LIFE IS A CABARET.
It’s often been said that the traditional Hollywood lost its way in the 1960s, making big, splashy and expensive musicals that no one went to see. They have become a symbol of Tinseltown losing its touch right before a new generation came along at the same time as the sexual revolution. Well, those years also produced My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, two classics that attracted huge audiences and carry a lasting appeal.
But you can’t argue with the fact that Cabaret represented something new in 1972, a darkness and realism that we hadn’t seen in musicals.
Fun at the Kit Kat Klub
Berlin, 1931. At the decadent Kit Kat Klub, the American singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is a performer. When the British academic Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives, he moves in at the same boarding house where Sally lives, and she’s attracted to him. After a while, they both get to know a German playboy, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), and the affair turns into a threesome. At the same time, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) has fallen in love with a Jewish heiress (Marisa Berenson), which is a problem at a time when the country’s next leader will be Adolf Hitler.
In for something new
Those who had seen the original Broadway show were in for something new. Screenwriter Jay Allen went back to Christopher Isherwood’s novel ”Goodbye to Berlin” and found the story about the German man who fell in love with a Jew; this is also where the budding bisexuality of Brian Roberts first appeared. The filmmakers also wanted to focus more on the Kit Kat Klub as a symbol of the decadence of the Weimar Republic.
All the musical numbers except one were moved to the stage of the club where they were performed by primarily Minnelli and Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies. This was another way of increasing realism; there would be no scenes where people were talking and suddenly bursting into song, the way it had been done in the old musicals. The only number that takes place outside the club is ”Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, a beautiful, stirring song performed by a teenage boy… that shockingly turns into a Nazi anthem. Nazism is constantly present in the shadowy background, in the shape of thugs beating up people outside the club, or as the ideology of Germany’s youth, or in the casual anti-Semitism that runs though society, even at the club. The most disturbing act of the film is actually not that anthem but the song ”If You Could See Her”, an amusing ditty that ends like a punch in the gut, with the lyrics ”she wouldn’t look Jewish at all”. This is truly a movie that wants to entertain and charm you, but also slap you around a little bit.
The least engaging part of Cabaret is the threesome between Sally, Brian and Max; we are constantly drawn to the darkness of the club and Berlin. The riveting numbers at the club are designed and shot like in old expressionist movies where everything is a little askew; every performer’s makeup looks more scary than attractive, and Grey’s MC has a diabolical presence. He’s like an always singing symbol, packaging his Weimar decadence in an acceptable anti-Semitic shape to please the future masters.
Bob Fosse bombed with an earlier musical, Sweet Charity (1969), but this one was an outstanding hit, elevating Minnelli to one of Hollywood’s biggest names; she’s perfect as the free-spirited Sally. As is often done with musical adaptations, new songs were added. They’re often inferior to the musical’s best numbers, but in this case it’s ”Mein Herr” and ”Money, Money”, two thrilling showstoppers. You couldn’t do better than that.
Cabaret 1972-U.S. 124 min. Color. Produced by Cy Feuer. Directed by Bob Fosse. Screenplay: Jay Allen. Book: Joe Masteroff. Play: John Van Druten (”I Am Camera”). Novel: Christopher Isherwood (”Goodbye to Berlin”). Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Editing: David Bretherton. Music: Ralph Burns. Songs: John Kander, Fred Ebbs (”Mein Herr”, ”Money, Money”, ”Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, ”Cabaret”, ”If You Could See Her”). Production Design: Rolf Zehetbauer. Cast: Liza Minnelli (Sally Bowles), Michael York (Brian Roberts), Helmut Griem (Maximilian von Heune), Joel Grey (Master of Ceremonies), Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson.
Trivia: ”I Am Camera” was also filmed in 1955.
Oscars: Best Director, Actress (Minnelli), Supporting Actor (Grey), Cinematography, Film Editing, Score Adaptation, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actress (Minnelli), Supporting Actor (Grey). BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Actress (Minnelli), Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Track.
Last word: “I was the first one hired before Fosse — of course, Joel [Grey] was going to do it — but, I talked to producer Cy Feuer, who was in Paris. I went there all dressed up, like I figured Sally would be — lots of scarves and coats and things [laughs] — and he said, ‘We’re doing the movie, we were just talking about you.’ I said, ‘Great, are you coming to my show tonight?’ And he said yes. I did the best show I could and naturally put in ‘Cabaret,’ which was originally written for me, because I was supposed to do the play, and then [in the play] they decided to make the boy American and the girl English. So, he came to see the show and I got it!” (Minnelli, Huffington Post)