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Cabaret and Antifascist Aesthetics

From: Criticism
Volume 50, Number 4, Fall 2008
pp. 609-630 | 10.1353/crt.0.0081

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When Bob Fosse's Cabaret debuted in 1972, critics and casual viewers alike noted that it was far from a conventional film musical. "After 'Cabaret,'" wrote Pauline Kael in the New Yorker, "it should be a while before performers once again climb hills singing or a chorus breaks into song on a hayride."1 One of the film's most striking features is indeed that all the music is diegetic—no one sings while taking a stroll in the rain, no one soliloquizes in rhyme. The musical numbers take place on stage in the Kit Kat Klub, which is itself located in a specific time and place (Berlin, 1931).2 Ambient music comes from phonographs or radios; and, in one important instance, a Hitler Youth stirs a beer-garden crowd with a propagandistic song. This directorial choice thus draws attention to the musical numbers as musical numbers in a way absent from conventional film musicals, which depend on the audience's willingness to overlook, say, why a gang member would sing his way through a street fight.3 In Cabaret, by contrast, the songs announce themselves as aesthetic entities removed from—yet explicable by—daily life. As such, they demand attention as aesthetic objects. These musical numbers are not only commentaries on the lives of the various characters, but also have a significant relationship to the film's other abiding interest: the rise of fascism in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. By concentrating attention on the aggressively stylized realm of the Kit Kat Klub, Cabaret thematizes its own aesthetic position and poses questions about how the Klub's prevailing aesthetic—embodied, I will argue, by Joel Grey's Emcee—relates to the ascendancy of fascism that unfolds as the songs are performed on stage. Ultimately, Cabaret offers an especially canny example of antifascist aesthetics, a complicated phenomenon rooted not in Sally's famous songs about sex and decadence, but in the Emcee's numbers, which are characterized by ambiguity, irony, and uneasiness.

As is well known, the kernel of the story told in Cabaret is Christopher Isherwood's short stories of the 1930s, particularly "Sally Bowles," in which he described the character that would appear in all the subsequent adaptations and reinventions: a play (1952), a film (1955), a Broadway musical (1966), and finally Fosse's film.4 Were one inclined to compare the stage and screen versions of Cabaret, one could argue that the most seemingly perfunctory change is also the most profound—the punch line of the soft-shoe number "If You Could See Her." In that song, the Emcee croons what first seems a hackneyed paean to his beloved, who turns out to be a gorilla in a pink tutu and hat. As the Kit Kat Klub's audience is shown either guffawing or looking on with bemused skepticism, the Emcee catalogs the gorilla's refinement—"she's clever, she's smart, she reads music. She doesn't smoke or drink gin"—and appeals for "eine bisschen Verstandnis," a little understanding. At the end of the number, the Emcee holds hat in hand and addresses directly the Kit Kat Klub audience: "Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentleman / Is it a crime to fall in love? / Can we ever choose where the heart leads us?" This address is crosscut with faces of audience members who are plainly taking the Emcee seriously—until he delivers the final line. In the Broadway show, the Emcee concludes the song with "If you could see her through my eyes / She wouldn't be meeskite at all." In the film, Fosse returns the line to the version originally written by lyricist Fred Ebb (but revised for Broadway): "If you could see her through my eyes," sings the Emcee, "She wouldn't look Jewish at all."5

This difference is significant because it signals how the film stages an aesthetic response to fascist ideology and its attendant politics. In the "meeskite" version of the song, the gorilla is meeskite (ugly), a state of being that explains why the love affair would need justification in the first place. (In the context of the stage musical, the word recalls the...



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