Chris Trotter: Who does tomorrow belong to?

Chris Trotter: Who does tomorrow belong to?

It is one of the most powerful scenes in one of the most powerful musicals of twentieth century cinema. In the biergarten of a wayside tavern, deep in the heart of the German countryside, a beautiful young man begins to sing. For the first few moments the youth’s performance seems unobjectionable. It is only when the camera pulls away, and we see the brown shirt and the swastika armband, that we apprehend what is unfolding. The patriotic charge of the song, crackles through the tavern’s patrons. Other voices join the young stormtrooper’s. People leap to their feet. Soon the whole biergarten is upstanding and bellowing out the chorus: “Oh Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign/Your children have waited to see./The morning shall come when the world is mine/ Tomorrow belongs to me!”

Few movies capture the febrile atmosphere of the doomed Weimar Republic’s final years better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret”. At the heart of the film lies the vexed question of how we thoroughly irrational human-beings are supposed to find meaning and comfort in a modern society driven (supposedly) by the impersonal forces of scientific rationalism and rational self-interest. Throughout the film, this core existential dilemma is interrogated with daring honesty and sardonic wit by the drama’s leading protagonists. But the laughter provoked by the extraordinary songs and dance routines is never easy or carefree. Always there is the whiff of fear and an abiding sense of impending catastrophe.

That’s why the scene in the biergarten is so pivotal to the film’s underlying theme. On display is what German sociology identifies as the volksgemeinschaft – the “people’s community”. All that cosmopolitan angst parading about on Berlin stages offers nothing to these sturdy Bavarians and their impatient children. Weimar’s modern, rationalistic, “society” – gesellschaft in German – offers the people’s community nothing but vexation and outrage. The relationships in which they take comfort are born of the heart, not the mind. Their politics is personal, not ideological. The values they seek to preserve are rooted in faith and tradition, blood and soil.

This is Fosse’s point. It’s why the biergarten scene is so important. In a battle between doubt and faith; intellect and passion; ideas and values; forgiveness  and revenge: gemeinschaft (community) will beat gesellschaft (society) every time.

The brief historical interlude that was Weimar anticipated so much of the political and cultural trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It’s extraordinary creative explosions; its surging political movements; its singular inability to defend its gains: all of these would be repeated across the Western world in the 1960s and 70s. Repeated, too, were the visceral responses of those social groups who found all the counter-cultural experimentation and political iconoclasm too much to bear.

Once again, the existential question to be resolved was how to carve out human enclaves within the monolithic institutions of corporate/consumer society. Where and how could decent, thoughtful people find respite from the unrelenting materialism represented so powerfully in the television series Mad Men? What was the hippie phenomenon if not a brave – but doomed – attempt to redefine the meaning of a social rationality? And what was the New Left if not an equally doomed crusade to treat the “self-evident truths” of  Liberty, Equality, and the Pursuit of Happiness, as if America’s “Founding Fathers” had intended them to be taken seriously?

The American volksgemeinschaft is finding it much harder to sweep away its own Weimar than Germany’s. America’s cultural left has defended its gains with considerably more tenacity than did Germany’s bewildered Social Democrats and Moscow-led Communists in the early 1930s.

In Donald Trump, however, the American people’s community has found its true avatar. Never before has the gesellschaft: grounded in reason and science, and trusting in the efficacy of the institutions which they sustain; come under such ruthless and unrelenting attack. Adolf Hitler commanded Germans to “awake” from the nightmare of Weimar’s treacherous cosmopolitanism. Donald Trump has weaponised the “Deplorables’” nostalgia for the era of unselfconscious white supremacism: commanding them to “Make America Great Again”.

It remains to be seen whether the visceral passions and irrational loyalties of Trump’s America can survive the grim audit of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Will his followers be redeemed through the demonstrable superiority of science over the President’s ignorant posturing? Or, will they simply refuse to face the facts? Rightly sensing that to concede that their hero has feet (and frontal lobes) of clay means surrendering all hope of securing permanent victory for the Trumpian volksgemeinschaft?

The Covid-19 Pandemic is also pitting the gesellschaft against the gemeinschaft in New Zealand. To date, “society’s” determination to be guided by reason and the scientific evidence has been represented with commendable effectiveness by the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. With empathy and clarity they have set out the problem to be overcome and paid us all the compliment of assuming we are sensible enough to help them solve it.

It is also, clear, however, that the Prime Minister and her advisers are not so fervent in their conviction that reason must prevail that they have not been willing to hedge their bets by also couching their appeal to the instincts of the New Zealand people’s community.

It is there in the repeated observation that “we are all in this together”. There, too, in the official advertisements featuring New Zealand’s most familiar faces. More and more of this “face-to-face” communication will be needed as the population’s sojourn in “lockdown” drags on. Increasingly, the appeals will be to our hearts rather than our heads. Fairness will emerge as the core value: without it, we will be told, getting through this crisis “together” will not be possible. Those who fall foul of the “Ordinary Kiwi’s” belief in fairness: by hoarding needed supplies; by price gouging; by refusing to observe the rules of  the Lockdown; will need to take care.

Society – gesellschaft – promises only abstract happiness. In the end, tomorrow belongs to all of us, the New Zealand people, or to no one at all.