Cabaret may look like a jazzy, fizzy, Broadway to Hollywood musical, but secretly, Director and Choreographer Bob Fosse was making a horror movie. That’s not me being sarcastic and saying that Cabaret horrified me in some negative fashion. I mean this as high praise. Behind the fashion, the makeup, the music, Cabaret is about the frightening rise of fascism and the way something as horrific as Nazism can seemingly happen while you’re focused on you.
Liza Minnelli stars in Cabaret as Sally Bowles, a lounge singer in Berlin in 1931. Sally is a hedonist who lives by night, smoking and drinking and loving at the Kit Kat Club where she is a featured performer. By day, Sally sleeps it all off and starts all over again at a Berlin flophouse, home to has beens and never-was’. It’s here that Sally meets Brian Roberts (Michael York), an English academic looking for a room.
Brian appears to be taken with Sally but their relationship doesn’t unfold like you might expect it to. Berlin in 1931 is a fluid place, fluid of gender, sexuality and politics. The culture is in flux and while so many Germans and ex-pats are using this chance to experiment and find themselves, they have their heads turned from the reality rising around them; the Nazis are slowly rising and the spectre of fascism is in the backdrop of every scene.
This comes into stark reality in the form of Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies. Grey’s perpetually snotty MC of the Kit Kat Club appears to take nothing seriously, mocking everything with a garish glee. But, watch his eyes, watch his manner. The mocking is filled with dread that occasionally comes right to the surface. This is especially true of his performance of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” which appears like a comic treat but slowly becomes terrifying until a gut-punch of a final line.
The romance between Sally and Brian is filled with tragedy and misplaced affections. They have their heads firmly planted in the clouds while all around them the world is slipping away. All they seem to do is focus on themselves though Brian offers some contempt for the Nazis, his opposition however, comes from a place of privilege, the ability to know he can get out of Germany before things get really bad. This is thrown into relief as Brian and Sally's friend Fritz comes out as Jewish so he can marry a Jewish woman he's fallen for from a rich Jewish family.
That Fritz's ultimate declaration of love conquers all is a death sentence is something we know and he doesn't. He's not naive, he knows that he's asking for trouble from the Nazis, trouble that he avoided when he arrived in Germany pretending to be a protestant. He's far more aware than Sally or Brian and yet he runs toward doom because such a move reflects the worldview of Cabaret in which even the purest intentions are portents of doom.
Sally meanwhile, has blinders on in all aspects of life. She’s wanton and narcissistic. She doesn’t appear to care who is in the audience when she performs because, for her, the performance, the stage, that’s all that matters. Grey appears to attempt to warn her with his sharp witty tunes and jabs but Sally is too far gone. Sally is an American and, much like Brian, she has the temporary privilege of ignorance.
It is important to note that Sally is an American and Brian is British. In 1931 and into the early 1940’s most Americans reflected Sally’s self centered worldview. The Brits were more engaged but easily distracted something well reflected by the character of Brian. It’s a large metaphor and perhaps an easy one to portray but Fosse portrays it with a sharpness using Joel Grey as a way to presage how our divided attentions are fomenting a disaster.
The musical elements are brilliantly crafted bits of chaos. Each musical number has a manic energy to its presentation, an energy brimming with equal parts dread and merriment. The songs are happy but spiky, sprinkled with a bitter irony. Fosse wills us in one moment toward feeling for the romance of Sally and Brian as it begins to blossom and then plunges us to the depths once Sally meets Maximillian (Helmut Griem) and is immediately on stage delivering a bizarre, mechanical, iteration of “Money, Money,” a bitter rebuke of romance.
Fosse works hard to keep us off balance. We are not allowed to be comfortable or comforted. Something disquieting is around every corner whether it is the shambles of the love affair we thought we were promised or a terrifying vision of the future when we witness an Aryan youth singing a spine shattering rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a song so affecting that the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb were accused of using an actual Nazi song. Kander and Ebb, by the way, are Jewish.
Even the famed showstopper title song “Cabaret” has a bitter aftertaste. Out of context, Liza sings it like a classic Broadway showstopper. In the context of Cabaret however, the title song announces that Sally has put her blinders back on and is ready to pretend the world isn’t changing around her. Joel Grey brings it home with a cheeky call back to the start of the film only this time the reflection Grey mournfully stares down is filled with Nazis in the background. The party is coming to a close.
"Cabaret" is kicky and energetic and filled with the panache we love Liza for but Fosse's arrangement of the song has a darkness to it. There is a curdled quality to the backing track. It sounds as if Sally is trying to will us into believing life is a Cabaret filled with sex, booze and cigarrettes but the real world is beginning to edge in. That's what the final image of the film is all about, the funky reflection of reality slowly coming into focus as if a boozy party led to a fascist hangover.
Bob Fosse famously beat out Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director in 1972 when Coppola was up for The Godfather. The Godfather and Coppola would have the last laugh by winning Best Picture but it’s still rather momentous. Fosse was not a movie director, he was a broadway choreographer and stage director. His talents however, melded perfectly to the world of Cabaret. Fosse's sense of dark humor and devilish style could find no better home on screen than Cabaret.
Though I am a devotee of The Godfather I can honestly say, as a piece of direction, Cabaret is slightly more impressive. A first time director making a supremely complex and dense musical, one that is tightrope walk of tone and sensitivity; that deserves recognition. One false move and Fosse’s film career was over with Cabaret but he makes no false moves. Instead, as a first time director, he pulled off the trick of making a rare horror musical, a film of mounting existential terror and dread wrapped in the tinsel and shine of a Broadway show. It’s a marvelous trick.
Cabaret is available on Tuesday, October 9th on Blu Ray from the Warner Archives Collection.