WASHINGTON — WE have all become so familiar with the hit Broadway musical and film of "Cabaret" that we may be shocked when we see a re-creation of the real thing - the 1930s "Nazi follies" that are the Theater des Westens' production of "Berlin Cabaret."
This combination of film excerpts and live performance is on stage here through May 9, commissioned by the Kennedy Center for its "Tribute to Germany" celebration. The vast stage of the Eisenhower Theater has been pared away at the sides to create a nightclub setting. In the center, segments of movies produced by the official German studio, Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), accompany a grandiose propaganda cabaret. It's like a cross between the Ziegfeld Follies and "Thus Spake Zarathustra."
It is a lesson in history, in bitterness, and in popular entertainment used as propaganda.
In the 1920s, the UFA studio gained international fame with films directed by such masters as Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch and with stars like Greta Garbo, Pola Negri, and Emil Jannings. In one UFA film, a star was born: Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel."
But Hitler and Joseph Goebbels changed all that in the '30s. According to the program notes, "When the Nazis came to power, the UFA was integrated into the system as part of their general policy. Joseph Goebbels, minister for propaganda and like Hitler a keen film fan, built up the German company into a huge dream machine that, using its l0,000 employees, worked tirelessly in the service of propaganda. When the Nazi regime said 'Let me entertain you,' they meant 'let me propagandize you.' "
There is something ultimately glum and depressing about this sugar-coated world of propaganda, even with the "celluloid fantasies" of numbers such as "Call Me Sweetie in Spanish." The UFA studio simply whirls from country to country for its standard song-and-dance numbers, changing only the costumes, not the actors or themes. The purpose is purely distraction. In a way, it's like a very bad parody of the popular American films of the 1930s in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers took people's minds off t he Depression with their wonderful tap-dancing fantasies.
The cabaret is lively and colorful enough under Jurg Burth's direction and choreography. All the songs from this revue were heard during the period 1930-1944, but few are familiar except "Lili Marleen," which is done in German, French, English, and even Russian. Irving Berlin's upbeat "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" also makes an appearance.
There are so many analogies to "spring" in the revue that you almost expect someone to belt out a chorus of "Springtime for Hitler" from the 1968 movie, "The Producers."
The majority of the songs are sung in German, leaving much of the American audience in the dark. It would have been better to follow the lead of the Washington Opera's production of "Savage Land," which was sung completely in Chinese, and have big subtitles on stage. Either that, or make sure everyone has time before the show to study the lyrics in English.
In spite of the language barrier, which puts a crimp in this cabaret, there are songs in which the awful, satiric message comes through: "It's All the Fault of the Jews" and "Hands Up, We Shoot" are as sharp as the bayonets in the Nazi-controlled UFA films. One unforgettable moment on stage in the cabaret on Christmas eve involved the topping of the Christmas tree with not a star, but with the iron swastika, that symbol of cruelty and anti-religion.
The "Berlin Cabaret" was written with insight by Mr. Burth and Volker Kohn, who certainly conjure up the spirit of the time for this world premiere.
In a talented cast, those who stand out especially are Helmut Baumann as the emigrant, Angelika Milster as the platinum-blond UFA singer, the Aryan looking Hartwig Rudolz as the UFA star and fighter pilot, and Monica Solem as the Dresser, poignant and witty. The costume design by Uta Loher and Daniela Thomas is stunning. So is the scenery by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau.