Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)
“A divinely decadent experience!”
Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem
Synopsis: A female girlie club entertainer in Weimar Republic era Berlin romances two men while the Nazi Party rises to power around them.
On a beautiful summer’s day in the 1930s, English teacher Brian Roberts (Michael York) and his friend, Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) sit in a pleasant beer garden nestling amongst the rolling green hills of the Bavarian countryside. As they talk, a youth begins to sing in the background. His clear voice pierces the air, quietening conversation with a hauntingly beautiful ode that summons images of forest stags and summery meadows. But, as he sings, his gentle tones grow more impassioned. Onlookers are swept up in the stirring promise of the song, and rise to their feet in a swirl of patriotic fervour to join in its rousing chorus. Only a curmudgeonly old man, scowling into his stein of beer, remains unmoved. As the song approaches its climactic crescendo, the camera returns to the blonde youth, revealing for the first time that he wears the uniform of the Nazi party.
The film is Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s evocative recreation of a country in the throes of unprecedented social upheaval as recorded in Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin. And the scene described above succinctly summarises the seduction of a German people, of a cynical appeal to – and exploitation of – their previously untapped desire to once more possess a sense of national pride and identity. As we know, the early promise of an idyllic, golden future came at a horrifically heavy price, but by the time that toll became apparent, the people had become swept up in this mad dash for glory and it was too late to turn back.
It’s the only number in the movie that is sung outside of the dark, smoke-shrouded confines of the Kit Kat Club, a revue bar in which a jolly, but vaguely sinister, emcee (Joel Grey – Come September) leads the performances of a blowsy and rather doughy female troupe. While ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ is a stirring call to arms, the songs performed on the club’s tiny stage are far more frivolous, but it’s a frivolity within which resides serious satirical reflections upon a society descending ever deeper into decadence while promoting the ideals of racial and genetic purity.
Roberts arrives in Berlin in 1931. He’s there to teach English, and takes a room in a boarding house in Berlin. Across the hall lives the eccentric American songstress Sally Bowles, a self-proclaimed ‘most strange and extraordinary person,’ who performs at the Kit Kat Club. Sally blows into a room like a whirlwind in search of direction, striking eccentric poses, a stream of words spilling endlessly from her carefully made-up mouth. She flits from man to man, and it’s not long before we learn that her sexually prolific lifestyle and sporadic bouts of ambition are fuelled by a lack of parental love. Her attempt to seduce Roberts – “Doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” she enquires of the hapless Englishman – meets with failure because he’s a homosexual, but so infectious is her appetite for life that even a gay man with an abysmal track record of sexual encounters with women falls under her spell. Minnelli’s irresistible effervescence is spellbinding, but she also invests Sally with a brittle fragility that is always lurking beneath the vivacity. Sometimes it’s in her eyes, and sometimes the set of her mouth. She’s like a fine China figurine spinning precariously on its base, forever on the cusp of toppling over.
People drift in and out of their lives, as people do, and they represent a variety of attitudes or personal situations, each of which permits the Nazis to goose-step into power. Either they embrace all that the Nazis stand for, or they turn away from the evidence before them, or they flee, or, trapped and with nowhere to go, they hide behind their front doors. Sally and Roberts are befriended by a playboy sophisticate (Griem) who sees the Nazis as a useful, but relatively harmless, means of ridding the country of Communists – before quietly disappearing when the party’s power grows beyond his expectations. One of Roberts’ pupils is an impoverished gentleman, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), whose initially opportunistic pursuit of another pupil, the wealthy Natalie Landauer (Marisa Berenson), rebounds on him when he genuinely falls in love with her. He fears that her people think he is beneath her, but the passing of a very short span of time sees their respective positions unexpectedly reversed, demonstrating just how deeply and completely the Nazi influence stained every imaginable aspect of life in Germany. We never learn of their ultimate fate – but we suspect the worst…
Cabaret is chiefly remembered for its songs, but, as memorable and catchy as they are, it’s the depth and resonance of the story and its characters for which it should be remembered. Under Fosse’s direction, 1930s Germany is a fascinating melting pot of vibrant excitement and thuggish humour, a magnet for the eccentric and unusual, the ‘strange and extraordinary.’ The Kit Kat club throbs with a frighteningly intense glee, and Fosse’s occasional close-up shots of its patrons highlights their ugliness and the sweat that stipples their brows and upper lips. Everything is a little off-kilter, from the high-pitched vocals of the women on stage to the exaggerated expressions of the emcee, whose knowing gaze towards the camera suggests that we are all complicit in the grotesque pantomime on the streets that is interpreted with such gaudy, ironic glee by his stage act.
It was Cabaret’s misfortune to be released in the same year as The Godfather. In any other year it would have been a certainty for the Best Picture Academy Award. As it was, the picture won virtually every other major award – a total of eight Oscars compared to three for Coppola’s gangland epic.. There’s no doubt that Cabaret deserves to stand alongside The Godfather, not only as one of the best films of the ‘70s, but in the history of American cinema.
(Reviewed 9th April 2016)
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