The Cabaret spell that won’t let us go

Published in the Evening Standard

Who could ask for a warmer Wilkommen than that? The new production of Cabaret, the show that put the camp into kulturkampf, has just opened to rave reviews and jammed switchboards, confidently anointed as the winter’s hot ticket.

It’s hardly a surprise. The critics have long ranked this tale of nightclubs, cross-dressing and tangled love in Weimar Germany among the very best musicals of the post-war era. Its look never dates while the tunes are belting, from the opening Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, through the candid cynicism of Money, Money – “It makes the world go round” – to the sinister warning of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Londoners who’ve already seen Chicago, but like songs with their suspenders – you know where to go.

Not that Cabaret won’t face stiff competition. Another hit show from the 1960s, also adapted into a definitive movie with a career-making central performance for its lead actress, is on its way to the West End. Come November, Cabaret will be duelling against the Sound of Music.

But the two shows have something else in common, too – a feature they share with at least a couple more West End productions. Lurking, either in the background or foreground, are Nazis. The Von Trapps cross the border to escape them in the Sound of Music, while the chorus girls and boys of the Kit Kat Club end up cowering, nude and frightened, from them in the fatal end of Cabaret.

There is a similarly lethal climax to Bent, set in Dachau, and now revived with Alan Cumming at the Trafalgar Studios. And lets not forget the high-stepping goose-steppers of Springtime for Hitler, the show within a show at the heart of The Producers. From the Palladium to Drury Lane, the West End is awash with swastikas.

We shouldn’t single out the theatre. This is a trend that’s pervaded popular culture ever since publishers discovered that a Nazi emblem on the cover is a fast-track to the bestsellers’ lists. (Humorist Alan Coren memorably cashed in on the phenomenon when he combined non-fiction’s three most popular themes in Golfing for Cats – with a swastika on the jacket.) Or check the TV documentary channels: if you’ve just missed a film about Hitler, don’t worry, another will be along shortly.

Part of me welcomes this profusion of material about what remains the darkest episode in human history. Plenty of my fellow Jews once believed no artistic expression could ever do justice to the Holocaust in particular, and that therefore it was better not to try. That view was often expressed in the slogan “no poetry after Auschwitz,” or the call for silence after the Shoah – but it has palpably gone unheeded.

It was always doomed. Human beings need to get to grips with the horrors of their shared past and art, in all its forms, is the way they do it. Some efforts will be crude, some will backfire disastrously, but the urge is real and should not be repressed.

What’s more, now that the events of the 1940s are slipping from living memory into history – as veterans of the Second World War and survivors of the Holocaust enter their last years – I sympathise with those who are desperate to ensure none of it is forgotten. That need has become urgent in a world in which the President of Iran denies the reality of the Shoah, the leader of Hezbollah tells his supporters that “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust” and Hamas’s official web site describes the Nazi murder of six million Jews as “an alleged and invented story with no basis.” Historian Robert Satloff in a new book reports that “Not a single official textbook or educational programme on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country.”

In that context, I’m glad that Britain has taken a stand against amnesia, that we have a Holocaust Memorial Day, that British school kids learn about the Nazi period, that those events live on in the collective memory, thanks in part to the likes of Cabaret and Bent.

And yet I still find my heart sinks a little, for reasons that reflect both of the two core aspects of my identity, Jewish and British. First, I am one of those Jews who prefers his Jewishness to be rooted in culture, tradition or customs that can be lived, enjoyed and celebrated. The alternative, as Howard Jacobson puts it in his brilliant, Booker-longlisted novel Kalooki Nights, is to dwell on “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness.” Some Jews make a religion of past suffering, with the Holocaust occupying a central, almost sacred space. But I prefer another way, to raise my children not to be burdened by Jewish death, but to delight in and marvel at Jewish life.

And, as a Briton, I wonder at a national psyche still shaped so extensively by the experience of the second world war. I notice how rapidly any political discussion descends into a comparison with the 1930s and 1940s, whether it’s Saddam Hussein compared to Adolf Hitler, al-Qaida to fascists or anti-war campaigners to pre-war appeasers. It’s as if this is the only history we know, so it becomes our only point of comparison. No one is Napoleon or Wellington, Philip of Spain or Elizabeth I: it’s only ever Hitler and Churchill, again and again.

It’s clear all this has had a profound effect on Britain, colouring our view of Europe, giving us a distorted sense of our place in the world. It has even led to a curious sense that our best years are behind us, that 1940 truly was our “finest hour” and that we can never be quite as good again.

None of this is the fault of a few West End shows. But Cabaret and the rest ensure that the Nazi period remains seared into the collective mind like no other. It’s right that we should remember it, but it casts a long shadow – and sometimes we need to step outside it.