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Dark wild nights in the late Weimar period
on May 6, 2003
This is a very good movie, although deeply disturbing. Set in the great city of Berlin in 1931, a time of economic depression and political crisis, this movie constructs an image of the decadence and delusion of the late Weimar period as German society is plunging through a kind of moral and social decay into the nightmare of Nazism.
The film is based on "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood (written between 1935 and 1939), who lived in the city in the early 1930s. He had seen both the decadence and the dangerous hunger for a kind of national "purification" among many "respectable" and "moral" middle class Germans, who already had been traumatized by military defeat, hyperinflation, and mass unemployment. The film, following Isherwood, weaves together the stories of the marginal characters who live in this troubled city at the very edge of the great moral catastrophe of the 20th century.
Liza Minnelli is brilliant as "Sally Bowles", an Americanized version of the British Sally who appears in Isherwood's book, and her energy (and visible angst)drive the film as other characters wander aimlessly through a narrative heading all the time towards disaster. Michael York is effective as "Brian", the fictional stand-in for Isherwood himself, and the other characters present believable and even moving representations of people wandering through the impending nightmare as through a fog.
The nightmare itself is suggested by the increasing visibility of the Brownshirts and the sinister swastika, the authentic posters and grafitti from the period, and the passing visual allusion to the street fights and storm troopers. These allusions effectively evoke the sense of uneasiness and danger in the air, an effect reinforced by Sally's deep desire to scream her heart out. The smug and complacent self-assurance of the conservative aristocrat Maximilien, played by Helmut Griem, provides a clue to the almost wilfull blindness of even (perhaps especially) educated Germans to the moral danger posed by the Nazi movement. The anti-Semitism of the movement is also effectively displayed from several angles, most movingly through the love story between Fritz and Natalia.
But the strangest character is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, played brilliantly by Joel Grey. His character has a sinister ambiguity; is he mocking the Nazis by his farcical musical satires, or rather is he reinforcing the anti-Semitic prejudices of his audience through such pieces as, "If you could see her as I do . . ."? Is his decadence ignoring the danger and plunging his head like an ostrich into the sand, or is it a critical commentary on the pseudo-morality that worries about cabarets while ignoring Nazis? By the way, the entertainment at the movie Kit Kat Klub is first-rate (far, far better than the actual entertainment at the real Kit Kat cabaret, according to the later testimony of Isherwood, commenting on Liza Minnelli's performance). But this Bob Fosse-choreographed spectacle underlines both the brilliance and the moral danger of the cabaret.
In historical fact, most Berliners were not Nazis; it was a largely working class town with strong Socialist and even Communist neighborhoods and a powerful left-wing tradition (which is why Hitler hated Berlin). But it was not immune to the Nazis. The Nazis themselves liked to contrast the supposed "healthy" vitality of a romanticized rural and small-town Germany against the decadence of urban Berlin, a point that is made in the film when young Nazi youth leaders at a beer garden lead an increasingly Nazified crowd to join in song celebrating nature and the volk. The film effectively plays out the irony of this contrast between a "moral" rural Germany increasingly drawn to the appeal of a profoundly immoral and murderous movement, and the "immoral" decadence of urban Berlin, many of whose cabaret performers would probably wind up in concentration camps within a few years. Hitler, after all, was big on public "morality." It's just that this kind of "morality" didn't stop him from screaming hatred, fanning murderous resentments, murdering millions of Jews, and plunging Europe into the most catastrophic war in history. Cabaret performers, however otherwise decadent, could not be blamed for that. And decadent Brian even manages to get into a fist fight with some Nazi Brownshirts.
This is a great film. It doesn't tell you what to think about the Emcee, or poor yearning but lively Sally, or even Brian himself. But whatever their tales, we know where the story is going. We know what those brownshirts and swastikas mean when we see them reflected in the glass at the end of the film. "Life is a Cabaret," as Sally tells us in her climactic song, but even the best shows sometimes have the darkest endings.