Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Bob Fosse (director) Jay Allen (screenplay), Cabaret (1972)

The musical-drama Cabaret was directed by Bob Fosse from a screenplay by Jay Allen, which was based on the successful Broadway musical Cabaret (1966), which, in turn, was based on the play I Am a Camera (1951) by John Van Druten.  All of these versions had their origins in the semi-autobiographical stories by Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin (1939).   The film celebrates the hedonism, flamboyance and decadence of the cabaret scene in Berlin, Germany, in 1931, near the end of the Weimar Republic and just before the Nazi take over. 

Within the context of presenting this vibrant yet precarious subculture that was doomed by the rise of Nazism, Cabaret can also be seen as a primer on how to live life to the fullest.  In this context, it promotes values that are historically relevant to the colourful cabaret scene of the Weimar Republic while simultaneously being relevant to the sexual revolution and (hippy) counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s that was sweeping through the Western world at time the film was made.   It is a film about the past that was intended to speak to the people of its own time.

The film celebrates decadent exuberance and hedonistic indulgences, such as seeking adventure through the consumption of alcohol and the use of illicit drugs, through sexual experimentation including casual sex, bi-sexuality and homosexuality, through expressing oneself in the outrageous fashions of the time, or by seeking the company of the kinds of eccentric people found on the fringes of society.  It also celebrates following one’s passions and instincts, artistic expression, cosmopolitanism, nightclubbing, seizing the moment, and pursuing dreams of artistic stardom. The cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, serves as the high priestess of the cabaret lifestyle in the film.  However, the decadent Jazz Age exuberance of Sally Bowles can be appreciated as resembling the sexually liberated lifestyles of the late 1960s and early 1970s that would be more familiar to many viewers of the film. 

This theme on how to live life to the fullest (in the manner exhibited in the cabaret scene) provides the perspective for the film’s critical commentary on the rise of Nazism. The film presents Nazism as brutal, warlike, militaristic, intolerant, oppressive and noxious to the joys of life (the joys of life depicted in the cabaret scene). 

The film also presents Nazism as tapping successfully into a vein of German nationalism that was irrational and charismatic, along with appealing to a conservative nostalgia for the time when the Kaiser provided strong leadership and public order.  Meanwhile, the ruling class (represented by the character Max) sees the Nazis as a necessary evil, as required to defeat the communists who were themselves on the rise and potentially capable of seizing power. The Nazis are also depicted as producing effective propaganda.  The end of the film implies that the rise of the Nazis is unstoppable and the cabaret scene is doomed.  

The film also conveys that with the rise of Nazism came the rise of anti-Semitism.  Prejudice against Jewish people was depicted as already so pervasive in 1931 that the handsome Jewish gigolo, Fritz, had resorted to lying about his ethnicity to gain entry to the best parties.  Meanwhile, the rise of Nazism brought with it an anti-Semitism that was cruel, sadistic and violent, such as when several Nazis murdered the dog of the wealthy Jewish heiress, Natalia, to intimidate her and her family.   The cinema audience is expected to view these depictions of anti-Semitism with the hindsight that this type of behaviour preceded the Holocaust that resulted in the extermination of half of the Jews of Europe. 

In addition, the film was quite daring, for its time, regarding its positive depictions of bi-sexuality and homosexuality, which was then rare in cinema.   The film depicts the ‘coming out’ of a rather reserved, closeted homosexual man, Brian, who becomes more comfortable with who he is when he is more open about his sexuality.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Cabaret meaning, Cabaret themes, Cabaret analysis, Cabaret notes