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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Cabaret (1972)

“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

Movie Information

Genre: Musical | Drama
Director: Bob Fosse
Actors: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper
Year: 1972
Original Review: February 2002


Second Run DVD

A British source for international films you’re not likely to find elsewhere.  From the site’s “About Second Run” page:

            Second Run are a new UK-based DVD company specialising in the release of important and award-winning films from all around the world.
Second Run films encompass many genres and languages; what distinguishes them is their quality and their ethos. They are niche-market films which we hope anyone who seriously cares about cinema would want in their collection – but which, crucially, have never before been available anywhere in the world on DVD; and now are, additionally, being presented with newly-translated English subtitles.
            Each Second Run film is our personal selection reflecting significant films which we have seen and love and care about, and which we believe should be seen by others for their quality and importance. Our purpose is to encourage that by making these films now available to you and at a reasonable price.
            Every Second Run release is re-mastered to the best possible sound and picture quality, under the supervision and guidance of the film’s Director whenever possible, and will also incorporate a range of original extras wherever possible. Our films will always appear only in their original aspect ratio and in their original language version with on/off English subtitles.
            Second Run DVD launched on 1st August 2005

At the time I last checked the sight, in August 2021, the two most recent releases were Zbynek Brynych’s The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964) and Márta Mészáros’s Adoption (1975)


‘Halloween’ 1978: The Times Finally Reviews a Horror Classic

Forty years after the film’s release, critic Jason Zinoman explains why John Carpenter’s Halloween has stood the test of time.  From the review:

The original “Halloween” always struck me as an experimental art film in a bloody exploitation mask.

John Carpenter’s relentlessly terrifying masterpiece about babysitters and the murderous Michael Myers has been imitated, paid homage to and remade… so many times since its premiere in 1978 that its radicalism is easy to overlook. Michael Myers is not like other movie monsters. He doesn’t lurch or creep or race. He walks, steadily. His physicality and clothes tell you nothing about him. He never speaks and offers no hint of a motivation for his killing spree. He is not a character so much as an absence of one, an abstraction in the middle of a mundane slice of suburban life.


Frederick Wiseman: The Filmmaker Who Shows Us Ourselves

A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis review the work of one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers, whose career now spans five decades and 49 revelatory films. “Mr. Wiseman’s great subject is human beings, in all of their — of our — variety and uniqueness.”

From the article:

Mr. Wiseman’s documentaries are about institutions — the bricks, mortar, endless meetings and all the moving parts — including all the moving, walking and talking people who go into making them. A consummate dialectician, he likes to toggle between the general and the specific, creating a kind of accordion effect as images of buildings give way to images of people inside those buildings and longer views oscillate with close-ups of faces and body parts. In “Blind” (1986), fingers trace Braille dots; in “Boxing Gym” (2010), the focus turns to fists and fast-moving feet….

A meeting — formal or informal, routine or hastily gathered, tedious or contentious — amounts to a Wiseman signature, like a shootout in a Tarantino movie or a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow comedy. When a group of people gather in a room, the business of the world is being done (or postponed or discussed or avoided, which amounts to the same thing). More crucial, it is being witnessed, by the camera and the audience, so that essential information can be imparted about the workings of law and order, art and politics, knowledge and power.

If you listen closely, you can glean useful insights into such matters. But you also gain a kind of ecstatic anthropological insight into rituals that are both banal and outlandish, and an initiation into the mysteries of human psychology. You notice posture and gesture, who talks too much and who stays silent, who is passive and who is aggressive. Meetings are the most quotidian moments in a Wiseman documentary, but also, often, the most intriguing. They are nuggets of real life and eruptions of pure theater….

In most documentaries, human speech is explanatory and expository: Much information is conveyed by means of voice-over narration and talking-head interviews. Mr. Wiseman avoids these techniques entirely. When people talk in his movies, they aren’t explaining themselves to us; they’re expressing themselves to one another. We eavesdrop not only to figure out what’s happening, but also to attend to idioms and rhythms, to the musical qualities of speech. We tune in to the ways language is used by deaf and blind children as well as by judges, politicians and teachers, and also to the different ways it sounds.

But words aren’t all we hear. We hear the cadence of boxers’, dancers’ and soldiers’ feet; the lapping of waves on the side of a boat; the whooshing of skis on an Aspen slope; the sighing of the wind in the trees of Central Park.

Films Worth Talking About:

Pictures of the Old World, Doctor Popaul, The Battle of Algiers, The Canterbury Tales, Deliverance, What’s Up Doc?  The Godfather, The Assassination of Trotsky, The Mattei Affair, The Seduction of Mimi, Lulu the Tool, Red Psalm, Last Tango in Paris, The Candidate, The Poseidon Adventure, Sounder, Heat, Sleuth, The King of Marvin Gardens, Fritz the Cat, Frenzy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Lady Sings the Blues, L’Attentat (The Assassination), Solaris, [Aguirre, The Wrath of God]

The Bigger Picture

FilmsBabylon Berlin (2017, series); Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, series); The Blue Angel (1930)


MusicLost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill


Books:  Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin, The Silent Death; Philip Kerr, Berlin Noir; Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Nigel Jones, The Birth of the Nazis; Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin; Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich; Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise ofArturo Ui, The Threepenny Opera

The Word on the Street

One of the scenes, in the middle of the movie, is quite disturbing. At a countryside inn, a young S.A man sings a song called “Tomorrow belongs to me”, which starts out nostalgic but gradually turns into an infectious Nazi march as the whole crowd joins him. This unexpected number seems to have embarrassed many viewers. If Nazism had presented itself as pure evil, would it have met any success? This daring scene makes evident that it was for many Germans of the time the symbol of positive values : beauty, tradition, order, pride, future. If you didn’t know how things turned out, would you not have been tempted to sing along this powerful hymn to the fatherland as you watch this? Good question to ask oneself even, or especially, nowadays…   [francheval]

There’s not a single verbal reference to Hitler, and yet the presence of the growing Nazi movement all around these decadent misfits is ever present in this film. But you can’t blame any of these apolitical people for that. Liza Minelli and Michael York’s characters are so needy, so desperate just to find some personal happiness in life. They can’t be bothered with what’s going on in the bigger picture.   [joe7]

It’s a strongest film I know. Every time I watch it, it bewilders me so I can’t turn my eyes away from the screen, even though I remember all what happens by heart. It fills me with a strange mixed feeling of interest-sympathy-admiration-disgust-and-horror. One of the reviewers here called this film depressing, and I inclined to agree. Any picture of Berlin in 1931 must be depressing and frightening. But, on the other hand, there is an atmosphere of desperate reckless joy in the movie. When the entire world goes mad and speeds to a catastrophe, life is a cabaret! Do what you can, come hear the music play, don’t permit some prophet of doom wipe every smile away, and end as the happiest corpse! It’s one idea. There is also another, more humanistic: live and let live.   [o_levina]

The main focal point of Fosse’s re-thinking of the musical is that he wanted it to be a more “realistic” musical and therefore made sure that all of the musical numbers (with the exception of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”)all took place within the walls of the Kit Kat Club. He cut several numbers from the original score, but if you listen, some of them can be heard as background music in several scenes. He also shifted the focus of the way the story is told…the play tells the story from the leading man’s point of view, but Fosse switches the focus to the character of Sally Bowles, the brassy, sassy party girl who believes in “divine decadence’ and wears bright green fingernail polish. Fosse also takes two secondary characters from the play, who are older, and makes them young and attractive in order to make their story more youth-friendly, I imagine….This film ruled at the ’73 Oscars, winning eight awards in all (it lost Best Picture to THE GODFATHER)and deserved every accolade it received. A sparkling, eye-popping, thought-provoking, haunting film experience that should be savored over and over again.   [Isaac5855]

‘Cabaret’ is more than a musical… It is tough, satirical, acrid, and provoking… None of the sweetness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, none of the joyous celebration of life of ‘The Sound of Music’….
‘Cabaret’ is the first musical to exploit the notion that life is fascinating because it is ambiguous…
‘Cabaret’ uses music in an exciting new way… His characters do not disintegrate into song to express their emotions… Rather, a sleazy night club becomes a place where satirical comment on the lives and problems of these characters is made in striking, entertaining, and often in ferocious dances and songs…   [Nazi_Hunter_David]

Just like the 1966 play the movie is based upon, it touches on subjects that were controversial back in the day. These subjects include and are not limited to; bisexuality, Nazism, etc. One of the characters, Brian, is a bisexual. The play’s original writer thought this film portrayed it in bad taste, but I am not too sure about that. The movie became a major hit within the gay community.   [gab-14712]

Cabaret had a somewhat circuitous trip to the silver screen, starting with the semi-autobiographical fiction of Christopher Isherwood, who lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1933. After Isherwood, the material was transformed into a play and then a film both entitled I Am a Camera (1955). Finally, it became the Broadway show, and after that, this film version, for which director and famed choreographer Bob Fosse wanted to look back to Isherwood’s writing.   [BrandtSponseller]

Another sad fact is that when showtunes become standards, they lose almost all of the potency they have IN CONTEXT. Sure the title track IS a fun song and all – “Come to the Cabaret, old chum! Life is a Cabaret!” – on its own. But watch it where it belongs – it’s quite depressing. She’s lost a good man, friends (I doubt she’ll be seeing much of Fritz after the wedding), and in the end her career is in the same spot it was when the movie began. The Nazis, once dismissed as a thuggish cult, are growing in number. How much longer does she have to be safe? Better enjoy what she has left. See what I mean? This is a dark musical, folks. No “happy ending, fade to black” here.   [fishtOes]

this is probably the darkest musical i’ve ever seen.   [awhyte2323]

This might be a minority opinion but I actually think York gives the best performance in this film. He’s sensitive and natural. Brian is not the easiest character to play and I like how York doesn’t judge his character’s bisexuality.  [CubsandCulture]