Students on Isherwood: "You Can’t Help Smiling," on Cabaret and Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (December 2014), have compiled exemplary essays about writer Christopher Isherwood’s craft from their students to share on the Press blog leading up to the publication of their book. This Monday, the authors will be reading at an event hosted by the University of Minnesota English department.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version.

Student, University of Southern California

In the first “Berlin Diary” of Goodbye To Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical narrator, “Christopher Isherwood,” famously writes: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking . . . Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed” (1). But which day was that? Adapted into the play I Am A Camera, then filmed, then adapted again into the musical Cabaret, and then into Bob Fosse’s 1972 film by the same name, Isherwood’s Berlin Stories have been “developed” several times but never quite “fixed.” This might be why his stories transitioned so well onto film: they were always moving pictures. Fosse’s Cabaret is a sophisticated and artful attempt at bringing Isherwood’s stories to life. Though it does not necessarily arrive at a grand realization or moment of reckoning for its unpalatable set of central characters, the film’s self-reflexivity and acknowledgement of the surreal quality of its history demonstrates fidelity to the source material. With a more overt directing style than Isherwood’s light authorial touch, Fosse’s stylish film conveys the doom and gloom of Goodbye To Berlin and has fundamentally changed our perception of the power and purpose of the Hollywood movie musical.

Cabaret the film opens and closes on stage. Audiences can see themselves reflected by a funhouse mirror as a cabaret audience at the decline of the Weimar Republic. The use of a large mirror as a set piece is taken from Harold’s Prince’s original Broadway staging, and gives an appropriate Brechtian tone to the proceedings. The Emcee (Joel Grey) appears in the mirror, smiling, then turns to face the camera (he is the only character to do so) to welcome audiences im/au/to Cabaret (“Wilkommen”). We cut to Brian arriving by train to Berlin, filmed through a window—another reflective lens—that he opens. Back in the Kit Kat Club where there are “no troubles,” the Emcee insists “In here life is beautiful/ The girls are beautiful,” as the film cuts to a man putting on a blonde wig and makeup backstage. The mirror then moves to the ceiling to reflect ze Cabaret Girls themselves, with their hairy armpits, grotesque make-up, and sloppy missteps. At the end of the opening number the whole group poses in a dim tableaux, as if taking a photograph, within a frame of flash bulbs. Freely extrapolated from Isherwood’s hints and historical accounts of 1930s Berlin cabaret clubs, Fosse’s Kit Kat Club is black, red, and disorienting. The Emcee’s mocking grin is a sinister dare: enjoy me, trust me, though I am not to be trusted. Barely introducing the film and the book’s two main characters—Brian Roberts (Michael York) and Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli)—the opening number serves as an opening paragraph for what critic Roger Greenspun (respectfully) called Fosse’s “essay in significant crosscutting” (NYT). Before they can be fully welcomed to Berlin, Fosse’s direction makes it clear that, as Chris observes in “The Landauers,” “All these people are ultimately doomed” (Isherwood 177).

The Kit Kat Club is less a conflation of the various nightclubs in Goodbye To Berlin and more an abstracted version. It serves as a microcosm, a crucible where audiences can plainly watch the insidious rise of Nazism in Berlin and the careless, decadent lifestyle that ignored and eventually accommodated its influence.

Neither the Sally of the film nor the Sally of the book is at all concerned with reality. “Everybody’s broke,” she tells Brian upon his arrival to Berlin, laughing off the economic conditions that provided a foundation for the Nazis to blame Jewish bankers and exploit workers’ anxieties to create a nationalistic, racist political party. “Let’s go to the cinema/the Troika/have a drink,” Sally always suggests in “Sally Bowles,” to avoid facing facts (Isherwood 42, 45, 43). She stays in Berlin at the end of Cabaret, and delivers her specious thesis in the title song: “Life is a Cabaret, old chum/ It’s only a cabaret”. She clings to her status as a performer in Berlin, even as Brian departs, even as the Emcee himself bids us “auf wiedersehen.” Liza’s Sally does not seem to speak of the future as she does in the book—but this lack of discussion of the future contributes to the feeling that the future is “unreal” for her (Isherwood 17). As the Club itself becomes infiltrated by “troubles” meant to be left “outside,” the film’s audience understands that the cabaret ignores the grim reality of the moment. 

The film seems only to fail in its forced romance. “Fresh alterations in the book and score notwithstanding, ‘Cabaret’ still follows the double-romance formula of Broadway confections long past,” writes Frank Rich for the New York Times. The movie recasts the “double,” though, joining Fritz and Natalia Landauer together as the star-crossed Jewish lovers, and cutting out Frau Schneider’s relationship with Herr Schultz. The film suffers from its attempt to centralize Sally’s romantic relationship with Brian. The film is truer to the book by making Brian openly bisexual, but trivializes his homosexuality without addressing it, except as a device to break up the unlikely pair. In the book, Sally and Brian fight over work (or lack thereof) and money; in the film, they fight over love and sex. 

Chris first finds Berlin very familiar, nostalgic, “like a very good photograph,” but then interrupts that thought: “No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened . . .” That ellipsis, like Cabaret’s final drum roll, is not a “fixed” ending but an acknowledgement of the surreal and incomprehensible nature of our grimmest realities. As readers and as audiences, we are indicted as witnesses of a gross spectacle: will we smile? Isherwood and Fosse have their shutters open, but it is the audience that develops the picture as the cymbal and the symbol finally land.

Works cited in the original essay:

Greenspun, Roger. “Movie Review: Cabaret.” New York Times. N.p., 14 Feb. 1972. Web.
Grubb, Kevin B. “Cabaret.” Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. 1st ed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1989. 141-58. Print.
Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye To Berlin. The Berlin Stories. New York, NY: New Directions, 2008. N. pag. Print.
Kander, John, and Fred Ebb. Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz. Comp. Greg Lawrence. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003. Print.
Rich, Frank. “‘Cabaret’ and Joel Grey Return.” New York Times. N.p., 23 Oct. 1987. Web.
Tropiano, Stephen. Cabaret. Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions, 2011. Print. Music On Film.

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