At the time of its release the most amazing thing about Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) was that it was made at all. The film had near insurmountable hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was that musicals in general were considered passé by the mid-1960s and all but ostracized in the public taste after 1970. Yet in reviewing Cabaret today one can unequivocally say that the most impressive aspect of the film is that it was not simply made, but concocted with extraordinary craftsmanship and to such resounding success; arguably, the first ‘dramatic’ musical with very ‘adult’ sensibilities. Pre-national socialism Berlin was first critiqued in Christopher Isherwood’s 1930 novel, Goodbye to Berlin; later paired with another story by Isherwood and gaining modest literary prominence, but attracting little attention in Hollywood for obvious reasons.
Then in 1950 playwright John Van Druten resurrected Isherwood’s stories in his film and stagecraft, I Am A Camera; a decade later transformed and rechristened as the Broadway musical Cabaret. A decade later still came the movie; a monumental undertaking, given the intense dislike of movie musicals. But Cabaret – the movie – had another reason for not getting made: Bob Fosse. Fosse, whose singular childhood ambition had been to become a dancer on par with Fred Astaire, and who had exhibited extraordinary agility as a dancer/choreographer during the final bow of the MGM musical in the 1950s, had also successfully shifted gears and become the stage director of the Tony award-winning smash ‘Sweet Charity’; a musical that promised to revitalize the waning popularity of the Hollywood musical. Regrettably, the filmic incarnation of Sweet Charity was an unmitigated disaster – an expensive and overproduced dud that threatened to bankrupt Universal and effectively relegate Fosse to the dustbin as a forgotten relic of the golden age.
Yet in hindsight Cabaret – the movie - had the fortunate luxury of time on its side. Each writer who approached Isherwood’s original stories brought something new and refreshing to the material, crystalizing the relationships between characters only superficially explored in his work and drawing out a flair for irony in its historical drama that mainly took its cue in glib comedic undertones. Fosse’s approach to the material was as crisp and revitalizing. The stage show, in fact, adhered to a time-honored principle of both the stage and Hollywood musical: namely, having its central cast spontaneously burst into song either within or apart from the obvious trappings of Berlin’s seedy Kit-Kat Klub. For the film, Fosse ditched all of the non-diegetic score, focusing (with one exception) on songs and routines that take place on the club’s stage.
In another stroke of genius Fosse used virtually all of these songs to reference the dramatic tensions taking place elsewhere in Berlin. A harmless hand-slapping polka, as example, became juxtaposed with images of the club’s owner being brutalized by a trio of Nazis just outside. The ‘divinely decadent’ Money-Money exemplifies cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) fascination for wealthy playboy, Maximillian von Heune (Helmut Griem), while ‘Mein Herr’ basically foreshadows the film’s plot in totem; that of ill-fated love affairs, feckless and based on nothing more than casual sex, ultimately destined to end unhappily ever after for all concerned.
Fosse keeps Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay tight and to the point, drawing parallels between the gaudy artistic freedoms found inside this dimly lit ratskeller and the growing external animosities brewing topside in the light of day where the traditional Germanic world of Hegel, Nietzsche and Weber is soon to be ruthlessly torn apart by the insidious filtration of National Socialism. We enter the world of Cabaret appropriately with Master of Ceremonies’ (Joel Grey) invitation to partake in the debaucheries of 1931 Berlin.
Grey’s introductory number is deliberately campy and vulgar; sung slightly off key while flanked by an obvious transgender chorus line. Like the song, the world we have just entered will increasingly become off-putting, even perfunctorily ugly as the central romance gets mired down in this self-destructive cesspool. Of course the trick and magic of it all is that Fosse never allows the tawdry to disgust us. Like the powerful lure of tabloid journalism or even pornography every nuance in Cabaret has been designed to appeal to our very base sensations and instincts; a deliciously wicked temptation that is as calculated, intoxicating and yet cravingly toxic to our moral sensibilities as the opening of a vein for recreational drug use.
Fosse inserts brief glimpses of British English teacher, Brian Roberts (Michael York) arriving by train. On the surface, Brian has come to Berlin to give tutorials in English so that he can earn enough money to complete his doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge. But in essence the rest of the film’s narrative will become an exercise in giving this teacher his own education, breaking down his defenses, and forcing him to come to terms with his own conflicted bisexuality.
Arriving at Fraulein Schneider’s (Elisabeth Neumann-Viertel) boarding house, Brian is introduced to fellow tenant, Sally Bowles; a charming American scatterbrain whose one impenetrable desire is to become a famous actress. From the beginning we sense that Sally is a fractured soul – someone desperately fabricating her own persona as a glamorous vamp to impress. Despite vastly different views on life and love, Brian and Sally quickly establish a lasting friendship. She even allows Brian to use her more spacious suite to teach his private lessons, and is also instrumental in securing 50 Marks from Herr Ludwig (Ralf Wolter); the middle-aged author of racy sex tales interested in having Brian do an English translation of his latest smutty novel.
This Bohemian lifestyle appeals to Brian very much – at first. Nightly, he finds diversionary entertainments on tap at the Kit Kat Klub, while daily he strives to school his latest pupil, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) on the art of speaking good English. During one of these lessons, Fritz and Sally are introduced to another pupil, Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson); the stylish daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant. Sexually frustrated, Fritz pursues an unrequited romance; one repeatedly and reservedly deflected by Natalia who fears their religious backgrounds will cripple any chances for lasting happiness. The wrinkle herein is that Fritz is also a Jew – closeted by his own anxieties that his Christian friends would not remain friendly for very long if only they knew his true identity.
Brian and Sally’s friendship makes the rather awkward transition to becoming lovers. He openly admits to her that his prior relationships with women have all been disasters, while she erroneously sets about to break him of his closeted homosexuality. In the meantime, Sally is accidentally introduced to wealthy German playboy, Maximillian von Heune; a rather cruel detachment that intermittently sparks and inflames both Brian’s jealousy and his desire. Absconded by Max to his elegant country house for the weekend, Brian endures the rather brutal humiliation of watching the woman he has come to love make a rather handsome spectacle of herself. But Max has also become quite smitten with Brian – a disposable attraction that threatens to destroy Brian and Sally’s fragile affair when each discovers that the other has been indulging their sexual whims with the same man.
Max buys Sally a stylish fur coat, then takes Brian to a beer garden; a pleasurable enough rendezvous that turns utterly rancid when both men are confronted by a Hitler youth (Oliver Collignon) warbling ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – a melodic ballad begun in extolling the virtues of a Germanic paradise on earth, but concluding on a decidedly more disturbing note of totalitarianism. Max sheepishly bows out of Sally and Brian’s squabble, and later from his promise to take them both on an African safari. Sally learns that she is pregnant and Brian, despite not knowing if the child is his, vows to look after her. The two make plans to leave Berlin for England.
Regrettably, Sally suffers another bout of crippling insecurity largely rooted in her inability to come to terms with the estranged relationship she has with her own father – an ambassador who takes absolutely no interest in her private life. Natalia confides in Sally that she loves Fritz, but cannot marry him because of their religious differences. However, after Natalia’s beloved schnauzer is killed by a pair of Hitler youth Fritz confesses that he too is Jewish and the two are married in one of Berlin’s synagogues. Frustrated by Sally’s inability to commit to him wholeheartedly, Brian defies a pair of Nazis handing out pamphlets on the street corner and is beaten to the point of hospitalization. Sally rushes to Brian’s side and the two reconcile their differences.
But as Brian’s recovery ends and he begins to pack for his and Sally’s trip to England he learns too late that Sally has had an abortion. It seems her career means more to her than having his baby. Realizing that Sally cannot, and never will change, but still unable to despise her for the heartless wanton that she is, Brian spends his final night in her room, comforting her tears and insecurities. The next day, Sally escorts Brian to the train depot, leaving him before his train departs to return to the Kit Kat Klub – arguably, the only fame and success she will ever know in life. The film ends as it began, with the Kit Kat’s master of ceremonies bidding the club’s patrons welcome, only now that clientele is made up almost exclusively of very stolid Nazi soldiers.
Cabaret is a frightfully ambitious, often disturbing masterwork; its unsettling fiction firmly based in an even more ominous reality. One can argue that 1961’s West Side Story holds the dubious distinction of being the first ‘adult’ musical by design; interjecting a sobering moral into the effervescent milieu of the big budget musical. But Cabaret does more than simply explore or even exploit a pressing social issue through song and dance. In fact, it takes one of the darkest chapters from the historical annals and turns our expectations of both it and the Hollywood musical on end.
In hindsight, Bob Fosse was the ideal choice to direct Cabaret; his artistic sensibilities deftly able to mingle and even parallel the perversity in these two self-destructing societies: the arguably more progressive laissez faire pre-war attitudes steeped in liberalized devil-may-care feel-good, and the even more self-destructive ultra-totalitarianism looming on the horizon. Neither embodies the Utopian metropolis celebrated within the philosophic teachings of Kant or Schweitzer. Yet Fosse seems to be suggesting that neither is more or less perfect or fundamentally flawed than the other. Even his exultation of that prewar period with all its’ ‘divine decadence’ is a tragedy, mounting to a slow sad death knell that will forever crush the daydreamer and the lover, and finally, alter the European landscape. In this regard, Cabaret plays very much like a curious amalgam of the traditional British drawing room farce and a David Lean epic with its fragile narrative dedicated to a bittersweet romance set against the sweeping panorama of world-changing events.
In retrospect, Cabaret is also a star-making vehicle for Liza Minnelli – her one brief and very shiny moment as both an actress and all-around entertainer worthy of the inheritance from that considerable artist mantle begun by parents Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland. Herein, Liza is magic – an appetizingly vampy, occasionally campy, but never anything less than genuine and utterly majestic pixie whose profligacy blows as casually as the wind in any and all directions. When Liza sings her voice throbs in unapologetic aplomb for choosing to suck the marrow out of life, whatever its consequences, and when she acts she remains the epitome of that ‘go to hell’ self-indulgence that would ultimately destroy its own generation.
Cabaret is also notable for Joel Grey as our leering Master of Ceremonies; a vivaciously creepy presence, at once guiding and goading the audience with his guiles. It is Grey who draws us into accepting Berlin’s seedy underbelly as a pleasurable diversion; Grey who infrequently makes wild-eyed social commentary on the evolving relationships between Sally and Brian, and, Fritz and Natalia that hint at some destructive outcome; Grey who craftily lures us in with the sympathetic ballad, ‘If You Could See Her’ – empathetically sung with great affection for a gussied up gorilla, before exposing it as an unflattering and utterly warped caricature of ‘the Jew’ - ugly and mindless. And Grey is demonic, yet mouthwatering in this portrait; salivating venomous afflictions that have corrupted the audience along the way. More than any other character in Cabaret, Grey’s Master of Ceremonies embodies the corrosive repugnancies of pre-war Berlin.
Michael York, Helmut Griem and Marisa Berenson all give ample support to this exercise, but in the final analysis, Cabaret belongs to Minnelli and Grey as counterpoints of this same vapid, yet increasingly maniacal social structure, destined to wreck themselves, a people and a nation being plunged into another world war. The proof is in Bob Fosse’s structuring of the musical numbers – performed exclusively by either Minnelli or Grey or both together – sparking off each other’s slickly packaged perversions, all of them subversive and thought-numbingly deceitful. In the final analysis, Cabaret is about as undiluted and frank as any film can be. Few movies before or since have dared to be as artistically bold or narratively stark. Fewer movie musicals still.
Warner Home Video delivers a winning Blu-ray. Decades ago Cabaret’s original camera negative went missing; an oddity never fully explained away. As such every home video incarnation has been derived from less than perfect print masters with the results often being excessively grainy and exceedingly dull. Working from an interpositive this time Warner has resurrected much – if not all – of Geoffrey Unsworth’s magnificent vintage look for the film in stunning 1080p clarity. The experience of Cabaret was never about eye-popping Technicolor, and herein the Blu-ray manages to resurrect Unsworth’s evocative and moody darkness. Red is the most prominent color evoked in the transfer. Flesh tones can appear quite natural but infrequently suffer – too orange in spots.
There’s a remarkable amount of fine detail present and some handsome film grain – at long last – accurately reproduced. Contrast is, for the most part, bang on. Truly, you will not be disappointed. Nor will the 5.1 audio leave you wanting for more. Warner has even fleshed out the extras with a new featurette – Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals. Three additional featurettes (two made at the time of the film’s release and one to mark its 25th Anniversary) are also included, plus a comprehensive audio commentary from some years ago and theatrical trailer to round out your viewing enjoyment. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)