Blind Spots: Cabaret

by James McNally on February 12, 2013 · 1 comment

in Blind Spots,DVD

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

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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