It’s a warm summer’s day in a beer garden, two men, who until now were at odds, toast to the future and share sweet bonding moment. A boy starts singing a catchy folk song about nature. The two men turn to listen, appearing joyful and at ease. We, the audience, gaze on his youthful face for a few moments, then we see the other frequenters of the beer garden quietly listen and enjoy. Back on the boy, the camera pans down: and he is wearing a Hitler Youth uniform.
He continues to sing, the band behind him begins to play along. The music becomes more rousing and the lyrics more nationalist. Most of the beer garden join in, rising from their chairs and join in a fervent chorus: ‘Tomorrow belongs to me!’ Hysteria sweeps; an insidious hysteria that is sweet and exciting in its presentation, but is jingoistic and racist in its intention.
It’s easy to be swept up in the melody of a polite and innocent song, but what happens when we see the boy is a Nazi? For any post-1945 audience this is an immediate illusion-shatterer. The song we were just enjoying is used as a means of Nazi propaganda. Should we feel guilty or embarrassed? Yes. That’s the point. In a number of places in the the 1972 film Cabaret, director Bob Fosse uses shocks like this to make us question how easily we can passively accept prejudice.
Fosse uses shock to make us question how easily we can passively accept prejudice
For us, we can practice distance at the sight of a swastika. But for ordinary folks in 1931 Germany, where the symbol was not yet associated with war and genocide, how do you think they would have reacted?
The ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ scene is deliberately provocative to dizzying effect. It reveals to us the uncomfortable truth of how easily propaganda can be accepted. As more people are galvanised by the song, it reveals its true intent bit-by-bit, until pretty much everyone in that beer garden is standing up singing along. Now it’s too late. They’ve been swept up by Nazi propaganda. It is difficult to imagine how the direction of this scene could be better. It reveals, mostly through its editing, the way in which propaganda operates.
The are only very few people unaffected by the song. We are shown reaction shots of an old man looking embarrassed, and the two men from earlier – outsiders English academic Brian (Michael York) and Prussian aristocrat Max (Helmut Griem) – take leave when witnessing the event.
The scene also serves as a microcosm for the film, in a way. Whereas the Nazis are benign in the first act, being kicked out of the Kit Kat Klub (where the central cabaret takes place), as the film goes on we see the Nazis grow in presence and prominence, until by the end even the Kit Kat Klub has accepted them and started to sing their song.
Only Brian is aware of the danger the Nazis present. His lover, cabaret dancer Sally (Liza Minnelli) is politically apathetic and Max underestimates their power. The cabaret is willfully ignorant that its way-of-life is about to die a very violent death and the characters that surround it are sanguine in their assumption they’ll be unscathed.
the cabaret is willfully ignorant that its way-of-life is about to die
The juxtaposition between the decodance of the cabaret and the violence of the Nazis is heightened as the film goes on. When at first the cabaret seems an escape for the political harshness of German society, it begins to become aware – shown through the almost metatheatrical role of Emcee (Joel Grey) – and while mocking the Nazis in their aesthetic, becomes entirely complicit in their promotion. There is a gradual blending of the two extremes of the cabaret and the Nazis until, in the final shot, Nazis sit in the front row of the Kit Kat Klub.
The cabaret, a symbol of the Weimar Republic, is laid back and ignorant of the imminent pressures it faces. This is its downfall. The cabaret is taken over by Nazis not through force and coercion, but through acceptance and apathy. This, historically speaking, is the exact same as the Weimar Republic. Remember, the Nazis rose to power democratically and Hitler was invited by President Hindenburg to be Chancellor; there was no uprising or revolution. It was a gradual transition whereby the most democratic system in the world at the time was transformed into the most infamous authoritarian rule.
Cabaret was written for the screen in America in the early 1970’s as the Civil Rights Movement was continuing against the stern Nixon administration and as the US was at war in Vietnam. It’s message was not only about the mainstream acceptance of Nazism in 1930’s Berlin, but also about the acceptance of widespread racism and a new agenda for neocolonialism in 1960s and 70s America.
Cabaret isn’t a love story set to the backdrop of a declining Weimar Republic; it’s a story about the decline of the Republic, and about how a few people failed to see what was happening right in front of them. Cabaret reminds us to be careful of the insidious nature of propaganda and, to make it relevant to today, never assume the far-right are benign in their intentions or their abilities.