Directed By: Bob Fosse
Written By: Jay Allen (based on the Broadway musical I Am a Camera by John Van Druten)
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem
In many ways Cabaret feels like a fusion of the stage to screen adaptations that preceded it. It has the musical and choreographic indelibility of Oliver!, it has a female lead not unlike Fanny Brice in her mesmerising gusto and charisma, and in a strictly pragmatic sense, it has the looming Nazi morbidity of The Sound of Music.
The film is also entirely subversive, and not only in that it successfully translates Broadway to Silver Screen in less than three hours. Where the musicals of the previous decade had sought warmth and affection, Cabaret is bleak and black at heart. It’s permeated with a jaunty nihilism and is flooded with sexual promiscuity, and even though there are only fleeting moments of toughness, it carries a sense of violence in its stride. Cabaret doesn’t cake on transparent smiles or the happy-go-lucky positivity of Hello, Dolly, there’s a meanness in it. What’s most critical to Bob Fosse’s awards collector however is how hugely entertaining it is. In another mirroring of Oliver!, Cabaret possesses that same unhinged personality, that same penchant for creativity and imagination, but blends it with austere undertones.
In her Oscar winning role, Liza Minelli plays Sally Bowles, an aspiring actress performing at the raunchy Kit Kat Club in Nazi infected 1930’s Berlin. Liza Minelli is wonderful. She brings verve to her mercurial character; a sexual, bohemian, loose-cannon. She is at once comedic, vulnerable, explosive and callous, but chiefly, hers is a deeply passionate character. The film’s final number perfectly summarises the gutsiness and veracity of Sally who would just as soon exploit someone as she would fall in love with them.
There are two men who come into her life. Firstly, there is Brian (Michael York), a well-to-do British writer studying abroad. Brian at first is a sexual recluse. He’s only had three previous experiences with women and all were disastrous. But it would be a crime to reject sex in 1930’s Berlin, and soon he and Sally become infatuated. There is also the wealthy Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem) who is swept away by the whimsy of Sally and together the three form a triangle of seduction. The trio is emblematic of the hectic fluidity of identity and sexuality of their time and place. They are each uncertain of one another but irresistibly drawn in all the same.
This is a film that deals with love, but it isn’t a love story. Rather it’s a chaotic concoction of sleaze, romance, comedy, brutality and excitement. With a warped frivolousness Fosse transforms Berlin into a randy, impassioned, circus, flowing in and out of hopefulness as dark days loom. In one scene an angelic, baby-faced Nazi sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at a relaxed beer garden. It’s initially charming, until we see the swastika on his sleeve. With minor resistance the whole garden seems to join in his singing, his voice spreading like a disguised cancer compelling the masses. The foreshadowing is clear. The sexuality and frenzied nature of the film’s central characters, then, acts as a waning resistance to a new constricting order. Sally, in her enclosed web of hedonism and decadence, is as doomed as the risqué counterculture she signifies as the Nazi empire grows.
The memorable numbers are sourced diegetically by the Kit Kat Club, headed by the racy Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey). The cabaret puts the lunacy of the Nazis in perspective. It satirises them. There is a routine where the M.C dances with an ape as he highlights the stupidity of malignant Jewish perceptions. However the club too is a dying rebellion. By the film’s end, where Nazis had once been unwelcome, is now populated exclusively by them. There is a futility to the club, we know we are seeing the hopeless last breaths of valiant artists.
Fosse’s untethered panache is exhilarating. Through jazzy editing and whipping camera work he whirls us from the exotic to the grim. In one sequence, a performance at the club is spliced with a man being beaten by a group of Nazis, the eyes of the patrons seemingly astonished at the brutality. The film is stylistically captivating, as mercurial as the club’s leading lady. The changeability of it all means the clarity of the film’s ideas do feel jeopardised by their own anarchic devices. Is this simply the portrait of a dying era in Berlin? Is it an examination of self sabotage? A study of confused identity? It’s difficult to pinpoint through all the crazed action, but perhaps it doesn’t even matter. The film feels so alive. We allow it to run rampant over us, because its personality is so unique and interesting. Like the infatuated men at the cabaret itself, we are swept up in the unpredictable, frenzied energy of it all.