“And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.”
“ The Human Dress is forged Iron,
The Human Form a fiery Forge,
The Human Face a Furnace seal’d,
The Human Heart its hungry Gorge.”
–from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience
It’s been a long time since I watched Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Probably not long after it first came out in 1972. I was still in high school. I remember being with some friends at the time, and all of us sitting there stupefied when the credits rolled at the end. You always wonder how films or books that did that to you stand up to the test of time. Quite well, I’ve found. Cabaret’s a case in point. I watched the 25th anniversary edition last week (incorporating some interviews and background on filming in the opening trailers), and I’m still stupefied. Of course, that could just be my general psychological condition, but I’d rather credit Cabaret with being a superb piece of filmmaking.
One of its most remarkable qualities is that it’s not about sex and guilt, even though there’s a lot of the former implied, and a healthy dose of the latter expressed. A lesser filmmaker than Bob Fosse would have found in this musical, based on the Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical stories of life in Berlin in the early Thirties, an irresistible opportunity to moralize. The central character, Kit Kat Klub chanteuse Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), sleeps around, drinks, smokes, and is oblivious to the horror darkening German political skies. Sally’s friends and lovers include her nightclub’s Mephistophelean master of ceremonies (Joel Grey), a Jewish gigolo (Fritz Wepper), a love-struck young Englishman (Michael York), and a predatory, bisexual German aristocrat (Helmut Griem). Excess, hedonism, and decadence are words that come readily to mind here. These people are diddling while Rome burns.
And (with the possible exception of Griem’s character) Bob Fosse likes them. He likes them a lot. He makes the viewer embrace them with all their flawed humanity. Cabaret celebrates life in the shadow of personal and political cataclysm.
Liza Minnelli gives the performance of a lifetime. Her Sally Bowles is an impossible blend of innocence and experience (“International Woman of Mystery—I’ve been working on it like mad”). Her cabaret numbers, brilliantly choreographed and filmed by Fosse, have enough energy to power a small city. Her love affair with Michael York is one of the most genuine stories of love and loss I have ever seen in the movies. Her final farewell to York, with her back turned and the fluttered wave of a theatrically blue-fingernailed hand, is amazingly eloquent. What a tribute it is to both Minnelli and Fosse to be able to so thoroughly understand Sally Bowles without ever judging her.
For all its sinister historical and theatrical backdrops and sexual shenanigans, Cabaret is a surprisingly warm, generous film. Generous in the way Walt Whitman was generous. Embracing multitudes without damning them. Never flinching from recognizing evil and pain; never letting them smother the spark that keeps rekindling the fire at the little altar of our hopes and dreams.
Michael York’s character is also a study in innocence and experience. A young Cambridge scholar on a short stay in Germany, Brian Roberts doesn’t know much about love and is not at all prepared for a teacher like Sally (Sally: “Doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?”—Brian: “It’s a little early in the day for this sort of thing, isn’t it?”). Playing against his sexual naïveté is the humor generated by his sharp, understated British sense of irony. Brian Roberts is also fluently bilingual, seeing more clearly than Sally or many of her German acquaintances the insidious growth of Nazi power.
Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies is the perfect Joker—dazzling, dangerous, amoral, seductive.
With actors like Liza Minnelli and Michael York and Joel Grey to work with, it would have been easy for a director to allow the history to be upstaged. Fosse was smarter than that. He knew his film would have twice the impact if it forced the viewer to stare directly into the face of Nazism at the same time he or she was growing closer to the actors.
Fosse chose to film on location in Germany. He wanted to get the atmosphere of the time and place as authentic as possible. Every frame of the film is saturated with detail. Every frame is composed for maximum visual or emotional effect. The closing shot of the new Nazi bosses reflected in the distorted mirrored backing of the cabaret stage is chilling to the bone. There’s a scene at an outdoor cafe, where a young man, one of the thousands of new Hitler Youth, sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” to an enraptured crowd, that literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Witnessing this spectacle, Brian’s remark to Max, who has contemptuously dismissed the brownshirts as mindless thugs that “real” Germans could use to rid themselves of communists and socialists, resonates like the sound of the first shovelful of dirt hitting the coffin: “You still think you can control them?” Max doesn’t answer. A few days later he and his fortune are on their way to Argentina.
There are a few great films where as one watches one can’t help but admire the unflagging intelligence behind the composition of individual frames and scenes. Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is one that comes to mind. Cabaret is certainly another. I wonder how many rock video directors have borrowed or stolen from Fosse’s stage numbers in this film. I doubt vaudeville/burlesque will ever be recreated more effectively onscreen. Lighting, choreography, and stage design are mind-blowing—the best of their kind since Joseph von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), with Marlene Dietrich. Special credit must be given to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth.
If one might expect such masterful staging from someone with Bob Fosse’s theatrical background, other scenes display an equally impressive, subtler mastery. Michael York talks about one such scene in the introduction to the special anniversary edition of Cabaret. He and Griem and Minnelli are dancing closely together, in the terminal stages of champagne or wine, and the camera focuses in on their wordless interplay of glance and expression. More is revealed about these three characters in a minute of screen time than could be garnered through volumes of psychological deconstruction. It’s easy enough to say a picture is worth a thousand words; Fosse delivers.
For Sally Bowles, three months is forever. That’s what it’s like when you’re young and selfish and anything’s possible. “I am a most strange & extraordinary person!” she declares to Brian when they first meet. Innocence. Near the end of Cabaret, she learns that everything isn’t possible. There are harsh truths, compromises, prices to be paid, choices with consequences. Candles burn out quickly, however lovely their light. Experience. For me Cabaret is a most strange & extraordinary film because it somehow leaves us believing that Innocence can still have the last word.
Ride, Sally, ride.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Do you still think you can control them?”
I’ve had occasion to see Cabaret several times over the past 30 years. For me, there’s no point of diminishing returns. My last viewing, in preparation for this review, was as rewarding as the first. What has changed is the focus of my attention. Early on, I was enamored of Liza Minnelli, as infatuated with her as Michael York’s Brian Roberts was of Sally Bowles. Later, I came to relish Joel Grey’s devilishly dissolute Master of Ceremonies, the herald of the Apocalypse. More recently, I’ve come to admire Michael York’s performance as the innocent abroad whose idealism shatters against the tides of ambition, passion, and perversity. How extraordinary that the producers of Cabaret should have auditioned 20 actors in a vain search for a “Michael York type,” only to have the real thing turn up for an audition!
The closing shot of Cabaret, in which we see Nazi storm troopers reflected in a distorting mirror or through distorting glass, is one of the most chilling in the history of film. Bob Fosse’s choreography gives decadence its due, and gives the audience a taste of what made Weimar-era Berlin a transgressive hotbed. The production and art design of Cabaret deliberately evokes the discomfiting artworks of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann.
The musical number “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by a Hitler youth at a village gathering, captures in five terrifying minutes the essence of Leni Riefenstahl’s two-hour Triumph of the Will. In a film laced with standout musical numbers, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” carries the prophetic weight of all of the horrors to follow. It haunts me more with every viewing of the film.
Recently, television has immersed us in the world of Berlin at the dawn of the Nazi era through the serialization of Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath novels. Several recent historical studies have examined the rise and fall of the Weimar republic. The lessons that were learned there about how democracy dies are ignored at our peril. The contemporary world provides plenty of evidence of unscrupulous populists anxious to allow history to repeat itself. They are, to use the title of Stephen King’s memorable Nazi-next-door short story, “apt pupils.”
Available on YouTube? No, but available for rent or purchase through iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Prime