Election Cabaret


Cabaret, Allied Artists, 1972

by Elias Tezapsidis

On a Sunday atypical of the usual routine, a lot was felt. A typical Sunday routine consists solely of coffee and reading the newspaper front to back as if the Internet did not exist, or pretending that I belong to a different time. This particular Sunday, July 7th 2019, marked the second time in a mere two months that I had voted.

For the time since I have been cognisant of Hellenic politics, bipartisanship has been the sole reality. This is no specific trait of the Greek Republic, it is a well-documented pattern of the current political reality and the catalyst for a vast array of issues as they occur for citizens of many countries, denizens of democracies illiberal and liberal. As governments change almost per two terms, the blame for all faults falls on the opposing party, and this is a continued trend in global governance, where the governing party stiffs the next.

We as citizens, hear nonsensical claims about how “If you do not vote, you may not speak about what occurs in the governed sphere.” I find this notion bordering fascistic, indicating that all of us born (or finding ourselves) into a system of order but unable to vote in it have no rights. In any case, I bit my tongue in the presence of a friend’s friend who said that. The next day, I voted.

Conveniently, I voted under the same municipality as my mother, so we headed to the election location together. It was the elementary school of Panorama, which I had never been to before, because this was a public institution and my father would remind me at all times he always sent me to the best private schools.

My mother is beautiful. She can present herself well so quickly, it just takes her ten minutes and the end result is what most women her age need an hour to attain. I like to brag that it is her gene pool I inherited from, exclusively. Though that probably contains the brassiness, when upset, and lack of perspective in terms of how I am taking out my anger over something else that is bothering me on the wrong person. For this, I was patient as she kind of almost yelled at me for no reason in the car. I admired that she kept everything going, and it made me look up to that as a way to deal with distractions, sadness, people wasting her time. She did things for herself, first.

How did I vote? How did I choose from the two parties? Hesitantly and without conviction. Following the logic I accused bipartisanship of myself, thinking If this is the best this government (SYRIZA) can do, then I best punish them by voting the opposite way, casting a ballot for New Democracy (not sure what was old with “Old Democracy,” was this a copyright issue?).

I am not proud of my limited knowledge of the political terrain I inhabit. I know more about American politics because I consume more American media. But if I have learned a few things about Greece since I have been here, it is that it is at least 20 years behind in terms of representation and civil rights for unconventional people. The previous day, I spoke to the only new friend I had made since relocating here. He told me he would not be voting, because he was on a ship for a destination wedding, where he would aid the photographer.

We had been playing phone tag for almost a month, so I guess finally when he was on a ship it worked out. I, too, took the call with me to the kiosk where I was heading to buy the Sunday paper, on Saturday, a special edition due to Election Day. I was also hoping for a Cheat Sheet on HOW TO VOTE WITH A CONSCIENCE. Such content was nowhere to be found in a non-partisan way. We spoke about plans for the immediate future (jobs, lovers, sex, no drugs) and also about how we need to be better at staying in touch. I agreed and then tried to garner some input on how to vote with a conscience.

“So you won’t be voting?” I ask.

“No, I won’t. It’s not exactly a protest, but it is a scheduled commitment, and I cannot rearrange such a gig.” (So, technically, does this put my friend in the “DO NOT EXPRESS YOUR OPINIONS, BECAUSE YOU DID NOT EXERCISE YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS!” category?)

“Is there anything you think I should consider?” I ask, inquisitively.

He paused and hesitated, but he did ultimately say:

“I would not vote for New Democracy. As a gay man, I think a lot of bureaucratic progress that has been made over the past four years will be doomed or insignificant under the right wing government.”

So, as I took out the ballot for New Democracy, it was not that I disregarded what he advised, but that I do not think that Greece is at the stage, socially, where this matters. Yet, a tiny portion of guilt reverberated through me and I thought: “How could I fuck this up a bit, make it less conventional?”

Quickly, I added crosses ONLY to women on the ballot. A tiny rebellion in a sea of capitalist triumph, but I patted myself on the shoulder. (I knew zero of the candidates on the ballot. The way the system works allows for you to vote for the party without even casting a vote for a specific individual. Weird, yes, but which country has a non-weird electoral system? Remember how Trump became President, or are you, too, trying to forget?)

I noted the irony of me thinking of such linear ways of representation.

In the early summer evening, the weather was unbearably hot. I joined my mother on the top floor of the house. We cranked up the AC and scrolled through our options of something to watch.

“Do you want to watch Cabaret?” I asked.

“Yes! Let’s.” She responded, before sleeping through the first hour of the movie.

I noted the irony of Cabaret being on TV on Election Day. I was always fascinated by the socio-historical background of how Germany transitioned from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, and I consider (now, upon rewatching, with more certainty than before) a portrait of Berlin through that time. I often wonder if references are to be appreciated a priori, or if one needs an education to fully appreciate what they are consuming. Can someone like David Foster Wallace without having an understanding of critical theory of capitalism, or the use of irony as a defense mechanism? Put more simply, can someone love a new art form or art (-bear with me!) product that is heavily derived from the knowledge of the viewer or reader?

In my opinion, a good movie is one that makes you reconsider your place in the world, often by immersing you in an alternate position. I love remembering how a film or book made me feel, and revisiting that emotion after a long time. Frequently, I enjoy being wrong. It gives me the opportunity to entertain the idea that: 1. People (even me!) change; and 2. First impressions, and their memories are not always valid.

The first time I watched Cabaret, it was because I was acting in a lot of school drama plays, and a very boundary-less, somewhat progressive, but often manipulative coach advised all people in a key role in her musical production to act like the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. The people being teenagers. This was, to put it mildly, unreasonable. So the first time I watched Cabaret, it was to pay close attention on how to copy the Master of Ceremonies. Let me tell you, this is not the look any self-respecting 13 year old aspires to, no matter the Oscar-grasping performance by Joel Grey.

But beyond the limitations set upon me by immaturity, marking the inability to see how this character of the Cabaret presented something I should try to emulate, I did feel strongly about the film. It made me cry and feel uncomfortable, and I no longer remember why, at least not with certainty. During that age, I had everything in both literal and symbolic ways. In a hilarious way, fate perhaps fucks you up when you have had everything more easily early on, right?

You want struggle? You got it! Coming right up.

Without having yet overcome some sort of struggle, why was it that the movie made me sad and uncomfortable the first time around? Things coming out of rewatching are plenty. So I numbered and expanded, below.

First, there is insanely rich visual imagery reflecting art. There is a ton of images that reflect very directly the impossibly intense (and obviously progressive) art of the Weimar Republic. In college, I took entire courses on the art that came about during this time, but I never considered its more modern depiction in movies. In the very start of the movie, the extremely direct recreating of Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden made me smirk, got me excited. In the Dix portrait, more than an intense visual is, of course, depicted. It is considered as the new image of woman of its time (1926), one defying or rejecting gender norms prior generations had been accustomed to for too long a time. Von Harden was a writer and a poet, and with her bobbed hair and monocle, she was also an aesthetic, complete with a fuming cigarette and what I presume to be a strong (if not second) cocktail in front of her. In the mythology created around the image, von Harden herself stated in 1959 that Dix simply saw her on the street and needed to paint her. This is the dialogue she includes in “Erinnerungen an Otto Dix” (“Memories of Otto Dix”):

‘I must paint you! I simply must! … You are representative of an entire epoch!’

‘So, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet—things which can only scare people off and delight no-one?’

‘You have brilliantly characterized yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.’

So Otto Dix was the Mel Ottenberg to von Harden’s Rihanna. I also like to draw out the idea that Dix’s  Neue Sachlichkeit, New Objectivity, is in many ways parallel to rap music. How? Neue Sachlichkeit was an artistic attempt to create a journalistically valid representation of reality, facts. No “beautifying” of what is happening, just the rough edges. Perhaps the rough edges are the strength. An extension of this logic, despite the different medium (i.e. painting vs music), is the way in which the work serves society: it spits in its face. Harsh observations are put to the forefront. The ugliness is the protagonist. There is no escape! And this mess, this ugliness, this is what most accurately depicts reality, mirroring us and our surroundings.

Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Otto Dix, 1926

I told a friend, let’s call him Mr. No, that I was writing about Cabaret.

“what are you writing abt Cabaret? I thought abt it during trumps speech. bc he almost quoted it”

“What did he almost quote?” I ask.

“he said “the future belongs to us.” like that song.”

The Otto Dix injection made me think: wow, The Director did a great job at both making the reference crystal clear, but also did not get too meta-about it. The side-art did not take away from the different story, in which Liza Minnelli establishes herself as more than Judy Garland’s daughter. Sally Bowles becomes a pop-cultural reference point in herself. Until the playful Broadway light fonts highlighted “a film by Bob Fosse” I did not know it was him (Not THAT gay!), made now more famous through an allegedly excellent FX show.

Beyond the portrait of Berlin through the transition between the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, the movie is impactful because the characters seem real. The origins of the script are Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, which then became the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten. Ultimately the density and depth of themes is apparent.

I underline that the characters seeming real is a remarkable accomplishment, because they are all somewhat dislikable. Brian is initially who appears to be our eyes and ears of what goes on. It is his arrival to Berlin that is celebrated with the “Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!” song in the beginning by the Master of Ceremonies. Brian is a mostly gay writer who moves to Berlin because that was where degenerates gathered in his time. Though as a degenerate, he is somewhat harmless. He tutors English and translates crass fiction about women with whips. How Brian falls in love with a childish, capricious cabaret dancer is clear: suddenly.

But is Brian really the protagonist? Probably not.

Is there a protagonist in this movie? Or is it just the director who chose how to juxtapose all the moments we witness? I think most people accurately consider Sally Bowles the connector, the soul of the film. How can an aspiring semi-delusional cabaret dancer (resisting labeling her as a sex worker because that would imply a notion of power I do not believe Bowles possesses in the film; her charm is naiveté and its performance) be the source of such material?

“Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome” lends itself as a reflection on how we are to consume what is ahead of us. I understand, now, what my high school Drama Coach wanted me to steal from the performance of what in my teenager head looked like a clown: someone demanding an audience to do as they are told. Someone who is a jester not because they are ridiculous or the source of ridicule, but someone who attracts the attention of the public against tragedy, finding comedy in the process. The Master of Ceremonies is someone we know nothing about. He projects the story, forcing the plot to move on. I disliked him because I did not perceive that, in my young age, as an appealing part. Yet here I am, now writing things out. Reappropriating the hurt and pain that I have experienced. Trying to show others things I feel I had no control over, and often did not. My circumstances may have been less drastic, or more drastic. Technology changed everything.

Here is the song, as it is sung in the start of the film. I have underlined the most annoying lines, in their fake superficiality:

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

Fremder, étranger, stranger

Glücklich zu sehen

Je suis enchanté

Happy to see you

Bleibe, reste, stay

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

I’m cabaret, au cabaret, to cabaret!

Meine damen und herren

Mes dames et messieurs

Ladies and gentlemen

Guten abend! Bon soir! Good evening!

Wie geht’s? Comment ca va?

Do you feel good?

Ich bin eur confrencier!

Je suis votre compère

I am your host!

Und sage

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

I’m cabaret, au cabaret, to cabaret!

Leave your troubles outside

So life is disappointing, forget it!

In here life is beautiful

The girls are beautiful

Even the orchestra is beautiful

And now presenting the cabaret girls!

Each and everyone a virgin

You don’t believe me

Well, do not take my word for it

Go ahead, ask her!

Ha ha ha ha

Outside it is winter, but in here it is so hot!

Every night we have the battle to keep the girls from taking off

All their clothing, so don’t go away, who knows, tonight we may

Lose the battle!

Und sage

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

I’m cabaret, au cabaret, to cabaret!

We are here to serve you!

Bleibe, reste, stay

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

I’m cabaret, au cabaret

Wir sorgen!

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

Fremder, etranger, stanger

Glücklich zu sehen

Je suis enchanté, enchanté, madame!

Happy to see you, happy to see you

Bleibe, reste, stay

Und sage

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

Fremder, etranger, stanger

Glücklich zu sehen

Je suis enchanté

Happy to see you

Bleibe, reste, stay

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

I’m cabaret

Au cabaret

To cabaret!


This essay is part three of a series of personal essays. Read part one and part two.

About the Author:

Elias Tezapsidis is a generalist writer (currently) in Berlin. His work can be found in 3:AM MagazineThe Awl, Berfrois, BOMB, Harper’s, HTMLGiant, Salt Artists, Thought Catalog, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, The Toast, Vol1 Brooklyn, V Magazine and others.