Disturbing Movie Scenes #16: Cabaret

#16 Cabaret: Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Original_movie_poster_for_Cabaret

Early last year my Father died.

This is a fact that every now and then I have to remind myself of. I think it happens to a lot of children who have lost parents, especially when they are still fairly young. The world gets thrown off balance slightly. I suspect other people in their 20s who are down a parent or two might experience the same thing-You can be thinking of something else only for your brain to suddenly start spinning. I don’t know how else to describe it. The reality of what the loss means hits you afresh. It seems so bizarre, so ridiculous, you have to convince yourself all over again that it is real. Then the world keeps going, you sigh deeply and move on with your day.

Cabaret was my Dad’s favourite film. When I bought him it on VHS (for my younger readers they were like DVDs but… with added whirring noises) he wanted me to watch it with him. I must have been about 10…My Dad always saw the rating system as a challenge more than a suggestion. When it got to this point in the film he nudged me and pointed to his arm. Every hair was standing up. ‘Every single time’ he told me. You could actually see he was telling the truth. It wasn’t an expression, the hairs were standing to attention as the characters in the scene, I still remember the freckles. We watched the film together quite a few more times over the years. Each and every time the blonde boy started to sing, I would look at my Dad’s arms.

I understood why. And I liked seeing that the impact didn’t fade over time. Like how his absence from the world will continue to be a shock to me for some years to come yet, my Dad was consistently affected by the moment in Cabaret when something beautiful seems to be starting. Then the camera pans down…

But of course we, the audience, have the benefit of knowing how this all ends. Tomorrow didn’t belong to them.

I can’t stress enough how little I know about history. I have a beloved friend, an archivist, who studied the past with the same love and concentration with which I eat a jar of nutella. One day we were discussing how little I understood the subject of his studies and I casually threw out: ‘I remember in primary school learning that someone got stabbed in the eye in the Battle of Hastings? Harold was it? Or Henry? In 1906? Or 1066? Or something?’ The look he gave me was like my skin had started sliding off my face.

So yes. I am not going to try and tackle the historical impact of the Nazis. What the hell do I know? But then Cabaret is a film that takes place in 1931. Hitler’s Germany is growing round the fringes of the story but it isn’t the story. That is one of the many, many reasons this scene is so disturbing. To the characters, Hitler and his party are background noise at first. Until the final shot of the film speaks loud and clear about what the world will soon be facing:

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The two characters toasting to Africa at the top of the clip are Max and Brian and earlier Max had stated that all the Nazis need are a firm hand. Brian says nothing at the time but now, in the wake of the passionate, angry, heartfelt chorus that started from the lovely choir boy vocal, he has the perfect retort: ‘You still think you can control them?’ He sees what any person can see. The party appeal to national pride, they promise a glorious future. If you want a better tomorrow, come with us. They call, the small crowd respond. But with every new crowd, the support grows. How can you prevent that? How can you oppose it? Before you know it the sound of everyone agreeing they deserve better is deafening.

Then our leads drive off, the Emcee smiles a creepy, enigmatic, knowing grin and the story moves on, with the sound of a common goal ringing in our ears…

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The main plot centres round an English writer who falls for an American singer who works at a dive called the Kit Kat Klub. It is a musical not a MUSICAL! A MUSICAL! is all razzmatazz and bursting into song and dance before slipping back to dialogue like it didn’t happen. A musical is a play with songs in it. All of the music in Cabaret is diegetic meaning you can see where it is coming from and it is really happening within the reality of the film. For example, if a character in a movie is listening to the radio, that is diegetic music. If the song on the radio just happens to speak to the emotion the character is feeling, then isn’t that great? However if the character is walking in the rain feeling sad and that same song is playing even though there is no radio, IPOD or brass band in sight then that is non-diegetic.

Nearly every song in the film version of ( the much adapted) Cabaret takes place within the show at the Kit Kat Klub. Tomorrow Belongs to Me is the exception. It takes place outside on a lovely sunny day. A nice, calm, picnic and pint having atmosphere, suddenly turns into a Nazi rally as a radiant youth with an amazing voice demonstrates the power of beauty and appealing to the souls of the weary. It feels real because unlike in a MUSICAL! It feels like this could happen. It did happen. Of course it did. And still does. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that too.

I think one of the reasons this film is so memorable are the faces of the extras. They all have so much character, they do so much with such little screen time and nowhere is this more visible than in this scene. From the young, to the more mature, to the very old guy who has absolutely no friggin’ interest in this confounded nonsense…

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He is literally too old for this shit…

Each of them have their pride, their history, their fury stamped all over their face.

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I love the way it builds from the lone voice, to the initial tentative joining in, then the band gearing up and then it hits you with full force as everyone rises…It is a terrifying microcosm of what was to come. ‘The Producers’ previously had me convinced me that singing Nazis were hilarious not threatening but it is the simplicity of the moment that knocks me out. So many American films are content to have the Nazis be moustache twirling bad guys…But as Brian says, this can’t be reigned in. This is hope. This is passion. This is trouble.

Cabaret is a musical about a life loving club singer seen through the eyes of a fish out of water writer. The songs are contained in the lively and seedy Kit Kat Klub. Except one. Most of the characters do not get what they want. The films ends on a sombre note. I recommend it so heartily that I am nodding enthusiastically at my screen as I type this even though I know you can’t see me. It is a beautifully shot, sensationally acted (Liza Minnelli’s performance in this changed how I looked at acting but that’s for another day) magically scored, slightly overlong masterpiece. I know very little about Nazis or Hitler or Germany or what it would have been like living that era.

But I know one thing. This scene makes the hairs on my arms stand up. Just like my Dad.

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Tomorrow…A fanatic demonstrates her devotion #15 

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