WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: In 1930s Berlin, cabaret singer Sally Bowles makes her living at the decadent Kit Kat Klub but dreams of film stardom. Naive young teacher Brian Roberts comes into her life and the pair start an unlikely romance, and although the appearance of debonair hedonist Maximilian turns both their heads, the rising threat from violent forces in Germany puts their personal dramas into stark contrast.
Filmmakers desirous of Academy Award recognition could do much worse than picking up a Kander and Ebb musical. In 2002, Chicago won no less than six Oscars; and thirty years before, Cabaret earned eight, though not Best Picture, from ten nominations. As everyone knows from bitter experience, winning statuettes is no guide to quality (English Patient, I’m looking directly at you), so does this adaptation deserve the praise it received on release?
I should point out immediately that I have little acquaintance with the stage musical, so can’t comment too much on the extensive changes made to accommodate the story’s transfer to film and having Liza Minnelli as the star (Sally Bowles is, predictably, no longer English!); this review will therefore be on the merits – or otherwise – of the film on its own terms.
Cabaret opens in the Kit Kat Klub in 1931, a venue where the audience is as strange as the entertainment: mud wrestling, burlesque drag shows and musical numbers, all overseen by the impish Emcee (Joel Grey). Liza is singer Sally Bowles, belting out songs and revelling in the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere of Berlin, but struggling to pay her rent at a downmarket boarding house where bashful language teacher Brian (Michael York) pitches up, looking for lodgings.
Brian takes a room but spurns Sally’s advances on the grounds that he prefers the company of men, until her vulnerability overwhelms him and the two become a couple. It’s a shaky relationship, however, and the lure and lucre of suave Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) sweeps Sally off her feet. Little does she know that the purpose of Max’s invitation to his country estate is not merely to seduce her… Meanwhile, two of Brian’s students, penniless Fritz and wealthy Natalia (Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson), fall in love; but they are prey to the increasing prominence of the National Socialist Party as Natalia is Jewish. Little does she know that her paramour is also a Jew, hiding his faith in order to retain friends in an ever-more hostile environment. The fun and games at the Klub, and the progressive life lived by Sally and Brian, become ever more desperate as the Nazis – once unceremoniously shown the door – begin to assert their power.
The story of Cabaret has that blend of an intimate personal tale (Sally falls pregnant – what is she to do?) with a universal, and historically important, drama that the Academy love to reward, although in some ways Cabaret falls short as a piece of film-making: there is some clumsy editing and a number of odd close-ups, while the final scene is also pretty ineffective (recent stage versions have been much punchier about the Nazis taking control).
Also, the use of music is patchy, director Bob Fosse allowing a long time to pass between songs and choosing not to integrate them into the story (except for the Nazi Youth song ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, all the songs take place on stage in semi-abstract fashion). The story itself feels incomplete, too, as only Brian is really given a satisfactory introduction and exit; Sally is left to perform at the KKK while it lasts, Max disappears altogether, and though we are asked to care deeply for Fritz and Natalia, we have no idea whether they escape to happier lives or get caught up in Hitler’s ghastly politics.
Nonetheless, Cabaret largely succeeds because it is a strikingly individual film. The central relationship is essentially a very unhappy one, yet there is something in its frankness that is both admirable and strangely compelling; York is believable as the callow Englishman and Minnelli excellent as Sally Bowles, confident and carefree on the outside but internally conflicted and desperate for approval. She sings the song ‘Maybe This Time’ with wonderful emotion, which more than compensates for the fact that she is clearly not a natural dancer. Joel Grey’s ashen-faced, alien Emcee epitomises the painted smiles and forced jollity of 1930s-era Germany (the period detail of which is also well realised), and Fosse’s direction emphasises the grotesque nature of events, juxtaposing comedy with brown-shirted brutality.
In many ways Cabaret is very ugly, with the camera pointed up the noses of the braying audience and highlighting the shoddiness of the entertainment (such as Emcee singing to a gorilla), but this is obviously a deliberate decision and one that gives the film a seedy power as it shows the creeping horror of the rise of National Socialism, and asks us to consider whether the depravity of the Kit Kat Klub is really a lesser evil.
As far as the music goes, the decision to limit the number and frequency of songs is slightly disappointing, but the ones that appear are lively, amusing and rather more varied in character than Chicago’s, songs such as ‘Money, Money’ and ‘Two Ladies’ giving Grey a chance to act up a treat and Fosse to go wild as choreographer; the style of the dancing is unmistakeably his, with posed limbs and stretched legs much in evidence, and helps add to the decadent feel of the Kit Kat Klub, a venue you’re fascinated to get a glimpse of but wouldn’t necessarily want to visit.
I’ve no doubt that Cabaret is a film of the ‘love it or hate it’ variety, since its location and characters are both decidedly murky (not to labour the point, but Rob Marshall’s Chicago shines like a new pin in comparison with the smoky, frayed ambience found here) and despite Emcee’s initial invitation there is almost nothing welcoming or cosy about his cabaret. The film has too many faults to be considered a classic, and it’s not in the least surprising that it lost out on the Best Picture Oscar even without the consolation of knowing that it lost to The Godfather. All the same, Cabaret has Minnelli’s standout performance on film, a unique style, and retains enough barnstorming musical moments to remain an artistic achievement, whilst dozens of musicals from the era – and since – are remembered only to be reviled.