Monday, February 28, 2011

Cabaret (1972)

          The Bob Fosse-directed masterpiece Cabaret is the quintessential musical for people who don’t like musicals, myself included. Not only does it tell a hard-hitting, provocative story instead of just delivering cheerful fluff, it’s a real movie that happens to have music instead of a contrived framework for musical numbers. Tunes arise naturally during moments in which characters believably break into song, like performances in the titular nightclub, so the numbers become a tool that Fosse employs, alongside brazen editing and meticulous camerawork, to take viewers into the minds of the characters.
          Adapted from a pair of musicals that were in turn based on autobiographical stories by the English writer Christopher Isherwood, who lived in Germany during the Third Reich’s rise to power, Jay Presson Allen’s Oscar-nominated script weaves the myriad threads of source material into a seamless whole, telling the story of how sexually confused Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) learns life lessons with, and from, crass but vulnerable American songstress Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) during their eventful idyll in pre-World War II Berlin. Sally is the star attraction at the debauched Kit Kat Klub, and Brian is a new neighbor at her boarding house; after she draws him into her life with her overpowering personality, they enter into a complicated four-way psychosexual dynamic with wealthy Germans Maximilian (Helmut Griem), who is staunchly pro-Establishment, and Natalia (Marisa Berenson), who is Jewish.
          What unfolds is a disturbing story about people getting caught up in the momentum of insidious social change. Some become victims and some become villains, but none remain untouched by the world-shaking tragedy coming into focus around them. Tying all of these elements together are surrealistic scenes featuring the Kit Kat Klub’s unnamed Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), who functions as a perverse Greek Chorus complete with grotesque makeup and an immaculate tux.
          Fosse’s storytelling is astonishing from the first scene to the last, because he jumps from incisive subtlety to shocking directness at regular intervals, often in the same scene, and his legendary choreography skills infuse the film with a propulsive physicality. Whether he’s staging a comical number like “Two Ladies” or a quiet one like the moving “Maybe This Time,” Fosse adeptly integrates the themes of the musical interludes into the movement of the story, so Cabaret never feels like it’s stopping for a song. Yet even though the dancing is sensuous and spectacular, Fosse’s handling of quiet dramatic scenes is just as confident. Minelli and York have never been better than they are here, with Minelli blending soft colors into her brash persona, and York expertly depicting his character’s complicated mix of moral outrage and sexual longing. Grey is equally great, turning “Emcee” into one of the most enigmatically creepy characterizations of the early ’70s.
          The real star of the movie, however, is Fosse, and he doesn’t disappoint: His direction perfectly balances show-stopping impact and storytelling clarity, making the film as dazzling as it is insightful.



TomS said...

This is one of my all-time favorite films...and you gave it a wonderful review. I can't think of any film with such a distinctive look, and such attention to detail that after countless viewings I still find new things in it.

I just found your site, and am fascinated, as I love films from this era, especially the years 1967-1972.

Tommy Ross said...

There's a bio of Fosse I read once and in the chapter about the making of Cabaret it says that on the first day of filming when Liza Minnelli walked onto the set, her face was literally beaming (she says because she was so happy to have gotten the part) and everyone on set noticed and knew that from that moment on she was going to bring something extraordinary to the film. 'Nuff said!

Unknown said...

Peter Hanson, this is a brilliant review of the finest movie musical in film history. How it lost the Best Picture Oscar to "The Godfather" (after winning eight awards to "The Godfather's" two) is a mystery. The final scene, after Liza's superb rendition of the title song, is the most powerful ending to any movie I have ever seen. One can practically see Hitler and the concentration camps mirrored in that chandelier.