Before I knew anything about psychotherapy, there was one film I returned to again and again to get me through the vicissitudes of life. That film is Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. It is a film I still lose myself in, and I must have watched it a hundred times, often whilst sitting alone in my room - oh the irony.
This year, the film is 50 years old and here is my love letter to it.
The story is a classic hero’s journey, a coming of age tale. A young man arrives in 1930s Berlin, and the herald of the story, the MC, announces a hypnotic call to action:
‘leave your troubles outside ... so life is disappointing? Forget it. In here life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful ... even the orchestra is beautiful.’
There's an intoxicating mix of intimacy and claustrophobia at the Kit Kat Klub with its circus-like mirrors, which reflect and distort Weimar Germany. On the streets, Nazi louts are calling for the creation of an Aryan Fatherland, whilst inside, Otto Dix misfits find comfort in the shadows, and companionship at the bottom of a schnapps glass.
Despite the flimsy sets and thrift shop allure, we witness the core strength of the dancers, who remind us not to underestimate their survivor instinct. And yet, for all its Dionysian bravado, it seems so fragile. We know of course, that these people will soon face their final curtain call, and that this world will be swept away.
Onto this shabby, twinkling stage, steps Sally Bowles, with her pierrot make-up, green nail varnish and Louise Brooks hair. When the orchestra starts, she turns it on like she means every word of it. Liza/Sally: all the trauma, all the abandonment, all the grief, it’s there, raw and real. The way she throws her head back, casting off the inner doubt, for a split second at least, and then that slight wobble in her intonation as she invites us ‘come to the Cabaret’.
Brian: You're American?
Sally : Oh God, how depressing! You're meant to think I'm an international woman of mystery. I’ve been working on it like mad.
Of course, the reality is prairie oysters in a toothpaste glass and a fur coat that ends up in a pawn shop, but Sally doesn’t let that get in the way of ‘divine decadence darling’. We all need a little magic in our lives. Brian certainly does.
Sally: Does my body drive you wild with desire?
Brian: ’It’s a very nice body.’
Call it synchronicity or predictability, but Sally alights on the one person who cannot give her what she needs, though they make a good try of it: ’it’s going to happen, happen sometime, maybe this time I’ll win.’
And for a short while they are enough for each other, two fellow travellers, a little lost, their paths lit up by the twinkling lights of Berlin.
Sally’s inner-child, that awkward, unsure little girl who is desperate for love and approval, is always close to the surface though. When her defensive grandiosity becomes too much, Brian delivers a particularly cruel blow: ’Aren’t you ever gonna stop deluding yourself? ... Behaving like some ludicrous little underage femme fatale. You're about as 'fatale' as an after-dinner mint.’
Sally sees herself as an Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and passion, or perhaps a Persephone, the intriguing ingenue. But I see her more as an Artemis.
In the ancient world, Artemis was the goddess of hunting and the personification of feminine independence. In 1930s Berlin, this becomes a woman who is motivated by self-survival and street cunning. Artemis is associated with the night and liminal spaces. As is Sally, who seeks out the sooty darkness of a U-Bahn bridge; her screams unheard as a train clatters overhead.
In the myth of Artemis’ birth, the newly born goddess helps her mother deliver her twin brother Apollo and because of this she is also associated with fertility. I can’t help reflect on how in real life, Liza parented her own mother, Judy Garland. Apollo is associated with music and creativity. For a newly-born child to nurture all of that seems like an impossible task, and ultimately for Liza, it was.
Another Jungian interpretation of Cabaret is that it represents the clash between Dionysian energy and the forces of darkness. It is a story that has been told a thousand times. Brian could be Luke Skywalker, Sally, Hans Solo. Think about it, it is all there.
Carl Jung associated the Nazis with the archetype of Wotan, a Germanic interpretation of Odin, the god of war. This accredits Nazi ideology with a mythological glamour that is incorrect and lacking psychological rigour. The reality was that the Nazis were culturally and philosophically bankrupt. Their appropriation of humanistic traditions, a vulgar, shallow subversion that relied on popularist propaganda, personal greed and violence. Sounds familiar? In my mind Cabaret has never been more relevant, and a reminder not to take what we have for granted.
Cabaret - Warner Home Video