by Allan Fish
(filling in for Sam, who wanted to write a piece but Mother Hellcat Nature deemed otherwise)
(USA 1972 123m) DVD1/2
Come hear the music play
p Cy Feuer d Bob Fosse w Jay Preston Allen novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood play “I am a Camera” by John van Druten ph Geoffrey Unsworth ed David Bretherton md Ralph Burns m/ly John Kander, Fred Ebb ch Bob Fosse art Rolf Zehetbauer, Jürgen Kiebach cos Charlotte Fleming
Liza Minnelli (Sally Bowles), Michael York (Brian Roberts), Joel Grey (MC), Helmut Griem (Maximilian von Heune), Marisa Berenson (Natalia Landauer), Fritz Wepper (Fritz Wendel),
By the time Cabaret was released in 1972, the popularity of big budget stage musical adaptations was running rather thin. Such ventures kept musicals alive when the studio system collapsed and took with it their studios within a studio that churned out musicals for fun. Yet of such adaptations, only The Pajama Game, West Side Story and The Music Man were really of interest cinematically. The first of those was probably the most dynamic and was choreographed by none other than Bob Fosse, who later gave the musical its last great flowering fifteen years later in this classic representation of Weimar Berlin. It never won best picture as it was unfortunate to run up against The Godfather, but it’s interesting to note how relatively extinct the musical has since become and how such a comparatively stage bound film as Chicago could win best picture exactly thirty years later, with nice photography and performances (from Queen Latifah and Richard Gere in particular), but little style. It can only be mourned that Fosse himself was never given the chance to direct that Kander-Ebb piece in the seventies, but at least we still have Cabaret, the first musical masterpiece since the MGM glory days of the early fifties.
The story of American wannabe star Sally Bowles was previously told straight as the frankly bad I am a Camera in 1955, but Fosse was always a master of the sleazy and he captures the essence of the Berlin of the period in a way that even the German film-makers of the thirties would have been hard-pressed to match (you half expect to see Emil Jannings’ Professor Unrath waiting for Marlene Dietrich to come out to sit on her barrel). His camera is always viewing the political events going on outside of the Kit-Kat Club without actually letting them dominate. We know that Nazism is just round the corner, as the Hitler Youth prophetically singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ testifies, and there is a masterfully edited sequence where the MC dancing in lederhosen on stage contrasts with a bloody beating of a businessman daring to take a stand against the Nazi fascists. The MC bids us all welcome in the opening song, and as he says “here everything is beautiful.” It’s basically telling you that outside it isn’t beautiful, quite the opposite.
Political comment aside, that’s merely on the fringes, Fosse realising that the maximum impact is achieved by letting the audience notice what’s going on around the edges without forcing it down your throat. You fear for the young Jewish woman, Natalia, especially as she’s from a rich family and a likely early target for the Nazis, but it’s like trying to warn JFK against taking that drive in Dallas, you can’t stop history. Fosse rather lets the songs and the decadent atmosphere of the club speak for itself and his choreography was never more idiosyncratic than here. Self indulgent, for sure, but that’s the point, as that’s just how it would have been. Life is not just a cabaret, but a caricature, and the numbers are all framed in this fashion, with every one a highlight, especially Minnelli’s rendition of the title song at the end and the immortal ‘Money Song’, an addition to the film from the stage show. And, though the photography, design and editing are all first rate, it’s the performances that are the most vital aspect, with Minnelli (perhaps a bit too talented for the essentially ordinary Bowles who wants to be a film star if sex and booze don’t get her first) and Grey superb (the latter in a role the ill-fated Klaus Nomi would have been perfect for.) When the ending comes, we know Nazism is about to descend on these characters and that life will never be the same again, but it’s also indicative as to how the musical itself was about to die. Auf wiedersehen. A bien tot!
How Cabaret made the ‘Elite 70’:
Pat Perry’s No. 6 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 10 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 12 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 13 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 15 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 17 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 47 choice