“The World Turned Upside Down: The Transformative Energy of Cabaret”
By Arnold Anthony Schmidt
Powerful art often comes out of personal experiences, especially experiences undergone at moments of profound historical and social transformation. Such is the case with Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), which stars Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. Set in 1931, the film draws on Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood’s experiences in Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918-1933) just before Hitler came to power.
The period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression proved one of great instability, but also of great social freedom and artistic productivity. Politically, Communists and Capitalists, Nazis, and Anarchists all vied for power. Economically, the easy money of the “Roaring Twenties” had ended and the “Hungry Thirties” lay ahead. Socially, as jazz and modern dance filled the cafes, sexual morés broke down, and gender roles shifted under the influence of the “New Woman” and “Flappers.” The story of Cabaret takes place at this moment, a moment when history turned.
The Weimar Republic epitomized European Modernism. The flourishing art scene featured work influenced by Cubists, Expressionists, and Post-Impressionists. The Bauhaus, the innovative art school founded by Walter Gropius, introduced students to art, architecture, and design instructors like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Mies van der Rohe. People enjoyed the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt, and the literature of Thomas Mann. All of this influenced the film industry, where UFA studios produced works by the likes of Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, and Max Ophüls.
In addition to being a period of artistic creativity, the Weimar Republic also saw the boundaries of relationships expanded and attitudes toward sexuality change. One place we see this change is in Richard Oswald’s pre-sound film Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919), notable as the first sympathetic LGBTQ-themed film. It stars Conrad Veidt, famous for appearing as the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and as Colonel Strasser in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942).
Weimar’s tumultuous society serves as the background for Cabaret’s story, which has a complicated, but interesting origin. Isherwood, while living in Berlin, was associated with the Anglo-American author W. H. Auden, perhaps best known to film audiences for the poem “Funeral Blues” (“Stop all the clocks”), read in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Isherwood also met the British journalist-turned-cabaret singer Jean Ross, upon whom he based his character of Sally Bowles.
As Isherwood began fashioning his experiences into a novel, he first planned to entitle it to The Lost. “This title…seemed to me wonderfully ominous. I stretched it to mean not only…the doomed [and those who went] …astray…but also…those individuals whom respectable society shuns in horror,” like Sally Bowles. Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (1945) first introduced readers to these people, who in time appeared on Broadway in John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (1951) and later in Cabaret (1966). To varying degrees, Fosse’s film Cabaret draws from all these works.
A singer as well as actor, Liza Minnelli has performed in a variety of films, including two directed by Martin Scorsese: New York, New York (1977) and The King of Comedy (1982). She also starred in a variety of Broadway shows, notably Victor/Victoria, Chicago, and The Pajama Game. Minelli earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Alan Pakula’s The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) and has won a variety of Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys.
Michael York has appeared in numerous films, ranging from adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968) to several of the Austin Powers movies.
Despite much film and television work, audiences perhaps remember Joel Grey best for his roles on the Broadway stage. These include Come Blow Your Horn, Chicago, Cabaret, and Wicked. Gray won a Golden Globe and a Tony, as well as a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Cabaret.
In addition to directing Cabaret, Bob Fosse also wrote and directed All That Jazz (1979) and directed and/or choreographed a variety of Broadway shows, including Pal Joey, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago. Fosse received an Academy Award for directing Cabaret and earned nominations for Lenny (1974) and All That Jazz. He also won Tonys for the Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and Pippin.
Cabaret holds a peculiar place in Oscar history. It garnered Academy Awards for Best Director, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Adaptation, and Original Score, but not for Best Picture, losing to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. In doing so, it received the most awards for any film that failed to earn recognition as the year’s Best Picture. That said, all those awards speak for themselves and honor a film well worth the acclaim.