Perception is everything when it comes to any narrative that is being told, whether on the screen, on the page, or by way of any other medium. This is especially true when it comes to stories that are set in history. In the case of Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972), the setting is Germany in 1931 just before the rise of the Nazis to power. Though the characters of the film have no way of knowing the magnitude of the events that they are living in the infancy of, the audience does and so those viewing the film are left to interpret the happenings of the film by way of a much larger historical context than is normally afforded to a fictional tale. This feature sets Cabaret apart from many films, as though it is historical fiction, few characters are ever judged by more than what they do and experience in the respective films that they are in. But for Sally Bowles, Brian Roberts, and Fritz Wepper, their actions and fates are judged against the now well-known march of history, and the inevitability of the horrendous actions that were to take place in the following years.
Cabaret is not a film about Nazis. Instead, it is a film about people and how they go about their lives day to day. But in the background there is an evil presence lurking, one that the audience takes more notice of than the film’s characters do. Compared to almost anyone else in Cabaret, the Nazis have very little screen time and their actions that have more than a short-term effect of any of the principle characters are limited. Brian gets into, and loses a fight with a pair of Nazi propagandists at one point, but the most profound and lasting action belongs to the slaying of the Jewish Natalia’s dog and graffiti that is sprayed on her front lawn. But even this horrendous action is not attributed to the Nazi party, but rather to faceless anti-Semites. None of this is to say that the Nazis are not the force of evil in the film. But rather, Cabaret treats the Nazis as it interprets much of Germany and the rest of the world to have handled the Nazis at the time, as they are treated as simply another rising power, but not one that should be considered exceptional or particularly dangerous. This is not to say that the film denies the dangerousness and the nature of the Nazis, but it chooses to portray them as the characters in the film see them.
The lone exception to this rule is Brian, but his concerns are never fully fleshed out. It is made clear on numerous occasions that he does not agree with the Nazi ideology, which leads to his aforementioned brawl, but whether or not he grasps the full magnitude of the danger that is standing before him is never stated. Perhaps it does not need to be, as following the haunting beer garden scene in which a simple singing of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by a lone Nazi quickly becomes much more as almost the entire patronage vigorously joins in, the impression it has on Brian is made clear. Brian is clearly disturbed by the scene, and as he leaves he expresses his concerns that the Nazi party has become much more than a simple political distraction. However, these sentiments are not shared by any of Brian’s compatriots, as Maximilian simply hopes that the Nazis will wipe out the Communists and the two Jewish characters of the film, Fritz and Natalia, do not seem to fully grasp the peril they are entering in to. But beyond any of these characters is Sally, whom does not seem to have a political care in the world.
Sally’s concerns are primarily limited to money and how she lives her life. The former is not to say that Sally is greedy, but rather that she truly understands how important money is and the full value of it. As for the latter, Sally believes in the cabaret that she performs in as she hopes that it will allow her to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress. Beyond these two concerns though, there is little which affects how Sally lives her life. Even her romantic interest in Brian is eventually deterred by the fact that Sally does not believe in any life besides the one that she is living. For her, the domestic sphere does exist, but she does not feel that she belongs there. The audience does not see her lone foray into it in the film, marked by her meeting with her father. Instead, the film only shows her before and after this unseen event, and the audience is left to observe how out of place she looks dressed as what is perceived by some to be a “proper” young lady. Sally is only truly ever at home in the cabaret, and in the end she chooses to maintain that life regardless of its consequences on the rest of her own life and the lives of those around her.
But it is unfair to judge Sally for her affection for her particular lifestyle choices. Instead, it is notable that Sally is one of the few characters to never speak of the Nazis or the current political climate in terms of the larger political context. She comments on the Nazi party as she tends to Brian following his loss in his brawl, but she never expresses concern or even interest in what the Nazis are doing and what is happening around them in the rest of Germany. Sally does come into contact with Nazis, they do come into the cabaret on occasion and she is present with Brian and Maximilian as they witness the bloody aftermath of a Nazi-Communist brawl, but the film does not illustrate them causing her to express any concern. Perhaps this is a result of Sally’s overall resistance towards politics, as the most political figure in the film, that of Sally’s diplomat father, is never seen. Sally does not have a good relationship with him, and the same is true for her political beliefs.
Even though Sally may not be involved with politics, Cabaret does not indicate that she will be excluded from the oncoming political storm. Though the audience knows the fate of Berlin and Germany in the near future, the film stops short of explicitly restating what is already known. Cabaret portrays the Nazis as many of the characters in the film perceive them: present, but not particularly notable or worthy of attention. There are plenty of scenes without a Nazi presence, but a vast majority of these take place within the comfort of the living spaces of Brian, Sally, and Maximilian respectively. However, as the film progresses the Nazi threat becomes increasingly visible and pervasive, culminating with Brian and Fritz walking into a politically charged discussion about the merits of Nazism taking place in the very space where the former character lives. But just as the Nazi threat can no longer be discounted or ignored, the one character that is truly concerned about the oncoming threat departs the country. Though Fritz and Natalia are certainly concerned about their fates and futures, Brian is the primary force of caution in the film and in the end he leaves the very place where his voice is most needed. Those that he has expressed his concerns to do not act upon them and in the end only those that remain in Germany are the most vulnerable: Fritz, Natalia, and also Sally.
In the conclusion of the film Sally sings “Cabaret” as the film reveals the Nazi presence in the audience, now larger than it ever was before. The final song can be interpreted as either a celebration of her life or as a cry for help, and in this case the latter seems true. Sally is not happy with the way everything has gone, but in the end her life is the only place that she feels that she can and does belong. “Life is a cabaret,” sings Sally, and for in her case life truly is so. But as the world has marched forward the cabaret, much like the rest of the world outside of her home, has become inundated with the current political climate. When a Nazi is first seen in the cabaret, he is thrown out. In the film’s finale, several sit unbothered as they observe the show. Even the shows themselves are no longer immune from the prejudices and racism that is growing increasingly popular, as the song “If You Could See Her” evidences. In the end, Sally has avoided any involvement with politics for as long as she could, but now politics have found their way into her life to the point that she can no longer ignore them, and it is indeed too late for anything to be done about it.