Bob Fosse’s classic musical Cabaret is a fascinating example of the American musical during the genre’s slow demise. Unlike the classic musicals of Vincent Minnelli, Busby Berkeley, or Stanley Donen, Fosse takes a different approach when filming the musical numbers. Unlike the classic musicals of the 1940s or 1950s, in Fosse’s Cabaret, the numbers are filmed with tight shots, lit garishly, and the performers who are singing and dancing are also photographed very badly. But all this is essential to the story and setting – the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret in 1930s Berlin, during the end of the Weimar Republic, at the approach of the rise of Nazi Germany.
Reflecting the rise of New Wave cinema, Cabaret eschews the popular idealism and romanticism of the movie musical. The plot, loosely based and diluted from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin diaries as well as the 1966 stage musical, has a British literature student, Brian Roberts (Michael York) come to Berlin to work on his doctorate. At a boarding house, he meets an American expat, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli, in an Oscar-winning performance). The two set off on an eccentric and unconventional relationship that is marked by Brian’s bisexuality. Their union is further complicated by the arrival of Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), a rich playboy who is sexually attracted to both Sally and Brian. Another romantic subplot has Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), a young German man who falls in love with a beautiful Jewish heiress, Natalia (Marisa Berenson).
Even though it’s a musical, Cabaret is a surprisingly difficult, and at times, disturbing film. The encroaching Nazi influence in Germany has a slow progression throughout the film. In the beginning of the film, we see German citizens have very little patience with Nazi members, often abusing them – but by the end of the film, there is an ominous presence of swastikas and khaki. And the fate of the characters are left ambiguous.
Fosse, a noted choreographer and dancer, debuted as a film director with Cabaret, and won an Academy Award for his efforts. While some of his directing choices may be questioned, he doesn’t commit any sins of an amateur. Instead he crafts a stylish film with a definite look and tone. There’s an ugliness to the movie – especially in the musical numbers, which are expertly folded into the plot. Too many times, songs are shoe horned in films, and they either slow down the film, or feel out-of-place and ridiculous.
What Fosse and his screenwriter, Jay Presson Allen, do is have the musical numbers reflect plot progressions, but they also serve as literally scenes of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally’s place of employment. Allen also doesn’t shy away from showing just how dangerous Berlin was becoming in the 1930s. There’s a sense of uneasiness throughout the film, even in the lighter moments – the collapse of Western European culture and its descent into chaos and madness always simmers in the peripheral.
There’s a lot going on with Cabaret, and despite its departure from the classic Hollywood musical, there are nods to the genre – particularly in the casting of Liza Minnelli, the child of two musical movie giants – director Vincent Minnelli and actress-singer, Judy Garland. While initially miscast (the original Sally is an American, with little discernible talent), Minnelli transcends any casting issues, and gives an arresting performance. With nods to her mother as well as Marlene Dietrich, the actress strikes a commanding figure during her musical numbers; and during her spoken scenes, she performs with an endearing level of immaturity and impulsiveness. Sally, while a sympathetic character, is also very irritating because of her single-mindedness, myopia, and fragile ego.
And though Minnelli dominates, Joel Gray leaves an uncomfortable and unsettling impression for viewers. As the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, he runs the show, introducing the musical numbers and performing a few songs himself. Done up in frightening stage makeup – almost a grotesque kabuki – he’s a leering jester. Despite being ostensibly inviting and welcoming, he’s a Cassandra of sorts, giving his audience (both in the club, and the film’s audience) warnings of darker things to come.
Along with the striking images and scenes, Cabaret also boasts a fantastic set of songs – written by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Kiss of the Spiderwoman). The songs are often very funny with a mordant humor and irony, wonderfully performed by Minnelli and Grey. The title tune in particular has lyrics that push an optimism that taken in the context of the film and its sad conclusion, seem pathetically off-the-mark.
Alongside Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and Sound of Music, Cabaret rests comfortably in the canon of great American musicals (the American Film Institute voted it the fifth best movie musical). It’s a musical for grown folks that pushes its audience’s comfort level.