Every five years or so, I watch it again. I never seem to tire of it. Each viewing is like the pencil scratching on a door frame that indicate a child growing.
When Cabaret first came out, I was a ten-year-old, self-proclaimed connoisseur of 40s and 50s movie musicals. In those days, I liked Cabaret for its burlesque sketches and music, inspired by the rhythms of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. I was old enough to understand bisexuality and I knew about World War II, though perhaps both in superficial ways. Those plotlines were distractions from the cabaret performances. I so wanted to be in an adult world where people could sing and dance in a Bob Fosse style with slouched shoulders.
A few years later, this became a film about open sexuality and debauchery, the lifeblood of any teenager. I had discovered David Bowie and glam rock. Women having sex with men who are just friends and men having sex with each other were exciting and liberating after the constraints of a Disney childhood. Though set in the 30s, Cabaret’s sexual triangle of Sally, Brian and Max, seemed of the moment. As for the pop-rock of my teens, Cabaret may not have been of that musical genre, but Sally Bowles’ green-painted finger nails, men in make-up and cross-dressing fitted well into that milieu. The film, like my daydreams and aspirations, was in the words of Sally, ‘divine decadence.’
As an older teen starting university, I came across Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin. In both novel and film Sally is flamboyant and self-absorbed. But in the novel she’s British and doesn’t have a very good singing voice – certainly, no Liza Minnelli – nor does she have a sexual relationship with Brian, who is only interested in men. The first adaptation of the original novel was actually a stage play version in 1951, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, followed by the stage musical in 1966 called Cabaret, written by Joe Masteroff. I could understand an obligation to a musical-loving audience to have more than a mediocre voice leading the story. But somewhere between the stage play and the musical, Brian was given a bout of heterosexuality. My beloved musical, the main form of my childhood entertainment, had let me down. Unlike theatre and pop culture, the musical was still promoting the world of boy-meets-girl. I had to reconcile myself with the novel and the film being two different sources of pleasure – something I would do the rest of my life with any film adaptation.
At university I encountered my first arthouse film and those became my new cinematic addiction. With its montages juxtaposing violence with musical glee, its tableau-like pan shots and subtle moments of foreshadowing, Cabaret in my reckoning was a film d’auteur that went mainstream. I still feel that way today, even if the awe of discovery has evaporated.
While I grew up in the anti-establishment 60s, critical of the US government and the Vietnam War, the Second World War was still regarded as an indisputable holy war – bad guys and good guys clearly delineated. In the Kit Kat Club, the world isn’t so black and white. The Nazis, Hitler and the Jews are all equally the butt of jokes. Younger, I saw this as part of the amusement of the film, but by my early thirties, Cabaret, full of political and social contradictions and nuance became a revisionist history.
In mid-life, I find myself watching Cabaret with a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s. Though it was set in the 1930s, I saw it through the lens of the 1970s – a film that could include a woman having an abortion without being about the moral rights or wrongs of abortion. During the 1980s, the US went backwards. With President Reagan and The Moral Majority, abortion rights became highly politicized and still are today. That ten-year-old staring at the large screen in the 70s naively thought she was living in a society that was becoming more liberal with time.
After so many viewings, I don’t need to watch the film to think about it. Today, I’m thinking about one of the most iconic scenes of the film. Travelling by car, Max and Brian stop for a drink at a traditional biergarten. A young man in Nazi uniform starts singing ‘tomorrow belongs to me.’ Soon he is joined by the other beer garden patrons, except for one old man. The young people sing robustly, full of enthusiasm. To a modern film audience, knowing about the war that follows, this scene is poignant and chilling.
It’s hard to watch Cabaret today without thinking about the rise of the far right in countries like the US and Britain. I see myself like the old man in the beer garden, bewildered and out of sorts with it all.