seek out the source of the beautiful song, our protagonist Brian Roberts (Michael York) and his wealthy friend Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) register a mixture of disgust and dismay, first as the teenage boy who begins it is revealed to be wearing the distinctive brown-shirted regalia favoured by members of the NSDAP and then as the majority of the crowd joins in, culminating in a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. They decide to head back to Berlin immediately. We see them getting into Max’s chauffeured car, glancing back over their shoulders. Then a long shot shows the car driving off, with the song still playing, as we get our first view of the small inn where this seemingly idyllic beer garden is situated.
As an Englishman who has already experienced first-hand how willing the Nazis are to use violence, Brian is deeply concerned. But Max, a German who presumably knows his homeland better than this foreigner, brusquely dismisses the threat posed by the NSDAP. While the film continues to provide evidence of its seriousness – an easy task, since its audience knows what will soon come to pass – it largely remains in the background for the main characters, something they are able to see but choose not to think too hard about.
The final scene, after Brian has decided to return to England and his former lover Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) stays behind to continue pursuing her career as a performer, provides a perfect example. A bookend to the opening scene, it depicts the end of a show very much like the ones we have seen throughout the film. The MC (Joel Gray) begins by reiterating the message that the cabaret represents a refuge from the pressures of the outside world. “Where are your troubles now?” he asks rhetorically. “Forgotten. I told you so. We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.”
The orchestra begins to play a cheerful farewell number. But as it proceeds, discordant notes, like the sounds of a badly out-of-tune piano, begin to intrude as we see brief flashbacks from earlier sequences at the Kit Kat Club. The MC wishes everyone goodbye, then heads behind the curtain as a drum roll commences. Nothing much has changed. The cabaret is still going strong. Then the camera pans over the same kind of hammered metal surface seen at the beginning of the opening scene, showing distorted images of the crowd reflected there, before stopping to reveal a brown-shirted Nazi, just like the one who was forcibly expelled from the venue at the beginning of the film. So much has changed. But the cabaret is still going strong.
There were different ways of interpreting the relationship between these bookends in the early 1970s. Did the Kit Kat Club simply move from an anti-Nazi stance to a pro-Nazi stance, whether for reasons of ideology or expediency? Or are we to take seriously the idea that its operations are basically the same throughout the story, suggesting that, in purveying an apolitical escape from the real world, it ultimately served the political interests of the NSDAP. After all, even during the war years, Joseph Goebbels and his underlings were keen on providing the public with light-hearted entertainment without any obvious message, such as the films of the still-beloved actor – a favourite of Anne Frank – Heinz Rühmann.
Taking a step back from the specific historical context in which Cabaret takes place, these same questions can be asked in a more abstract way, with the Kit Kat Club synecdochally representing all places apart – what Michel Foucault famously terms “heterotopias” – in which the normal rules of society are suspended or inverted for the purposes of diversion and relaxation. Or it can be read as a stand-in for any and all cultural bubbles, whether the product of the film, television, or music industries or, increasingly, the social media platforms that make it easier than ever for people to self-segregate in order to keep their troubles “outside”.
To suggest that one interpretation of Cabaret should take precedence over others would be to limit the film’s flexibility as a tool for analysis. We still need to understand what happened in the final years of the Weimar Republic. We still need to understand how the radical energies unleashed during the 1960s ultimately led to a savage backlash against the progress made in their wake, with the far-right European identity movement advocating war against the “68ers” and its New World counterparts of a similar, if less explicit mind. And we need to understand, with as much clarity as we can muster, why authoritarian populism now seems poised to reverse what Jürgen Habermas calls the “unfinished project of Enlightenment” and inaugurate a new dark age in which superstition and fear reign supreme.
Yet it is precisely the details that make Cabaret seem so pertinent for analysing the present conjuncture that should give us pause. For those of us who worry, as I do, about the mainstreaming of fascist ideology, the film provides an almost irresistible looking glass. But mirrors have a way of distorting reality, even when we perceive them to be completely accurate.
In the case of Cabaret, the film’s treatment of political geography overlaps to a startling degree with trends evident in recent elections. Even as major cities and heterotopian enclaves make possible unprecedented tolerance for diversity, more rural areas and the smaller towns interspersed among them are desperately trying to preserve their traditional way of life in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure from afar. All over the developed world, cosmopolitan individuals like Brian and Max are reporting encounters similar to their experience in the beer garden. Threatened traditionalists who would once have kept controversial beliefs to themselves or a small circle of close friends, now feel emboldened to assert them in public thanks to the American president and the strongmen he admires. Whether it is fair to blame this phenomenon on “backward” regions is another matter.
In the weeks leading up to the American midterm elections, pollsters and pundits focused their attention on the still-widening divide between the better-educated and better-off suburbs where support for the Republican Party continues to wither and the rural and “exurban” regions where Donald Trump’s button-pushing populism seems to be rooting itself deeper and deeper. Most first takes on Tuesday’s results reinforced this analysis. Politico’s Steven Shepard called the night “a suburban bloodbath” for Republicans, noting that Democrats had won major upsets in places where they have had little success in recent years, such as Texas and Oklahoma, in the outskirts of major cities. And Nate Silver’s data-driven FiveThirtyEight ran a post-election story by Geoffrey Skelley entitled The Suburbs — All Kinds Of Suburbs — Delivered The House To Democrats.
Yet the Senate races in primarily rural states like North Dakota demonstrated how easy it will be for Republicans to maintain a stranglehold in that upper chamber since those with small populations have the same representation as California and New York. As Nate Silver himself posted on election night, at a point when election returns were looking better for Republicans than they ultimately would, “a world with even greater urban-rural polarization, which is roughly what we’re seeing in the results so far tonight, is a tough world electorally for Democrats given how rural areas have a disproportionate amount of influence in the Senate”.
On the other hand, a more granular examination of the data appears to indicate that Democratic gains in the lower chamber were only a function of geographic difference to the extent that they could be correlated with a district’s overall level of education. Shepard highlighted an exit poll indicating that “Democrats won white voters with a college degree by about 8 percentage points” and “white, college-educated women by roughly 20 points,” while “white voters without a college degree went for GOP candidates by nearly 25 points”. While Republican candidates struggled in those predominantly white suburban districts with a high percentage of college-educated voters, however, that does not mean that they struggled throughout suburbia.
Anyone who has travelled around the United States recently knows that the distinction between urban, suburban, and exurban areas is increasingly fluid. For decades, inner cities have tried to revitalize themselves with the construction of multi-use shopping arcades. Even as standalone malls hurtle towards obsolescence in the postwar suburbs where they initially made their mark, they are becoming a more important part of the urban experience. Inner suburbs are often more dangerous, in terms of criminal and environmental threats than the cities they border. Outer suburbs are often studded with major employers, places that workers commute to instead of from. And the areas beyond them, though more like rural America overall, frequently contain picturesque small towns that have been repurposed by financially successful college graduates who have grown tired of traffic and noise.
Although these trends were already becoming apparent before the internet became a major factor in ordinary people’s lives, the ever-increasing ease with which individuals can work and play far from home continues to reinforce them dramatically. The connection between a person’s physical location and her or his sense of geographic belonging has never been less important. While economic mobility remains a function of privilege, it is no longer the most important factor in how people group themselves socially.
In other words, while the divisions discerned in quantitative analysis of elections like this year’s American midterms are undoubtedly real, their reality is the product of data manipulation that can hide just as much it reveals. At a time when identity politics has shifted from being primarily a concern of historically disadvantaged minorities to one that animates voters from all backgrounds, it is more crucial than ever to recognize that the demographic categories delineated and reinforced by statistical analysis do not simply reflect an independent reality that precedes them. On the contrary, these categories play a powerful role in shaping the relationship between individual and collective identity. You don’t have to live in a traditional suburb to perceive yourself as a suburban voter. There are plenty of people who move far away from cities who still think like city dwellers. And perhaps even more who, though they contend daily with the physical and emotional gridlock of large metropolitan areas, still feel themselves to be “country”.
It is in trying to recognize this interpenetration of worldviews that the limitations of narratives like Cabaret become apparent. Even though we know that Max’s dismissal of what happens in the beer garden will turn out to be a mistake, the film still leaves us with the impression that reactionary politics are most firmly rooted in rural areas. Despite their picturesque appearance, they function the way Africa did in colonialist fantasies of yore, a dark continent of superstition and fear only an hour or two from the cutting edge. Yet the divide between the progressive metropolis and backward countryside which the film encourages us to discern was never as clear-cut as it suggests. And it is even blurrier today.
What I am suggesting is that as effective as Cabaret may be as an instrument for perceiving the myopia of pleasure-seekers and progressives, taking it too literally can lead us astray. The fear that we will one day find ourselves surrounded by people who are actively hostile to the values we hold most dear is justified. But the nature of that surrounding demands new works of the imagination to perceive in its full complexity. No matter what conventional analysis of the data may imply, the widening fissures throughout the developed world are not simply between those who live in and around major cities and those who do not or even between those who are well-educated and those who aren’t. Rather, they are a function of personal and collective history, how people conceive of themselves in relation to their communities, and how they see their lives continuing to unfold. That scene in the beer garden can be created anywhere, even – and especially – inside our heads.
This is why Max’s toast “To Africa!” is so crucial for understanding Cabaret‘s deeper implications, whether for the period it depicts or our own time. The way tourists celebrate picturesque rural scenes derives from the same psychological impulses as the celebration of picaresque urban ones, no matter how different they might seem on the surface. Max is on a safari in the beer garden and so are the patrons of the Kit Kat Club. That is not necessarily a bad thing — travel can change a person for the better — but has an unfortunate tendency to create the comforting illusion of distance. The beast in the jungle is usually a lot closer to home than we wish to believe.
Photograph courtesy of Trachtenland Hessen. Published under a Creative Commons License.