Is it possible for a musical to be disturbing? Maybe Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” favors that argument.
Liza Minnelli won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1972 for her portrayal of Sally Bowles, a carefree, happy go lucky performer at the underground Kit Kat Club located in Berlin, 1931. She is the lead attraction among a company of dancers doing a different kind of stage vaudeville with its colorful emcee played amazingly by Joel Grey, also an Oscar winner.
The musical numbers are outlandish with caked on makeup and outfits that could make Victoria’s Secret seem like a children’s shop. I gathered from the film that Fosse, who choreographed the numbers as well, offered up the escape of life first, before showing the harsh reality of Berlin in its historical context.
Sally and the Emcee’s performances are first on hand, depicted as silly and showstopping. Thereafter, Sally encounters an English gentleman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is a professor of English study attempting to complete his doctorate. As Sally and Brian become closer as friends first, he must reluctantly admit to Sally that he’s a better bed companion with a man than with a woman. Sally doesn’t understand why he didn’t say that in the first place as she attempts to come on to him.
Herein lies the dilemma many faced as the Nazi party was gaining traction in Germany. How necessary is it to hide your true natures to preserve your life? Sally’s underground lifestyle at the club clouds her vision of what’s gradually happening in the world. Nevertheless, they eventually develop a relationship as Brian appears to be bisexual, more specifically.
A side story concerns Brian & Sally’s relationship with a baron named Maximillan (Helmut Griem), who will wine and dine them at his estate only to later abandon the respective relationships he sets up with them to more or less make them feel as cheap as prostitutes. I wasn’t sure what to gather from this extension, however. The irony is that unbeknownst to Sally and Brian they have both been sleeping with Max. Eventually, Sally reveals she’s pregnant but does not know who the father may be, Brian or Max, and an abortion is considered.
An additional side story concerns a wealthy Jewish German heiress named Natalia who falls in love with a German Jew named Fritz living under the guise of a Protestant.
“Cabaret” is a loose adaptation of “The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood (the Brian character) and his experience with stage performer Jean Ross (the Sally character). Isherwood’s stories gradually formed into different iterations of stage plays and short stories before making it to Broadway and Fosse’s celebrated film.
Though Fosse apparently took some questionable liberties and departures from Isherwood’s writings, I think it depicts the personal struggles of love and self identity while the world around them is quickly changing into a scary reality where your own self identity could get you killed.
Fosse gives terrifying glimpses of how the Nazi party seeps it’s way into a decadent Berlin of underground showmanship. Though apparently Berlin really wasn’t so decadent as the film has you believe. Ross and Isherwood have gone on record describing Berlin was a more destitute and poor environment, actually.
In Fosse’s film, a Nazi youth is seen early on being kicked out of the Kit Kat Club. A few minutes later, the night club manager is being beaten in an alley. Fosse juxtaposes scary moments like this against the silly debauchery depicted on stage. It’s as if the Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews in the area are unaware of the evil practice that is gradually taking over outside.
Soon, Fosse makes the swastika more apparent in the streets with propaganda handouts. Most telling is when a young boy is seen at an outdoor beer garden gathering singing a number selfishly entitled “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Fosse is frighteningly effective at showing this boy from the neck up. Eventually, he moves the camera down to reveal the boy’s swastika wrapped around his sleeve. The song which seemed to champion beauty and nature now evolves into a march of grandstanding fascism. It completely shocked me. Just as people like Brian and Fritz are reluctant to reveal their backgrounds, both sexually and religiously, the Nazi party is proud to announce their mindset in a converse manner. By the end of the film, the audience at the Kit Kat Club more predominantly shows Nazis in the audience as opposed to just the one shown in the beginning of the film. Hatred has spread its disease.
While Minnelli shines in her role, her showstopping moment really comes at the end when she dangles her carefree attitude while belting out the title song with “Life Is A Cabaret.” Along with Joel Grey’s Emcee closing out the film with the “Finale,” this musical goes against the grain of most musicals’ cheerful close outs or romantic theatrics. Fosse’s mirror image of the Nazi party taking in Sally and Emcee’s performances are chilling. We sense the characters’ time is at an end and wisely the film runs its closing credits among frightening silence with the cold, blurred images of Nazi soldiers staring right at us.
I had never seen the film of “Cabaret” until now, but I had attended two different stage productions; neither of which I liked. Bob Fosse’s film seems more clear with its content than I ever got from a stage performance. Perhaps it is because the Oscar winning art direction is more apparent than a stage set. We can see the bustling of Berlin change amid a political climate that at first is not taken so seriously. As hurtful and harrowing the relationships of love between Brian with Sally and then with Max, as well as Fritz and Natasha are, none of this will eventually compare to the upcoming demise for Berlin.
As Miguel noted in our recent podcast that focused on musicals, “Cabaret” won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture (losing to “The Godfather”). It’s clear how deserving it was of its accolades. The musical numbers are very engaging but the fear of fascism is well developed too. So there is a roller coaster of emotions to absorb from Fosse’s film. I believe in that podcast I noted that Francis Ford Coppola won Best Director. I now realize I was wrong. It was in fact Bob Fosse who took home that prize, and it’s truly evident how deserving that honor was for him.
Again, while I’ve yet to find a stage production I’ve liked, I was terribly moved by the film. “Cabaret,” the film from 1972, is a sensational and frightening production.