As amazing as the performances are and the staging of the musical sequences is fantastic, this movie and story are haunting in a way that is difficult to explain. As the nation of Germany is about to be swallowed up by the fanaticism of the Nazis, the decadent entertainment seems to be a distraction from the coming storm. Even when the characters acknowledge the impending doom, they can’t seem to escape from the complications they are living through while the pawl of doom is closing in.
Director Bob Fosse has made a movie musical for people who don’t like movie musicals. Characters don’t break out in song, unless they are on a stage, or at one point in an audience listening to a staged song. His background in theater shows as these sequences of the performers at the “Kit Kat” club, are all choregraphed with just enough vulgarity to be fitting for this kind of venue, but also enough professionalism to keep us watching closely. The stories that the film is based on sound like they focus on the decadent behavior more than the Nazi threat, and maybe the poverty of the time is not fully conveyed, but I don’t think any of us living today would choose this era to live in. It is the antithesis of glamour, with the exceptions of the characters of Max and Natalia, both of whom seem to have bleak futures despite their wealth.
Liza Minnelli is of course the shining star in the film. She has an unconventional beauty at this point in her life, and her persona was perfect for the somewhat deluded Sally Bowles. I get the impression that the less we know about the real characters that were the inspiration for the stories that the play and the musical are based on, the greater we will enjoy the experience. Michael York seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s, and he was very well cast as the sexually ambiguous Brian. The uncertainty of his character about his own sexuality would be a no no in today’s world, where questioning an impulse is frowned upon. In 1930s Berlin, I would imagine this difficulty was much more understandable. We should have known that the romance between Brian and Sally was doomed, but there are moments when they seem to make each other happy and more confident and that is the sort of thing that drama can thrive on.
The editing of the musical sequence with the beat down of the maître d’ of the Kit Kat Club was very clever and cinematic. I also liked the choices of audience shots for some of the songs, including the one song that is performed in front of an nearly empty cabaret. There are a few scenes of violence, and knowing what the future held, I am sorry to say that the moment that disturbed me the most involved the death of an animal rather than violence at a person. The mental cruelty of the moment hangs over the rest of the film, and I don’t know how people could continue to seek pleasure in times where this was widely practiced victimization. At the moment, such horrible behavior remains the exception, although every time I look at news articles, I wonder if the fascists on the left and right are aware of how much they do come off as Nazi progeny.
I too want to enjoy the moments of singing and dancing entertainment on the stage, but Fosse manages to make us pay for that with a guilty conscience. Joel Grey steals the stage every time he shows up, and that is frequently. In spite of the fact that he has no off stage dialogue, he is as central a character as the lovers are. It is a great performance. The Master of Ceremonies is guilty of taking the anti-Semitism of the culture very lightly and that it becomes part of the entertainment may be answers the difficulty of explaining my disquiet in the opening paragraph here.
“Cabaret” is a terrific film, that will entertain you but also challenge your sensibilities. It is a much more complex film than some seem to realize.