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.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog | 1hr 34min

At one point in the final act of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after each member of Don Lope de Aguirre’s expedition has either succumbed to the ruthless Peruvian wilderness or their own madness, one of them makes note of seeing a wooden ship lodged high up in the branches of a tree. Another brushes it off as a hallucination, and we may believe that to be the case, until we cut right to that surreal image.
 
Up until this point, Werner Herzog has held back from submerging us into the confusion of his explorers, grounding the piece in handheld camerawork that allows us to see them as they are – an absurd band of conquistadors who are dressed more appropriately for the royal courts of 16th century Spain than the unforgiving jungles of South America. And yet in this moment, at the peak of their insanity, this boat perched in a tree forces us to reconsider our own assessment of reality. If it is real, then this is a fearsome demonstration of the forest’s true destructive capability. If it isn’t, then these men are mentally too far gone to navigate their way home, let alone to the fabled country of El Dorado.

A hint of surrealism – is this vision a demonstration of nature’s raw power or humanity’s confounding delusion?

Above them, low-hanging clouds shroud rocky mountains with steep slopes dropping into thick, verdant jungles. High-pitched choral harmonies accompany these epic images, and yet there is something off about this music. In fact, these aren’t voices at all, but rather a choir-organ hypnotically ringing out an inhuman drone, lingering in the uncanny valley of sound. This may have once been a spiritual realm, but God has long abandoned this part of His creation. Now, it has grown into a dense mass of foliage, broken up only by coursing brown rivers which can always be heard even when they are not visible. This domain of natural chaos does not stand down peacefully for foreigners trying to introduce their own ideas of order.

The camera tilting down a Peruvian mountain in the opening shot as an inhuman choir rings out, before settling on the trail of conquistadors and nobles hiking a dangerous path.

Leading the cast as the delusional Aguirre is Klaus Kinski, whose pale blue eyes seem to be both glassed over as if in a trance, and widened in sheer, haunted terror. The combination of both these expressions suggests a man who quietly registers the danger around him, and yet who cannot help but bury his fear deep into his subconscious, lest it should distract from his own ambition.
 
The overgrown branches, trunks, and vines of his environment frequently obstruct and crowd out frames, consuming Aguirre and his fellow conquistadors in the rainforest’s overgrown vegetation as they try to hold farcical trials and elections. Herzog often blocks them in staggered compositions, sketching out their disorientation which only serves to fuel their self-defeating acts of meaningless violence. They burn down a village with no clear purpose, kill a native when he expresses ignorance of the Christian bible, and push their only horse off the raft when they start to find it annoying. Even the diary entries which have structured this narrative through an organised measurement of time are eventually lost, as one man drinks the ink thinking it is medicine. In a pathetic attempt to reinvigorate the spirits of his men, Aguirre encourages his musical companion to play his pan flute, but this breathy, jaunty tune simply feels like a cruel taunt as it underscores rhythmic montages of the sprawling jungle.

The thick, verdant vegetation, low-lying clouds, and brown rivers at direct odds with these Spanish invaders. This seems to be an important text for Francis Ford Coppola in the production of Apocalypse Now.

In bookending this film with two all-time magnificent shots, Herzog contrasts the start and end of Aguirre’s maddening journey. No longer can he sit and be awed by the terror of his environment – now, he is completely consumed by his own ego, and Herzog’s dizzying 360 shot effectively turns him into the centre of his own world. Around him, the monkeys of the forest snatch away the remaining supplies, and the bodies of his companions drift away down the river to decompose. In these final seconds, all at once, nature has never been so frightening, and humanity has never been so stubbornly delusional.

A 360-degree tracking shot circling Aguirre’s meagre raft in the very last shot, isolating him as a god in his own mind, destined to perish like the others.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola | 2hr 55min

Did Francis Ford Coppola realise in 1972 what he was putting out into the world? Surely there was a sense that he was creating something that would be critically successful, but the reverence for The Godfather has become so much of its own beast that he himself has admitted to feeling dwarfed by his creation. To praise this any further would be to contribute to the discourse that has tragically sapped his stamina as a director, but regardless – it remains one of the greatest pure narratives put to film in its sheer economy, and that it manages this while unravelling such a dense and sprawling story speaks to the monumental ambition that underlies its cinematic execution.

Though The Godfather is based on the Mario Puzo novel of the same name, it is often Greek mythological conventions which feel more baked into its structure, with archetypes of sons replacing fathers, an overseas journey leading back home, and fatal flaws spelling out the end for several characters. In transposing such classical storytelling traditions onto a 1940s Italian American crime family, Coppola effectively creates an epic poem for the twentieth century, captivated by the details of an underworld established by men who did not find the equality or justice they were promised when they first immigrated to New York. Perhaps this complex interaction of dreams and values is most pointed in the scene of Paulie’s assassination that sees him driven out to a wheat field and shot in the back of the head, with Coppola’s wide shot catching the Statue of Liberty quietly rising up over the horizon like a silent witness to the mafia’s crimes. 

The first truly shocking murder of the film, with the Statue of Liberty framed as a tiny figure in the distance.

Even the very first words of the film set up these thematic aspirations, with Sicilian undertaker Bonasera’s immortal line, “I believe in America.” Though he is a minor character, he is our way into the world of the Corleones, coming to Don Vito on his daughter’s wedding day to ask a favour as per cultural tradition. Bonasera is a man who has drifted too far from his roots, though in realising how America’s institutions have failed him, he falls back on the Corleone family’s loyalty and sense of justice, both of which are far more powerful than anything the United States might offer.

Shrouded in darkness and delivering a monologue with hints of repentance, one might initially presume that Bonasera has come to a small chapel to confess his sins to a priest, but even when the actual context becomes evident, Coppola still maintains that air of religious authority and reverence around Vito. These pitch-black backgrounds pierced by pinpoints of lights and faces are typical of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose moniker “The Prince of Darkness” is well-earned by his work here on The Godfather. Perhaps even more shocking though is its visual and tonal contrast to the bright, rambunctious wedding of Connie Corleone that lies right outside, its joyous festivities just as integral to the Corleone empire as their quiet, underhanded dealings. This nearly half-hour long sequence sets the stage for the film’s expansive ensemble of characters, each line and shot serving a purpose right down to Paulie eyeing off a purse of cash, tipping us off about his treacherous, greedy aspirations.

Gordon Willis, “The Prince of Darkness” earning his credentials here with superbly lit interiors and close-ups, turning the room into a quiet space of deep reverence.

Michael Corleone’s place in this family is teased here before we even meet him, with Vito stopping a family photo from going ahead without his son. Just the sight of Michael arriving late with his military uniform and non-Italian girlfriend, Kay, tells us all we need to know about his semi-estrangement. Here is a model of American citizenry, reserved in his interactions and denying involvement in his family’s sordid affairs, though clearly not so ostracised that he has started an entirely new, separate life altogether. The cold-blooded transformation that Al Pacino puts into motion from this point on is simply remarkable. There are a multitude of scenes that could be picked out to exemplify his tour-de-force performance, from Michael’s first murder to his chiding of his brother, Fredo, though it is in the gradual progression from the quietly disconnected man we see at the wedding to the one ascending to the role of Godfather at the end of the film that the full force of his acting achievement lands with its full weight. 

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando battle it out for the best performance of this film. Both are unforgettable.

Arguably the only other actor to outdo Pacino here is Marlon Brando himself, whose mumbling, bulldog-cheeked Vito Corleone stands powerfully above every other character, including those who try to cut him down to size. Though it is only really in the first scene where we see him at his full power before the attempt on his life, his presence and influence hangs over so many others as well, most of all those in which his children struggle beneath the weight of his legacy. Where the hot-headed Sonny lacks the wisdom of his father and the weak-willed Fredo lacks the nerve, we come to realise during Michael’s hospital visit that he alone carries the virtues necessary to lead. While Vito is recovering in bed, Michael uses his wits to fend off further attacks, and as he lights the cigarette of a trusted ally shaking in his boots, Coppola cuts to his perfectly still hands, revealing a cool, keen propensity for handling high-pressure situations. 

At this point in his arc though, he still has a long way to go to attain the same authority as his father. Long dissolves are often Coppola’s tool of choice in visually setting Vito up as the powerful man pulling the strings, with a particularly notable one landing after the scene of a movie producer waking up to find his prized horse’s head in his bed, fading from the exterior of his house to a close-up of the Don himself. There is a weighty implication in the merging of such images, as those shots of his face dominating landscapes and wides vividly turn him into a larger-than-life being. 

Coppola setting himself up as one of the great film editors of the 1970s with these long dissolves, an effective device he will later continue in The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now.

Michael also eventually receives special treatment in the editing room when he takes over the family business, though it is also at this point where Coppola’s style takes a sharp turn. His reign is not defined by graceful long dissolves, flowing gently from one shot to the next, but is rather brought in with a montage, cross-cutting between scenes of violence and religion with one thing in common – the birth of a new Godfather, both to Connie’s newborn son and to a community of Sicilians. 

A landmark of cinematic montages. The complex display of parallel cutting here is a masterful balance of wrapping up several lingering plot threads, violently setting Michael up as the new Godfather.

It is here that Nino Rota’s sly, winding waltz of oboes, trumpets, and strings that has defined the Corleone family momentarily takes on an entirely new timbre – that of a deep, resonant church organ, adopting pieces of the main melody and twisting them into something truly ominous. Coppola’s style of depicting murders also dramatically shifts, taking a step back from the shocking bursts of violence which give us only a few seconds of warning, and instead drawing the suspense of multiple assassinations out over several minutes. As Michael confesses his belief in the Catholic Church, renounces Satan, and pledges his duty as Godfather to the baby screaming in the background, so too does he mark his ascent to the role with a vicious massacre of all those who underestimated him, solidifying his power with a single, devastating statement of his dominance.

As questions of keeping personal and business lives separate roil through this deft screenplay, the door that closes between Michael and Kay in Coppola’s final shot effectively severs the two in such a way that Vito certainly never intended. To him, business was inherently personal, inviting family members and friends into his inner circles with trust and generosity, though in Michael’s damning decision to lie to Kay about his work when she asks for the absolute truth, he carries on almost everything from his father’s legacy, save for his passionate Sicilian heart. The Godfather is a story of generations handing power from one to the next, but in the dynamic culture of mid-twentieth century America, these natural cycles are perverted by a new, corporate society, born from the same ancient traditions they inevitably end up destroying.

An ice cold final shot – Michael’s ascension to Godfather severing his personal and business lives for good.

The Godfather is currently available to stream on Stan and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Luis Buñuel | 1hr 41min

Even after all the dream sequences and absurd tangents that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie goes on, somehow it still stands high above the rest of cinema history as one the greatest demonstrations of film form. There are certainly some scenes that stand about the rest, but its success cannot be nailed down to one singular moment. Rather, it is how each successive scene builds on previously established motifs and ideas that gives the film such formal rigour, and which serves to bolster Luis Buñuel’s acidic attacks on Europe’s wealthy ruling classes.

The repetition of a dinner party that never quite gets going is the main running thread, coming to represent the affluent’s unyielding dedication to preserving their social status. These are cultural rituals filled with vapid conversations and obsessive demonstrations of superiority, and yet each rude interruption reveals the meetings to be nothing more than façades masking gluttony, insecurity, incompetence, debauchery, and narcissism.

Dinner party after dinner party after dinner party – what else is one so wealthy and carefree supposed to do with their time? Each one comically interrupted by some absurd intrusion.

Buñuel continues to strip back the layers of class and civility in the second half, probing into the nonsensical nightmares of his six central characters and exposing their greatest anxieties. Most of these dreams play out in extended sequences, escalating towards the public humiliation of these men and women. The first one involves a sudden recognition during a dinner party that they are onstage in front of an audience, and they have forgotten their lines. This dream is nested inside another, in which Rafael, the ambassador for fictional South American country Miranda, is uncomfortably confronted with questions about his nation’s failing economy – not at all like the frothy small talk he is used to.

It’s all one big show – the aristocrats caught out, the artifice of their lives exposed.

These continue to escalate, eventually leading to the execution of all six aristocrats during a dinner party. Raphael escapes by hiding under a table, but he can’t help reaching up to grab a piece of meat, feebly falling prey to his own gluttonous impulses and thereby giving himself away. Once again, Buñuel reveals the emptiness of the threat by revealing this was yet another dream, playing with his narrative structure to consistently give these aristocrats the easiest way out of any tricky situation. After all, this is the closest any of them will get to real danger.
 
Buñuel’s world is larger than these six people though. We spend a fair amount of time with a Bishop, who only ever seems to gain respect while dressed in his robes, and through his character, religion at large is branded with its own specific kind of hypocrisy. He is called to be a pious, benevolent servant of his community, but he only ever seems to serve the wealthy. At one point when asked to deliver the last rites to his father’s killer, he only does the bare minimum before landing a vengeful, killing blow. Buñuel goes on to savagely attack the ruling elite classes of business, state, and military industries, exposing the irrational egocentricity that structurally holds them together.

The Bishop, perhaps the most interesting character of them all, acting as a scathing indictment of the church.

Built into the connective tissue of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are scenes of the six aristocrats walking down a long country road, far away from the opulent mansions and restaurants they are so comfortable hiding in. Out here in the middle of nowhere, they exist in stark contrast to their surroundings, their lavish clothing and mannerisms holding no social sway or purpose in this environment. In the final moments of the film, Buñuel returns to this comically sad image, and this may be his most pointed jab of all. With all the glamour stripped away, life as a self-satisfied aristocrat is nothing but an endless trudge along a depressingly empty road.

These hollow, directionless aristocrats walking along an endless road – a thread of surrealism running through the film, and capping it off.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is available to rent or buy on YouTube.