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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