Cabaret is a cross-section of the poorer and seedier side of pre-Hitler Berlin. The cabaret was the Jay Leno monologue of its time. Leno has been identified as a major news source for many Americans. Patrons of cabarets were treated to a voyeuristic look at their society, just like Leno provides. The patrons of this cabaret get a look at the decadence and decay of a world that has lost its sense of morality and footings in the solid cement of historic culture. Its resemblance to current entertainment is scary. It is not just a slice of another culture, it is a full helping of a culture being harangued and battered by itself.
Cabaret, the film version, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972. It stars Michael York, Liza Minelli, and Joel Gray. The plot is fairly simple. It is the very early 1930s. Michael York's character has come to Berlin to study. On the side, he teaches English. His customers mostly are Jewish persons getting ready for some place else. Liza Minelli, as Sally Bowles, is a singer at the Cabaret. Finding each other at a rooming house occupied by people on the sidelines of society, they engage in a strange and convoluted romance. The real focus of the show is the cabaret acts, where even the "orchestra is beautiful."
The physical environment of Berlin is shown through its weather, buildings, and scenery. Cabaret presents a variety of details concerning the cultural-historical environment, too. Physically, we see parks, apartments, houses, trains, and clubs. Culturally we see the attitudes of the elite, sexual mores, tension over the growing NAZI presence, Jewish-related issues, violence against Jews and others, and clothes.
The decadence of German society is illustrated via sexuality, hinted nudity, homosexuality, transvestitism, greed, intolerance, and lack of seriousness over its own plight. Cabaret takes the world around it and makes a joke of it. For example, the song "Money Makes the World Go Round" makes its point, as does Joel Gray singing about why people do not like his gorilla girlfriend. He ends with the line "She doesn't look Jewish at all."
The geographic environment shown in the film helps drive these messages home. NAZI Party people are scattered here and there. The homes of the rich and the crowded spaces of the poor make vivid the social tension. The gates, manicured lawns, green of the parks, furniture, subdued lighting, and so forth show the world of the rich as distant from that of the poor. The poor live in crowded apartments where the lights are dim and the company is uncultured.
That it is a color presentation lends even greater reality to the period since it is likely many students see Hitler in black and white. Now I personally find black and white increases the horror of film. For example, Jimmy Stewart's twisted face in It's a Wonderful Life as he faces the reality of Pottersville is not the same in color. A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sims, is very different when you watch the colorized version. It loses its sense of human crisis. Of course, Steven Speilberg filmed Schindler's List in black and white. Postmodern youth may not perceive things this way. Black and white means "old." It is out.
In the end it is a sexually-charged streak through German life at a crucial point in history. On a deeper level, it is us. The geographic content is the setting for a message of gloom. For students wondering how history repeats itself, how Hitler's time period applies to us; Cabaret is filled with suggestive thoughts. Look past the sexual tones to the subcontext of societal stink. Students who see fascism only as Hitler need realize he was a front for the rich. Cabaret tries to make this point. Even Liza Minelli's green fingernail polish and hair style, and the wild eye makeup of the Cabaret girl's, suggest today's gothic look. The place varies, the social issues remain the same.
Geography as the setting for history, Cabaret has it. One also notes the similarities of the Caberet to postmodern America. Decency taking a nose dive as society slips into a fascist mode.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: Cabaret. Dakota Alliance XI(1): January-February 2001: 7.