Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NYJFF ’13: Cabaret-Berlin, the Wild Scene

What is the first word that mention of the Weimar Republic brings to mind?  Is it “decadent?”  If so, that would please the National Socialists.  Although we won the war, our popular consciousness has thoroughly absorbed this element of their propaganda.  Oddly, it even seeps into a well-intentioned documentary tribute to Weimar’s cabaret culture.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of wonderfully elegant images and musical selections in Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir’s Cabaret-Berlin, the Wild Scene, which screens during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Constructed exclusively of archival newsreels, films, soundies, and stills, C-B chronicles the emergence and inevitable fall of the Weimar government, against the backdrop of the largely Jewish and almost entirely leftwing Bohemian arts scene, especially the torch-singing club performers.  These vocalists were not afraid of some political content or the odd risqué lyric.  Indeed, full performances from the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya, and Margo Lion are the real attraction of C-B.  In these well selected clips viewers see them manhandle audiences in a converted flat and thoroughly beguile a smitten Peter Lorre.

Rousso-Lenoir intersperses the glory of the cabaret scene with the concurrent political developments, narrated by actor Ulrich Tukur in the style of malicious master of ceremonies.  Rousso-Lenoir’s blinders are readily apparent here.  For instance, the role played by trade unions in the rise of the National Socialists is scrupulously ignored and the full name of Hitler’s party is conspicuously never used.  Still, C-B conveys with maddening clarity how divided and ineffectual the opposition was.

One does get a strong feeling for the tenor of the times in C-B.  Yet, the film somewhat bolsters the stereotype that every artist in Weimar Germany was at least slightly naughty.  In contrast, the Jewish classical musicians of the era, like Vienna-based Bronisław Huberman (founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), surely shared similar political views but were more aesthetically conservative.

There was some truly extraordinary music and visual art created during the Weimar era.  It was not all produced by androgynous manic-depressives.  While C-B pays tribute to the likes of Kurt Weill, Kurt Gerron, and the Comedian Harmonists in the closing titles, it deliberately plays on the image of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret.  Frankly, for those of us living in Twenty-First Century New York or Los Angeles, Weimar Germany just doesn’t look so very “decadent.”  Recommended (with the reservations explained above) for fans of Cabaret performance, Cabaret-Berlin, the Wild Scene screens Monday (1/21) and Tuesday (1/22) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of this year’s NYJFF.