Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse | 2hr 15min

For the bohemian misfits of Cabaret, it is easy enough to believe that the Kit Kat Club is a safe refuge to escape the political tensions of Germany’s Weimar Republic, tucking them away into a small, dark pocket of Berlin where sexual and creative freedoms may flourish onstage. Within these walls of distorted mirrors and black show curtains, Joel Grey is our pale-faced, gender-fluid Master of Ceremonies, irreverently commenting on the world outside with his bawdy musical numbers. When his songs aren’t breaking the narrative up like fleeting escapes into the artistic minds of its characters, Bob Fosse is skilfully intercutting them with scenes of hope, love, and violence, orchestrating a vivid tension between the dwindling, carefree escapism of one subculture and the burgeoning totalitarianism of another.

Cabaret is steeped in this dramatic irony right from the opening scenes, where the Emcee’s multi-lingual welcome to his realm of riotous laughter and his burlesque wrestling act briefly passes over a Nazi being kicked out. Clearly his greeting only extends so far – those who preach intolerance have no place in this diverse melting pot of nationalities, sexualities, and identities, and it is with that ethos in mind that British writer Brian finds a home among its patrons. It is especially with its bubbly American cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, who he strikes up an affectionate friendship with, after moving into the boarding house where she resides.

Expressionism in Fosse’s mise-en-scène, lighting up this stage with silhouettes and striking poses.

Carrying on the tradition of musical excellence set by her famous Hollywood parents, Liza Minnelli takes the spotlight here as the flighty, wide-eyed singer onstage at the Kit Kat Club, living life like one long song and dance she never wants to end. Relationships are easy to come by for her, calling friends and strangers alike “darling” within the first thirty seconds of meeting them, and falling for new lovers like one might try on a new outfit.

If Minnelli belongs to a lineage of movie-musical actresses that her mother, Judy Garland, sits atop of, then Sally’s characterisation can similarly be drawn back to the 1930s, where Marlene Dietrich’s playful cabaret headliner, Lola Lola, stole the hearts of multiple men in The Blue Angel. Upon vibrant stages respectively designed to the audacious visual stylings of Josef von Sternberg and Bob Fosse, both women strike dramatic poses on chairs and sing rousing love songs, passionately dedicating their voices and bodies to the art of performance. It is also notable that in one scene of Cabaret, Sally even name drops Emil Jannings, Dietrich’s co-star, suggesting to someone she is trying to impress that she knows him well.

Liza Minnelli takes centre stage as Sally Bowles in one of the great performances of the 1970s, exploding onstage with impassioned musical numbers and offstage carrying a complex character arc.

For all her messy flaws and idiosyncrasies though, Sally is a far less antagonistic character than Lola Lola, as Cabaret chooses instead to offer her great empathy for her naïve hope that the world is a better place than it is. Right after her first kiss with Brian, Fosse bathes her heartfelt solo ‘Maybe This Time’ in a gentle blue and orange light, while passionately blending it with scenes of their blossoming love. Despite their many differences, both possess a youthful ambition that drives them forward in their creative endeavours, as well as an open-mindedness to alternative lifestyles that make it easy enough for them to gradually grow their friend circle. Soon enough, they are joined by wealthy playboy Maximilian, German merchant Fritz, and Jewish heiress Natalia, and between the five of them Fosse draws out a rich web of complex relationships. Sally delights in some light mocking of Natalia’s posh manner, flippantly turning casual conversation to the subject of syphilis, and elsewhere jealousy roils around in love triangles and affairs, leading to revelations that sting with playful honesty.

“Screw Maximilian!”

“I do.”

“So do I.”

For now, each of these characters are living with some level of privilege, though as the political climate within Berlin shifts, tougher, life-changing decisions await them further down the line. Sally’s accidental pregnancy brings fears of settling down to the surface, pushing her to seek out an illegal abortion, but perhaps even more concerning than this is the love which emerges between Natalia and Fritz, who realises he must announce his Jewish heritage if he wishes to marry her. Back in the Kit Kat Club, the Emcee amusingly maintains his love for a gorilla in the number ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’, right before landing the punchline that he is really defending the fact she is a Jew. The social satire is evident, but in his sharp editing Fosse is making an even sharper point about the nature of this entertainment – any social issue that holds real weight on the outside is humorously undercut in the club, which is simply not equipped to handle the real world with any sincerity.

‘If You Could See Her Like I Do’ is an amusing musical number that packs an even better punchline. A masterfully comedic performance from Joel Grey.

As cabaret performers send up traditional German folk dance wearing flamboyant lederhosen, Fosse punctuates each comical slap with the beating of the club’s owner in the alley outside by a gang of Nazi youths. As the Emcee leads a burlesque army of dancers in Nazi regalia, ridiculing their customs and mannerisms, we cut to Natalia discovering her brutally slaughtered dog in her yard. Fosse’s editing lays down a bold formal contrast in this way, setting close-ups of exaggerated facial expressions and swinging limbs against hateful, violent atrocities taking place outside, and choreographing them all to the cabaret’s cheeky rhythms.

Juxtaposing the light irreverence of the club with the horrific darkness of 1930s Germany. One of the best edited films of the decade, thanks to Fosse’s unique skills.

Given the birthplace of expressionism in early twentieth century Germany, it is fitting that Fosse brings this stark visual style to his smoke-filled cabaret numbers, cutting out sharp silhouettes of his performers as they strike dramatic poses up onstage. Though there is certainly visual beauty outside the club in the brown décor of the boarding house and some flourishes of camerawork around his characters, Fosse evidently prefers the stage to reality for its theatrical spice. Like von Sternberg before him, he carries a keen sense of cinematic blocking in these settings, foregrounding legs, chairs, and bodies that frame performers as they dance. Along the walls and up on the ceiling, he hangs wavy mirrors that uneasily distort his actors’ faces, especially reflecting the expressions of the exuberant Emcee who might be a little too cheerful for our comfort.

Fosse obfuscates his frames in these compositions much like Josef von Sternberg before him, building his mise-en-scène around Minelli.
Distorted mirrors offer an undercurrent of warped darkness to the cabaret, marking both the opening and closing shots of the film.

The Kit Kat Club is no doubt a exciting place for thespians and free spirits, but bit by bit, the sinister undertones pressing in on it grow too significant to ignore. The complacency that allows such virulent antisemitism to breed in Germany is not just confined to our main characters, though they certainly typify that thinking.

“The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.”

As much as Fosse’s characters dismiss them as mere pests, his camera never treats them as anything less than a terrifying threat to the very foundations of liberty and justice. While a dead Communist bleeds out on a street in broad daylight, he cuts between parts of his frozen tableau, where Nazis and onlookers stand around in chilling silence.

Chilling montage editing underscoring the stillness of this brutal murder.

Perhaps the most disturbing depiction of their political ascension though is one which does not depict any sort of physical violence at all, as Brian and his friends drop in at a rural beer garden for an easy day out, only to be met with a young, blonde boy singing the only song of Cabaret which does not take place inside the club, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. As the camera pans down from his face to reveal a Swastika patched on his sleeve, this ode to Germany’s natural scenery transforms into a militant anthem for the Third Reich, and around him, the rest of the audience stands one by one, adding their stern voices to the chorus. Fosse does not exempt this wildly disparate song from his zealous montage editing either – as he energetically cuts between close-ups of the proud faces in the crowd, he is sure to slip in some shots of the unhappy few who remain seated, resisting the overwhelming wave of fervent nationalism.

Rhythmic montage editing again in the only musical number that doesn’t take place in the Kit Kat Club, serving an entirely disturbing tone.

Sure enough, there is little any of our characters can do about Germany’s shifting political landscape by this point. After a rage-fuelled confrontation with a pair of Nazis campaigning on the street, Brian is left with nothing but a black eye and the realisation that his love for Sally does not outweigh his own fears and ambition. Not long after, he departs Berlin, leaving his cabaret-loving sweetheart to keep singing her heart out to whoever is left to watch her perform, dazzled by her own dreams that she is too naïve to realise will never flourish under the reign of the Nazi party.

“Life is a cabaret,” she joyously proclaims. “We have no troubles here,” asserts the grinning Emcee. But it is hard to read this delusional ending as anything but a tragedy as the camera pans across the warped mirrors one last time to view the twisted reflections of the uniformed Nazis, now dominating the audience. For the first time, there is no music playing in the Kit Kat Club, or even any movement among its patrons. There is simply an eerie, deadening silence, banishing whatever traces of dissent once held the power to overcome it, but which instead chose to keep partying on inside its tiny, bohemian bubble.

A silent pan across the distorted mirrors, revealing an audience now consisting almost entirely of Nazis – a horrifying pay-off to the steady rise we see leading up to it.

Cabaret is not currently streaming in Australia.

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