Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem
Cabaret is all about Sally Bowles and her divine bohemian goings-on. The decadence, to the point of grotesquerie, and the sexual infatuations of her group of cohorts is on full display. To me, though, the major draw of Cabaret is the intermittent musical numbers in the divine Fosse style that serve as a Greek Chorus to the plot and atmosphere of the film.
Sally (Minnelli in an Oscar-winning performance) is a performer at the Kit Kat Club in Weimar era 1930s Berlin where the emcee (Grey) oversees all. Buttoned-down Brian (York) arrives and takes a room in the boarding house where Sally lives. She’s flighty and ebullient; he’s intrigued. We meet a few friends of theirs through the boarding house, but the focus is squarely on the odd friendship that develops between the two. However, when rich and handsome Maximilian (Griem) enters the picture, the friendship is tested as jealousies arise.
The central story about Sally and Brian’s friendship is fairly conventional. Girl meets boy, girl is crazy and theatrical, boy becomes infatuated with girl, a friendship forms, and things become a little complicated. When you boil Cabaret down to its essence, that’s what the film is, a tried and true tale of an unexpected friendship between two slightly lost souls – but, for me, that’s the least interesting part of the movie. I don’t particularly want to boil Cabaret down to its essence, because then, I’d be missing the best parts.
Before I go off on those other parts that I like better than the backbone of the tale, I do want to talk a bit about Brian and Sally. From a superficial vantage point, it looks as though Sally, with her crazy green nail polish, her excessive flirtations, and her rather sad attempts at seductions, is the one who grabs button-down Brian and awakens him, opening him up to the possibilities of the world at large. But as the movie progresses, I become less convinced this is the case. I don’t think Brian was ever button-down at all. As we slowly learn more about him, he is not nearly as staid and innocent as he appears, and I hold that their friendship is less about Sally “teaching” Brian of the world than Sally realizing she was wrong about her initial impression of him and appreciating him for who he is. Brian really is a bit of a wild-child underneath all that plaid and all those suits. Sally didn’t set him free; he was free already. She just thinks she’s setting him free, but once again, she’s made a mistake about a man.
I really appreciate how Fosse treated the rise of Nazi power in Cabaret. Despite my love for musicals, I had passed on watching Cabaret until about four or five years ago when it was playing on the big screen at the Dryden. I always thought to myself that I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a musical about Nazis terrorizing Liza Minnelli. But that’s not what Cabaret is about. Fosse keeps the Nazis wisely in the background until the bitter end of the film. He takes advantage of the fact that every single person who sees Cabaret knows what happened in World War II, and as such, he merely hints, ever so slightly at things to come. He doesn’t need to tell us; we already know. A great sequence has Brian and Maximilian driving through a street where there has been a murder. They look on and comment, but everyone else who is at the scene is stock still. Fosse lingers on the faces and the snapshots of the crime scene just long enough to remind us there are greater things happening in Berlin than Sally and Brian. A subplot of Cabaret involves a love affair between two people whom we learn are Jewish. When their story reaches its conclusion, there is no coda to it – which is perfect. Fosse never tells us what became of them. Did they escape Berlin? Did they stay and probably die? It’s up to the viewer to wonder, and I like that.
I can’t go much further without letting everyone know that Cabaret contains one of my favorite film sequences of all time, one I’ve seen time and time again thanks to the magic of youtube. The one song not performed at the Kit Kat Club, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” is one of the most frightening sequences committed to film. At a quaint restaurant in the idyllic German countryside, Brian and Maximilian stop for lunch. An adolescent boy starts singing the song with its lovely little lyrics of rolling hills and pastoral beauty, but then we see he’s wearing a swastika. As the song continues, it becomes clear that this is Nazi propaganda at work, convincing the German people that their future is better and brighter when they entrust it in the hands of the Nazis. Watching nearly every normal, regular German citizen at that café stand and passionately sing as the song becomes a powerful call to order sends chills down my spine. In this one scene, this one frightening yet unassuming little scene, Fosse manages to delineate precisely how Germany, lost and broken after World War I, could have thrown itself behind the Nazi party. The children are singing, the adults are singing, and then that one old man who refuses to stand – he breaks my heart every time. This is the filmic counterpoint to the equally powerfully Marseillaise scene from Casablanca. I love both scenes with a passion, but in Casablanca the singing is for good. In Cabaret, the singing is in the service of evil. I’ve only seen Cabaret all the way through twice. I’ve seen “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” more times than I can count. I find it hauntingly and frighteningly beautiful.
You have to watch it. It's just so good... and so scary...
Of course, this is Fosse, so of course, the musical sequences are just amazing. I already spoke of how fascinated I am with Fosse’s choreography – all that pelvis, all those ankles, all those pigeon-toed stances – and “Mein Herr” is probably the best example of that here. It’s utterly beguiling. I dare you not to get the “Money” song stuck in your head. I watched this last night, and woke up this morning with “Money makes the world go around / the world go around / the world go around” running rampant through my brain. Joel Grey, Broadway legend, is great as the emcee. His “Two Ladies” number is great and fun and the reason why Cabaret is most likely not performed by high schools. There is a dirty sexualizing of nearly all the musical numbers that is so fascinating and so Fosse.
I’ve never seen Cabaret on Broadway, but if there was one Broadway production I wish I had caught, it was the late 1990s Cabaret revival starring Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming as the emcee. I’ve seen enough clips on youtube to make it clear that as sexualized as Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret is, Alan Cumming takes the vulgarity and dials it up to 11. I’m intrigued to see the entire show – it looks as though the emcee is even more menacing than Grey is here.
As a whole, I find Cabaret a tad uneven. The central backbone of the film, as I said earlier, is my least favorite part of the film - conventional and only moderately engaging for me, but the movie is also filled with terrific musical numbers in that Fosse style that I utterly adore, and Fosse treats the rise of Nazi power in an interesting way. It’s odd, but I’d like to pick and choose what I keep from this film. I wouldn’t trade “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” for anything, but you can keep Brian and Sally shacking up - and most of the narrative, for that matter.
Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10. I’m really torn here. There are parts I would give an outright perfect score to, and parts that are just OK. I guess this is a good compromise? Who knows. Who cares, too – this is just an online movie review. Stop taking it so seriously, Siobhan. ;)