Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cabaret: The Crooked Frame in “The Attack on Modern Art in Germany 1937”

Alan Cumming in the 1998 production of Cabaret.

Indulge me in serving up what might appear as an improbable conceit: that the current New York production of Sam Mendes’s Cabaret, that (as I write) is in previews on Broadway, could have been included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition of avant-garde paintings and sculptures on display uptown at the Neue Galerie. The Mendes production is a revival of his own 1998 reinterpretation of the 1966 Harold Prince Broadway blockbuster and the 1972 celebrated Bob Fosse film, all of which are loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and his experiences in Berlin during the early 1930s when he befriended a cabaret singer who became the inspiration for Sally Bowles. If Prince and, to a greater extent, Fosse’s glossy sheen and honky-tonk gaiety were inspired by the garishly-coloured and provocative subject matter depicted in the paintings of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann, Mendes offers a grungier, economically desperate and grimmer look. Both the characters and the set – the Kit Kat Klub alternates with a dowdy rooming house without any evidence of conspicuous wealth – communicate a sense of impending danger, false hope, resignation and the threat of radical change that will forever alter their lives and designate the cabaret as degenerate just like the modernist artworks that provided some of the cinematographic cornucopia in the Fosse film.

Mendes has repeatedly said that he wanted to make the audience complicit with what transpired on stage. By removing rows of seats on the mezzanine level in favour of small round café tables, adorned with small red Tiffany lights that enabled the patrons to purchase food and drinks, dancers could flirt with patrons before the performance. An invitation by the lascivious and androgynous Emcee, the extraordinarily talented Alan Cumming, to a couple of women from the audience to dance with him onstage at the beginning of Act Two, all contributed to this sense of immediacy and ensured that the audience was an integral part of the evening’s entertainment. Because the stage is relatively bare except for the Kit Kat dancers who wander on stage before the opening to do their stretches and splits, our attention is drawn to the off-kilter gilt frame over the stage that threatens to fall. This prop is Mendes’ substitute for the suspended mirror in the Fosse film.

Crowds attend the 1937 Munich exhibition

The next day I attended the Neue Galerie and was reminded that at the 1937 infamous blockbuster Munich exhibition, the ‘subversive’ paintings were deliberately hung crookedly in poorly lit settings so that they could be mocked and vilified purportedly because they posed a threat to the German people. In one of the Neue rooms, there were empty frames that once held large paintings by the modernist masters – likely destroyed. I thought of that gilt frame at the theatre and how this production of Cabaret could symbolically fit one of those frames. As one enters “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Germany 1937,” a photographic image on one side of a long hallway is of the crowds waiting to be admitted to the Munich show, an exhibition that consisted of six hundred and fifty works. An estimated two million people attended over the four-month run before it subsequently travelled to eleven German and Austrian cities. Again I had a flashback to the previous evening when long lines waited to enter the theatre. In one of the rooms of the exhibition were three paintings by George Grosz, the artist most hated by the Nazis who would have experienced a terrible end had he not absconded on the first boat leaving for America in 1933 – even the Weimar authorities charged him with blasphemy and slandering the military. But curator Olaf Peters exhibits not the garish-red metropolitan scenes or the paunchy generals consorting with prostitutes but portraits of friends who shared his acerbic and satirical sensibility. Similarly, the single painting by Otto Dix in the show is not one of his harshly realistic depictions of Weimar society, to which Fosse had paid tribute by recreating some of the actual canvasses, but a sober portrait of a Jewish lawyer. They are all respectably attired, not unlike the patrons who attended Cabaret.

Alan Cumming
The theatre production too is drained of the vibrant colour and glamour of its theatrical and film predecessors leaving in its place a rawness that is seedy and raunchy emanating from the costumes, the characters and the songs. Cumming’s Emcee has a ghoulish look: eyes highlighted in blue eyeshadow, lips blood red, and when he removes his long black leather coat, he is wearing white suspenders that accentuate a well-endowed codpiece and only a bowtie on his upper body that leaves exposed his nipples rouged and glittery. He also sports a bruised torso with needle marks on one forearm and a tattoo on his upper left arm, suggesting someone who has had plenty of experience with the rough trade lifestyle. Throughout the show whether the setting is the cabaret or the rooming house, he is the constant voyeur of the action on stage – and of the audience. If Joel Grey’s Emcee is a demonic, asexual doll who conveys slyness and a touch of malice in his elegant black-tie attire, Cumming revels in the depravity of the role by exuding an aggressive sexuality and a hint of danger through a Dionysian energy that is captured most vividly when he sings. (His performance as Dionysius in an updated version of The Bacchae was a tour de force at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival.) Consider “Two Ladies” in which he pantomimes with a man and a woman behind a white sheet so that we see in silhouette every conceivable sexual gyration. When Cumming opens the curtain, his rictus grin conveys “admit you enjoyed it, didn’t you” acknowledging the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure. The female dancers are gaunt and pale; the women are draped in flimsy often torn lingerie – thin white bras and baggy panties. Runs go up and down their fish-net stockings and their bodies are bruised revealing their hardscrabble lives; performing at the Kit Kat Klub needs to be supplemented elsewhere to make ends meet. When the Emcee sings “Money,” the dancers grovel along the floor desperately clutching inflated Deutsche Marks that go from hand to crotch, not hand to mouth.

Michelle Williams
The Sally Bowles of this production is radically different from the Liza Minnelli performance in the film. Michelle Williams making her Broadway debut is a much more vulnerable Sally, more like Isherwood’s creation. Minnelli’s Sally is zany, blatantly manic, politically naïve and self-involved. But as Pauline Kael once remarked, her Sally only comes fully to life when she sings. With her talent for belting out a song, especially the title song near the end, which Minnelli confidently delivers as a rousing, upbeat anthem, we know she is a survivor. She could find a niche for herself anywhere, under any regime. By contrast, Williams’s delivery of “Cabaret,” is halting; with eyes glazed over, she is a more desperate Sally firmly holding on to the microphone as she wills herself to be defiant, pausing as she remembers the corpse of her friend Elsie, but really seeing herself. Her hand quivering, she drops the microphone and stumbles offstage. It is not a triumphal moment but a powerful one. Sally’s frailty is evident earlier in the drama when she meets and lives with Clifford Bradshaw who is Isherwood’s alter ego. Cliff is a challenging role because he is mostly a cipher, an observer and writer, but the script and Mendes’ direction allow Bill Heck’s Clifford to be more politically aware and concerned about his writing instead of partying and carousing (as Michael York did in the film). It is evident from the outset that he and Sally are incompatible. After she aborts her child, which may be Cliff's, without consulting him at the cost of her treasured fur coat, he is incensed. Given the encroaching menace of Nazism, Cliff planned to take her to America. He now ends the relationship leaving her more bereft than ever.

Sally and Cliff’s tenuous relationship is paralleled with that of Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond), who runs the rooming house and the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein). The courtship between the middle-aged couple is both moving and poignant since we know that the ugly stain of anti-Semitic racism will destroy it. At their engagement party, Ernst Ludwig (Aaron Krohn), one of Cliff’s students, takes off his coat revealing a swastika armband, announcing that he cannot support this marriage, and is about to abruptly leave when he is serenaded with the beguilingly seductive “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Everyone joins in this fascist anthem except the disappointed couple, Cliff and Sally, and the Emcee who coyly reveals the swastika on his backside as he departs offstage. Up to this point in Act One the production has been apolitical. The goose-stepping dance at the beginning of the film does not occur in this production until well into the Second Act. At the performance I attended, the audience was enthusiastically appreciative after every song and, after a moment of hesitation, they vigorously clapped this number, making them more complicit as the First Act ends. Unlike previous productions, “Tomorrow” appears twice. Earlier in the First Act, we listen to a scratchy old record being played on a period Victrola. The a cappella singer is a sweet-voiced boy soprano, and his only audience is the Emcee. We are not sure why this music occurs at this point until the final “to me” is heard and the Emcee whispers the “to me.” But it is an important moment because it prefigures the Emcee revealing his tattooed swastika. He is convinced that he can survive the Nazis by merely appropriating one of the movement’s iconic symbols, an illusion shared in real life by Expressionist artist, Emile Nolde, who took out membership in the Party and whose creative output earned for a brief time the admiration of Joseph Goebbels.

Max Beckmann's "Departure" 

When Hitler spelled out in 1935 the dictates as to what constituted healthy and degenerate art, Goebbels was whipped into embracing the Party line. Healthy meant promoting the classical and Apollonian as exemplified at the Neue Galerie by the portrait of an elderly couple and their son engrossed in a book about Greco-Roman sculpture; unhealthy meant the eradication of the Dionysian primitive found in Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism and abstraction. In the first room of the Neue exhibition, the contrasting aesthetics are illustrated by two large triptych paintings: Adolf Ziegler’s “Four Elements” and Max Beckmann’s “Departure.” The former, which hung over Hitler’s fireplace, is a kitschy piece of four nude Aryan women wielding attributes of fire, water, earth and air while the latter is harrowing and mysterious: in the centre panel, a group of individuals are about to set off in a small boat to freedom while the two outside panels suggest the reason. They reveal scenes of torture and captivity, reminiscent of his earlier “Night” which is not in the Neue exhibition. Hitler entrusted Ziegler to impound modernist art from state-owned museums and collections resulting in the confiscation of some 20,000 pieces. When Nolde fell into “degenerate” disgrace, his paintings and sculptures were included. Ironically, given that he always sought to ingratiate himself with the Nazi leadership, the Munich show included thirty-six of his works, more than any other artist. The Neue exhibition features several watercolours Nolde did surreptitiously during the war when he was under surveillance so as to avoid the smell of oil paint.

Adolf Ziegler's "Four Elements"

Although some will regard the ending of Mendes’ Cabaret as didactic or heavy-handed, I contend that the conclusion is more historically honest than the film version in which the overhead mirror reflects the presence of Nazis in the cabaret. As the host of the 2009 BBC documentary, The Real Cabaret, (that can be seen on YouTube), Alan Cumming interviewed a number of people associated with the earlier theatrical and film productions, including Liza Minnelli. He then travelled to Berlin to talk to individuals familiar with the cabaret scene in the late Weimar period and later. They provide compelling evidence that the Nazis were resolute about cleansing Berlin of its so-called decadence. Within a few years of the Third Reich, all the cabarets were closed down and the performers, who did not emigrate, were dispatched to concentration camps. Likewise, the fate of the artists exhibited at the Neue Galerie is presented through a series of self-portraits. It is not an uplifting story. Exile became necessary when Hitler announced that degenerate artists would be sent to prison or sterilized. Beckmann in Amsterdam paints himself dressed in a red robe stripped in what looks like a prison uniform grimly eyeing a trumpet in his hand. In Switzerland, Kirchner in 1937 is sitting in a sun-flooded room, half his face unfinished. Within a year he will be dead by his own hand. Unlike these two portrayals, the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka wears his stigma with pride, titling his painting, “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist,” as he stands defiantly eyeing the viewer, not all that dissimilar to Alan Cumming’s Emcee. 

Oskar Kokoschka's "Self-portrait of a 'Degenerate Artist'" (1937)

The most tragic case is that of the Jewish artist, Felix Nussbaum, who was not featured in the 1937 exhibition. Sensing danger he and his wife left Germany for Belgium. In 1940 he was arrested as a “hostile alien” and put in a detention camp so nightmarish that when he was able to escape, his remaining art depicts ghostly figures in camps and self-portraits of a terrified man sporting a yellow star, including his 1944 “The Damned” (appearing at the Neue). This powerful canvas reveals his face among the many shocked and weeping figures. After finishing the painting Nazi soldiers found him and his wife hiding in an attic. He was sent to and perished at Auschwitz. Recall the long wall showing the throngs of people lining up to see the 1937 exhibition. On the other side, a photograph dated 1944 shows a densely crowded group of Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad station. Could Nussbaum and his wife be among them? Could any of the Berlin cabaret performers or impresarios?

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please

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