REVIEW: Cabaret [1972]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 124 minutes
    Release Date: February 13th, 1972 (USA)
    Studio: Allied Artists Pictures
    Director(s): Bob Fosse
    Writer(s): Jay Presson Allen / Joe Masteroff (musical book) / John Van Druten (play I Am a Camera) / Christopher Isherwood (novel The Berlin Stories)

One of my whims.

The place to be in 1930s Europe was apparently Weimer-era Berlin. That’s where Cambridge-educated Christopher Isherwood went to live his life as an openly gay man amongst kindred spirits populating its robust nightlife. He met numerous friends, embarking on numerous adventures ultimately inspiring his semi-autobiographical novel The Berlin Stories which in turn inspired John Van Druten‘s Broadway play I Am a Camera. From there, Joe Masteroff and songwriting duo Kander and Ebb (John Kander and Fred Ebb) created their musical Cabaret, largely influenced by Isherwood’s short story entitled “Sally Bowles”. Rather than adapt any one of those for the big screen, however, Bob Fosse and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen would instead craft their own version based upon them all. Eight Oscars later, the decision was proven a success.

From what I’ve read, the biggest change was the way in which the music was handled. While the 1966 musical has its cast breaking into song as dialogue, Fosse reworks things so each number is diegetic instead. Their purpose remains the same, though—to both give life to the emotional turmoil and provide a metaphorical look under the curtain at what’s going on outside with the Nazis. Because while the film itself take a very nuanced stance as far as letting Hitler’s rise to power occur in the background, that truth plays a huge role in the narrative progression of Isherwood’s stand-in Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the one-of-a-kind aspiring actress Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). What has once been a libertine city was now becoming a police state.

There’s no better example than an on-stage bit led by the Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) wherein he leads his girls into a dance number while dressed in drag before suddenly transforming all their headwear into helmets and canes into rifles. The fun, carefree atmosphere is stifled by the stoic severity of war; the audience laughter going silent in the process. It’s much the same with the burgeoning romance between Brian and Sally. What had been a whirlwind and unlikely affair (he had no interest in women before their friendship leads him to her bed) gradually finds itself coming crashing back to earth as though an unstoppable dream had been instantly wiped from existence to reveal a cold hard truth that neither wanted to face.

Running in this circle demands that they do, though. Not only is it a question of sexuality and promiscuity, but also the realization that no one is going to be able to escape what’s coming. How long will the rich Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) stay once the walls start to close in despite his belief that the Nazis can be corralled after they serve their “anti-Communist” purpose? How long will Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) be safe if the numbers of those who wish her dead continue to rise? And what of con man Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) realizing the lie he told upon arriving in Berlin might not stand up to scrutiny much longer? What of his desire to no longer continue living that lie?

These people matter because they are all a part of Brian and Sally’s inner circle. Maybe he just wants to teach Germans English so he can pay his rent and enjoy himself. Maybe she just wants to sing and leverage her obvious talent into an acting career. But at what cost? Are those aspirations more important to them than their friends’ lives? Natalia and Fritz are Brian’s students. Fritz is Sally’s longtime acquaintance. And Max is unsubtly trying to seduce both Sally and Brian. Love, sex, excess, and desire pushes them together and it should be enough if only the world outside their club of choice would let it. What was one young Nazi being thrown out at the beginning unfortunately becomes an army too large to combat.

It’s a tense affair made more so by Fosse’s abrupt cuts and juxtapositions that inevitably turn Grey’s Master of Ceremonies from on-screen guide to fourth wall-breaking orator of portent gazing silently at us with a grin for a split-second before we’re returned to the main action. That Nazi that was kicked out of the club? Soon we see the patron who did the kicking getting pummeled by a group of swastika-wearing men, each punch edited to the music so that we move back and forth from street to stage with rapid-fire precision. Everything is changing around Brian’s adopted family and the farcical satire of song and dance can only distract them so long before the Nazis take control. Money and status can’t save them. Love can’t either.

The whole becomes a bittersweet romance as a result. I’m not sure it works any other way considering the historical implications of what’s happening. Fosse is working towards a bookend where the warped reflections of open-minded revelers in the metal accoutrement of the club become men in uniforms prone to bashing skulls if something doesn’t sit right. Even so, however, Cabaret isn’t a nihilistic vision of futility either. It still centers our desire to fight for our dreams and preserve our chances at love and happiness no matter the risk by allowing characters to weigh impossible decisions and come out the other side knowing they’ve bet on themselves. Will that bet keep them in Berlin? Will it keep them alive? Maybe not. The alternative is death either way.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

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