Not life but history is the show, old chum, in “Cabaret Berlin – The Wild Scene”—an entertaining, vivid and succinct compilation film made for French TV by Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir and showing twice at the Walter Reade (Monday, January 21, and Tuesday, January 22) as part of New York Jewish Film Festival.
Rousso-Lenoir’s 2010 film is blurbed as a document of Weimar Berlin’s legendary night life, although it draws mainly on the German musicals and operettas of the early ‘30s. These are mixed with newsreels, home movies, and evocative clips from select classics (“Battleship Potemkin,” “Metropolis”) not all of them German. The director’s previous credits include the 2005 PBS doc “From Shtetl to Swing”; “Cabaret Berlin” is less linear while aspiring to be something more, namely the musical equivalent of another classic, namely Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. It’s pleasingly dense and deftly edited (and I say that after seeing another chunk of “The Clock”) if somewhat glibly structured as an evening’s entertainment, complete with avid master of ceremonies.
The stars include Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya and the lesser known but equally compelling Margo Lion (who, among other startling appearances, has a scene with our beloved Peter Lorre) but most are not identified. Basically you have to go with the flow. It’s frustrating that the film’s sources not given until the end (and then all at once). In closing, the filmmaker makes the point that many, if not most, of the performers were Jews—and those who were not, like Dietrich or Lenya, were self-exiled anti-fascists.
The New York Jewish Film Festival also includes an odd postscript in the form of the German TV doc “Max Raabe in Israel” (showing Sunday, January 20, and Tuesday January 22, prior to “Cabaret Berlin”) which reports on the contemporary Berlin retro act, Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester, as they toured Israel in 2010 with a show of German ‘20s and ‘30s pop. The presentation is far more detached than that of “Cabaret Berlin.” Raabe, who could be an Aryan poster boy, realizes that much of the music was written and originally performed by Jews. Still, he seems naïvely surprised by the vehemence of the local response which, while encompassing a visceral distaste for anything German, is, at least for Israel’s dwindling population of German-born Jews, something too powerful to be called nostalgia.
Images: The Jewish Museum