There’s a scene in the film CABARET where Sally Bowles visits the home of Natalia, a wealthy girlfriend seeking relationship advice. Natalia is distraught, confused, and desperately needs the expertise of her worldly and sexually adventurous friend. Natalia is dating a young man and feels shame over her desire for him and their sexual encounter: what should she do? Sally goes blank as she has never given her relationships with men much care or consideration. She turns to her friend, all wide-eyed innocence, and says: “Does it really matter so long as you’re having fun?” This humorous line is the sum-total of her hedonistic view of life and partially explains why she’s such an appealing and engaging character. But as the film proceeds and the Nazi threat becomes more prevalent, a dark side of this philosophy starts to emerge. Returning home to Berlin after an exhausting weekend of decadence in the countryside, she doesn’t notice the crowd gathered around the lifeless body of a victim of Nazi violence. The pedestrians look upon the scene with indifference. She is, of course, a paragon of morality compared to what lies around the corner, but the apathy displayed by so many is what will enable this thuggish political party to ascend to power.
CABARET was released fifty years ago and became an instant classic, winning Liza Minnelli an Academy Award for Best Actress and establishing Sally Bowles as one of film’s most enduring-and fascinating-female protagonists. Audiences had never seen this type of female character to grace the big screen: wildly eccentric, bawdy, hedonistic, sexually liberated before there was the sexual revolution, and an independent, ambitious young woman seeking a career before that was socially acceptable endeavor. Shortly after meeting her soon-to-be lover, Brian, she tells him, “I’m going to be a great film star. That is, if booze and sex don’t get me first.” She wants to be a singer and actress so she embarks for a life of adventure in Berlin, hoping to eventually be discovered by a movie executive or producer or whatever powerful man can advance her dreams. If the path to fame and fortune lies through sexual favors with sleazy men who possess power, then so be it. That’s the reality many ambitious women of her era had faced. And for the moment, she appears undaunted and unconcerned as to where this path may lead. This isn’t an indictment of Sally Bowles, just what she’s going to have to put up with if she wants a shot at movie stardom. She’s a feminist in her uniquely unconventional way, decades before the global women’s movement.
For all of her audaciousness and bravado, she is a complicated, nuanced character. There’s something driving her need for attention and acclaim. Her ambition is integrally linked with her deep-seated insecurity over rejection and abandonment. When her emotionally distant father cancels a reunion with her at that last minute, she is reduced to tears and once again proclaims that she is going to be a great actress. She sounds more hurt than defiant and not terribly convinced of her future as a star of the screen.
As entertaining and likeable as she is, Sally Bowles is also a frustrating figure, partially because the audience has the benefit of hindsight. The country where she’s pursuing her ambitions is on the verge of entering one of the most horrifying eras ever known in world history. She’s living in the place that is the epicenter of the coming terror, where perhaps the residents and citizens of this country can stop what is coming, but Sally doesn’t recognize the danger. How could she? There’s nothing in her life experience that could possibly have warned her or informed her decisions. There’s not one scene in CABARET where Sally expresses interest or concern in the growing Nazi menace despite their escalating violence. The closest she comes to mentioning the increasing political instability is after her lover Brian is attacked by a group of street Nazis. She attempts to comfort an injured Brian by making light about the situation and joking that he took on the Nazi party. Sally will soon end her relationship with Brian, deciding to remain in Berlin to pursue her dream of being an actress. It’s both a brave and foolish decision. Brave because she is taking charge of her life and forging a path of independence, but simultaneously foolish because Germany is now entering the last days of the Weimar Republic.
The last image we have of Sally is on the stage at the Cabaret. She sings the title song, ostensibly a celebration of the life of decadence and nihilism that she once so gleefully embraced. But something has gone wrong. The spotlight darkens as she recounts the story of her friend Elsie who died from a toxic mix of drugs and alcohol. Her face now distorted, she has an eerie, ghostly appearance. The stage has disappeared, and she is alone. She pleads as she sings, “Life is a cabaret, oh chum, come to the cabaret…” This should be a moment of triumph for the young woman whose life and dreams surely lie before her. But she is more desperate than brave, more pathetic than strong, and the audience feels something for her that we had not felt before: pity. Surely, even Sally realizes the danger as it is literally staring her in the face. The barbarians are no longer at the gate but paying customers inside her Cabaret. Those Nazi thugs they used to ridicule in the Cabaret acts have found a home there.
As for Sally, we never know what happens to her. Does she escape in time? Will she survive the coming terror? The film provides no answers. Sally Bowles may be one of film’s most enduring protagonists, but she endures for another frightening reason. She is a cautionary tale, a symbol of what can happen when we ignore political instability, social turmoil and virulent racism. It’s tempting to disengage, but we do so at our peril. Yes, Sally Bowles, sometimes things do matter apart from having fun and pursuing a life of excess. One can only hope that she realized this before the world outside the Cabaret collapsed into a hellish landscape of genocide and war, a world where it will soon be impossible to leave your troubles outside.
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