Closer Than You Think: On Nazism in Cabaret and India’s 2020 Right-Wing Fundamentalism

Closer Than You Think: On Nazism in Cabaret and India’s 2020 Right-Wing Fundamentalism

One belongs to the world of fiction, positing an imaginary 1931, while one looms large in real-life India today. Cabaret has plenty to say on the danger of inaction, and a society in which glitter and showmanship can distract from the threat of political parties tearing its people apart. Unpacking the politics of modern-day India, via the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists and in relation to Cabaret, Anjali Krishnakumar explains where to find the warning signs.  

“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome” we are greeted as Cabaret, both the show and the movie, begins. I could almost see a ‘swagat’ (the Hindi word for  ‘welcome’) joining the ranks of cordial greetings as the Emcee smiles at his unsuspecting audience, spider-like, slowly unraveling the web he will snare them (us?) in soon. The Emcee promises a show that will help to forget everything that plagues us. “Leave your troubles outside. So, life is disappointing? Forget it. In here, life is beautiful!” he laughs, spinning his web more and more intricately.

Set in Berlin in 1931, Cabaret is ostensibly about everything but the imminent Nazi occupation. Summaries of the movie focus on the glitz and the somewhat dilapidated glamour of the Kit Kat Klub, and critics focus on Sally Bowles. She is an American, the self-professed star of the show, and not very interested in what is going on outside  the margins of her show and her movie. Anything beyond the spotlight is deemed unimportant and is “forgotten”, the show is a charming illusion. And yet, these Nazis, who live in the shadows of the main show, dominate the screen. They are everywhere, at the edges of all the decaying glamour. Everything that happens on screen is tinged with doomsday-like foreshadowing of what is imminent, irreversible and yet, in this moment, intangible. 

Cabaret, made years after the Nazi occupation, allows its Nazis to move with the quiet confidence that their agenda will be heard, and responded to. We see it all over the place: from the seemingly unnecessary and tragic beating up of a nightclub bouncer, to the chilling rendition of ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, a moving song about the German Fatherland, said to be inspired by the official song of the Hitler Youth. Everything points to an undefinable knowledge that everything will turn out well in the end for these religious zealots. 

Hindu fundamentalists move with the same quiet confidence in India today. There has been no official declaration, the National Anthem is still in Bengali and ostensibly honours all the citizens of India, but there has been a discernible shift in the way these people, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their supporters, occupy the world. They are more brazen, and more obvious with their agenda as they mould India into a shape they are comfortable with.

There is a moment in Cabaret when a man, possibly a Nazi party opposer, lies dead in the streets. Sally, along with Brian, her lover and an English student of philosophy who earns money as an English tutor, and Maximillian, a German aristocrat and playboy, who is secretly sleeping with both Sally and Brian, slowly pass by him without comment. It is hauntingly familiar to any Indians who have read about or witnessed the Delhi Pogrom (riots incited by Hindus in mainly Muslim neighbourhoods, as a result of nationwide protests against the regressive Citizenship Amendment Act) last February, or the migrant exodus from larger metro cities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many industries in urban India, such as construction and factories, rely on cheap, daily wage labourers from rural villages – after the coronavirus lockdowns these businesses were temporarily shut down. Many owners did not pay their labourers in the interim, who were forced to either rely on unreliable government rations or return home. Countless labourers, abandoned by private and public systems,  have died in this period, although these numbers might never be reported in the official statistics. The rich of the country have ignored these crises though, in favour of focusing on self-improvement and banana bread recipes. In Brian, Max, and Sally’s case, it was to focus on the joy of an impending trip to Africa, that funnily enough, like many pre-coronavirus plans, never actually took place.


Another commonality between the characters of Cabaret and the Indian upper elite can be seen when Brian and Maximillian both openly disparage the Nazi party. They accidentally witness a Nazi youth singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ at a small restaurant on their way back from Max’s country house to Berlin. Yet, other than the moment when in a fit of anger caused by his personal problems Brian attempts to “take on the entire Nazi party by himself” (as Sally puts it), none of them ever actually think the party is worth doing anything about. The Nazis are perceived as ridiculous, but never actively dangerous. This is even after numerous reports of murders and the slow, sure hunting down of Jewish people in the city. There is a perception amongst the educated elite in Cabaret that this will end soon, that this is a mere flight of fancy, a whim of some crazy zealots, and that there is no way it will amount to anything.  From an entire restaurant rising to sing with the young Nazi,  to the murder of a dog belonging to Natalia, a young Jewish heiress and student of Brian’s, it is clear that the Nazis are an unavoidable threat, and that they are gaining supporters. Even so, those who are not directly affected find it difficult to muster the energy, or perhaps courage, to actually do anything about the party.

It is much the same in India in 2020. The government is currently formed by Hindu fascists and fundamentalists, whose goal seems to be to eradicate the country of the Muslim minority. Dalits (considered the lowest rung in India’s caste system), Adivasis (Tribals), and poor lower-class Hindus are all affected by the government’s slow and steady march towards complete upper-class and caste Hindu domination. They want an ‘Akhanda Bharata’ or ‘whole India’, untainted by outside influence. This agenda is not new to anyone who has studied any of Hitler’s speeches – he longs for a ‘New Germany’ in some form or another in every one. While this persecution of minorities has existed for centuries (the caste system, which places certain castes as above all others, has always been  part of Indian culture), the  2019 election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister for the second time marked the beginning  of a doctrine. It began with the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, (this article provided special rights to native Kashmiris to protect their status as a minority in India) and has extended most recently to the unconstitutional jailing of a young Kashmiri Muslim woman, Safoora Zargar, who has been arrested for “inciting” rioters during the February Pogrom. 

The bourgeoisie elite that populate Berlin in Cabaret were very clearly aware of the changing tides around them. Instead of understanding or opposing this change, they chose to focus on their escapes, or Cabaret. The Indian elite is also focusing on the shiny centre rather than the blurry edges when democracy is crumbling before their very eyes. Cabaret displays the petty excesses of those in power perfectly with the character of Maximillian, who is content to get entertainment and laughter from those around him, and then abandon them, seemingly on a whim when something better comes along. Perhaps he truly believes his attentions are helping those he comes into contact with, but they are never sustained and can never gain the power of movement that was so desperately needed. The Indian elite works similarly with social causes, when something strikes them as particularly moving (such as a dead, pregnant elephant) they are driven to speak, shout, yell, and ask for justice. But as soon as the elephant exits the news cycle, they forget what they were ever upset about. Because of the uninvolvement of this privileged section of society, the movement in India can never last, can never seem to gain the traction that, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained recently in America. Those with the power to spray confetti on the movement have chosen to abstain, to disparage in closed circles and from afar and tut in silence, but never get involved. Maximilian did not support the Nazis, and yet no one could have possibly guessed this.


The Cabaret in Cabaret provides this escape for the section of the elite who is bothered about things, but isn’t sure exactly why. There is a sense of niggling doubt that all is not right with the world, but it is easy to tamp down on those fears with bright lights, costumes, and dreams of being stars. Indians in 2020 facing these same fears turn to Netflix and Instagram instead of the Cabaret – but they turn because of the same reasons, fear of the unknown, or maybe fear of what the known enemy will accomplish right before their eyes. 

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Cabaret seems to be a movie that speaks to those who do not care enough. Their own concerns are placed front and centre, while an epidemic slowly grows in the background. The main characters treat others’ concerns  – like those of Natalia and Fritz, an ambitious Jewish man who posed as a Christian till he fell in love with the Jewish Natalia – as absurd and bordering on the maniacal. Yet, the film has a way of doing justice to its secondary characters. Although they are clearly on the periphery, their lives and actions are shown with great tenderness and value. The movie uses the Cabaret to focus on everything being ignored. The film is structured like an actual Cabaret performance. It starts by welcoming the audience to the musical, throughout scenes are cut with actual performances from the Cabaret, and ends with a farewell. The songs obliquely refer to the happenings in the movie, for example the Emcee’s humorous performance of ‘two ladies’ where he is singing about a threesome, is cut brilliantly with a strangely erotic dance performed by Sally, Brian and Max, where it seems like they might indulge in a threesome themselves. This use of musical numbers in between the story cuts the tension in the “main'' storyline, which focuses on Sally and her quest to stardom, but also serves as a timely mirror to what is going on everywhere. The Emcee laughingly sings  ‘If You Could See Her’, a love song he performs with a person in a gorilla suit.  He insists that the wedding dress-wearing gorilla is full of virtues and at the end of the song  says “But if you could see her through my eyes, She wouldn't look Jewish at all!” while winking slyly at the audience. It is meant to be funny, yet becomes more tragicomic when juxtaposed with a joyless wedding between Fritz and Natalia. They are terrified, because they are convinced they will soon be hunted down and killed for the crime of being Jewish and in love, and the Emcee knows this. It seems that the real world is inescapable and the elite are  only fooling themselves. Glitter is used to heighten and highlight rather than hide, and everything existing on the peripheries of the character’s lives slowly closes in, as the show itself wraps to a close. The Nazis, who become visible through the distorted mirror at the end of the Emcee’s last performance, were always sitting in the audience – but they become clearer as the show, the apparent distraction, finally ends. I wonder how many Nazis are in the audience of shows like Sacred Games and Mirzapur. Will India’s fascist regime too exist on the borders of just another show? Little hints peppered into the background of laugh tracks and jokes about Kashmiri brides?

Anjali (@dontlistentoanj) is a graduate of English and Media Studies from Ashoka University and is (somewhat unpragmatically) an aspiring Writer-Director. She is endlessly fascinated by strange connections and absurdities in popular cinema and loves theorising popular culture.

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