Blind Spots: Cabaret

Warner released Cabaret on Blu-ray in Canada on February 5, 2013. Help sup­port Toronto Screen Shots by buy­ing it on

Cabaret (Director: Bob Fosse): I’m gen­er­ally not a fan of music­als. I find the way they use songs as short­hand for char­ac­ter devel­op­ment mostly uncon­vin­cing. But I’m a huge fan of Bob Fosse’s work, and so I was ready to set my reser­va­tions aside when I finally got around to watch­ing one of the few films in his brief dir­ect­ing career that I’d not yet seen. Warner Brothers released a remastered Cabaret on Blu-ray on February 5, 2013 and it looks and sounds fant­astic. I’d been con­sciously wait­ing for the film to come out in high defin­i­tion before see­ing it and I’m glad I waited. The col­ours really pop and the soundtrack really bene­fits from the lossless HD present­a­tion.

I grew up in the 1970s and the music from Cabaret sat­ur­ated the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the first half of that dec­ade, so even though I’d never seen the film (or the stage show on which it was based), I knew nearly all of the songs. Liza Minelli is per­fectly cast as the brassy but insec­ure Sally Bowles, per­former at Berlin’s Kit Kat nightclub. It’s 1931 and the Nazis are begin­ning their omin­ous rise to power. Berlin between the wars was an inter­est­ing labor­at­ory of artistic and sexual exper­i­ment­a­tion, and the Kit Kat Club reflects this sense of adven­ture. But it’s also tinged with a sense of des­per­a­tion, per­haps acknow­ledging the forces gath­er­ing just out­side. Sally meets and falls for Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York), des­pite his admis­sion that he’d rather sleep with men. After decid­ing they’ll just be friends, they end up as lov­ers, at least until a rich play­boy breaks both of their hearts. Their poor friend Fritz (Fritz Wendel) pur­sues the beau­ti­ful and rich Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), at first for her money. But just as he falls in love with her, she rejects his mar­riage pro­posal due to their reli­gious incom­pat­ib­il­ity. She is Jewish, and things are start­ing to look grim for the Jews of Germany.

Strangely, most of the songs in Cabaret do not dir­ectly advance the plot. Most take place inside the con­fines of the club, and the sin­is­ter and andro­gyn­ous fig­ure of the Emcee (Joel Grey) is at the centre of most of them. The bac­chanalian atmo­sphere he cre­ates seems more and more des­per­ate as events unfold in the out­side world. Similarly, Sally’s attempts to keep the big­ger world at bay begin to fail and by the end, she seems to cling to her nightclub act the way a drown­ing woman might cling to a life pre­server.

Minelli is at the pin­nacle of her diva powers, play­ing a char­ac­ter who is not exactly like­able. Sally is an exhaust­ing per­son to be around, and is clearly driven by her insec­ur­ity and an infant­ile desire to be loved at any price. She’s not equipped to deal with the immense evil about to be unleashed in Germany, and the viewer is left won­der­ing what will hap­pen to her after the film ends. Fosse has used the spe­cific strengths of filmic storytelling to strengthen the power of the images (inter­cut­ting a musical num­ber with shots of Nazis beat­ing a man up, for instance) and in one unfor­get­table sequence, zooms the cam­era out from the clean cut face of a boy singing “The Future Belongs to Me” to show his Hitler Youth uni­form.

I’m still not a huge fan of music­als, but I’ll acknow­ledge that Fosse made a ser­i­ous film that hap­pens to be a musical. The Nazi stuff is mostly kept in the mar­gins, but it does encroach as the film pro­gresses, and it’s clear that the Kit Kat Club is a much dif­fer­ent place at the end of the film than it was at the start. The period of ambi­gu­ity (moral, sexual, polit­ical) that was allowed to flour­ish in Weimar Germany was quickly com­ing to an end.

The film and stage show were inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, based on his own exper­i­ences, and the songs, by Kander and Ebb, mem­or­ably illus­trate an atmo­sphere that was a long time return­ing, not just to Germany, but to the rest of the world. It’s fit­ting that the film was made in the 1970s, another era of sexual awaken­ing and lib­er­a­tion. Director Fosse made the decision to identify the char­ac­ter of Brian as gay, which he is not in the play. It’s truer to Isherwood’s own char­ac­ter, but was still a bold move, con­sid­er­ing how few pos­it­ive rep­res­ent­a­tions there were in film of gay or bisexual char­ac­ters at the time.

The Blu-ray disc is pack­aged as a digi­book, and comes with an extens­ive array of sup­ple­ments, many of which I’m eager to explore:

  • Commentary by Stephen Tropiano, author of Cabaret: Music on Film
  • A new fea­tur­ette, “Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals”
  • Vintage fea­tur­ettes, “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making” and “The Recreation of an Era”
  • Reminisces by Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, John Kander, Fred Ebb and oth­ers

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