Life is a Cabaret: Carnival & Ideology

by jdavidcharles

Recently I re-watched Cabaret and I was reminded of the function of the carnival in patriarchal societies. The classical depiction of the carnival is one where the normal state of affairs is inverted—everyone is masked, masquerading as equals, there is no more top, no more bottom. Usually some sort of inversion of hierarchy occurs—a peasant-fool is ironically declared Carnival-king, there is feasting (carnival occurs immediately before lent), there are fireworks (as mock bombs), love-making in public, etc. The carnival then is some sort of inversion of regular life.

In Cabaret this is precisely how the Kit Kat Klub functions. “Leave your troubles outside,” declares the master of ceremonies, “in here life is beautiful.” Everyone is an exaggerated inversion of the outside—here everyone wears excessive make-up, there is cross-dressing, the women dress as sailors and soldiers, and it is beautiful—“even the orchestra is beautiful.” Initially we wish to write off the cabaret-carnival function as coping, that is, as a means of coming to grips with the ugliness outside—thus we create an “inside,” an interior space that denies the outer world of violence. We create a space of non-sense, a place where everything is beautiful and possible. I think a musical “equivalent” in this way to Cabaret is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—a piece where there is no more top or bottom as regards music theory—a collection of songs where the macabre, Bach, cabaret, duet, jazz, may all dwell side-by-side. So too in the Kit Kat Klub, we see noblemen, peasants, cross dressers, Nazis, homosexuals, love-triangles, the sick, etc., all inhabit the same space, side-by-side, as “equals.”

What the film slowly comes to show though is that even the cabaret, a place of Wilkommen, is shot through with ideology. The cabaret reveals itself not so much to be a site of coping as a foil to the outside world—a place where prejudice and violence are reciprocated in ideological forms. This includes the reduction of the aristocrat to the cuckold inherent in Mein Herr, the anti-Semitism in Money, sexual domination of Two Ladies, and, most explicitly, the mockery of inter-racial relations in Through my Eyes. What we think of as non-sense is still speaking the language of sense in other words—although we nonsensically crown the fool as king, we are still crowning the fool as a king. So too although “Through my Eyes” is intended to mock the absurdity of true love, destroy any notion of loving someone despite their social position, familial relations, etc. (as embodied in Fritz and Natalie’s relationship), it ultimately breaks down into a mockery of the Arian being in love with a Jew. The song on the surface provides a coping, a site of humor to deal with relational stress or what-have-you, but it ultimately reveals itself as a negative image of the ideology of the outside world, in this case, the anti-Semitism of 30’s era German Nazism.

Further, the cabaret starts emerging as ideology in the lives of Sally and Brian, most notably in their love triangle with Maximilian. The “negative” image of ideology begins taking positive existence. The cabaret-carnival function then, in short, emerges contemporaneously with ideology—the cabaret appears alongside and at the same time as the ideologies it embodies (and vice versa). In a radical way the cabaret emerges into the ideological systems which birth it. Each is always already birthing and being birthed by each. The cabaret is ideology. Literally. Life is a cabaret.