Cabaret (1972)

16 Sep

It's about decadence ... and Nazis. But mostly decadence.

It’s always kind of difficult for me when I watch a movie that I know is a beloved classic and then I don’t love it. I start thinking “What’s wrong with me? What am I not getting about this movie?” In the case of “Cabaret,” I believe it hasn’t aged well, but I’m somewhat at a loss for why, exactly, the pieces just don’t come together for me.

What’s worse is I can clearly see why “Cabaret” is considered such a groundbreaking musical. Its serious subject matter, realistic incorporation of its musical numbers and risque characters were a far cry from what most movie musicals had been up to that point. The mid-sixties saw the arrival of concert films and music documentaries, but the traditional musical prior to 1972 fell mostly into a few broad categories: The animated feature aimed at children, adaptations of classic Broadway musicals and the pop star vehicle (Elvis movies, the Frankie-and-Annette varieties, etc.).

Though the Broadway-style musicals dabbled in serious content, there’s no denying the general wholesomeness of favorites like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” Even “West Side Story,” with its gang violence and forbidden love, is quite tame (and a little bit weird if you think about it too much) in its movie adaptation. This isn’t, of course, to say films such as these have no lasting appeal; on the contrary, many of them are fine films, some of them are excellent films and a handful are simply glorious. But they are quite moralistic and twee, and the rapidly changing culture of cinema in the late 60s and early 70s could have killed the movie musical.

Enter “Cabaret.” The film, loosely based on the 1966 Broadway musical of the same name, clearly brought with it a complete shift in the perception of what a musical could be and who it could appeal to. Here was a musical for adults, full of intrigue, sexual drama and philosophical themes. Where previously a musical number could break out anywhere at any time, in “Cabaret” all the musical sequences save one take place within the Kit Kat Club and only cabaret performers sing songs (again, with the lone exception). Where before you could be sure of a happy ending, here events were already set; we know the ending is not a happy one, and we feel that the fabricated lives of the characters cannot help but to fall in with the march of history. In fact, it’s more accurate to say “Cabaret” is a musical drama

I was completely floored by how amazing Liza Minnelli's vocal performances are in "Cabaret." She's astounding.

Director Bob Fosse’s bold decisions about the style of the film add to the overall tautness of the story. Much of the it is filmed in low light and with an Expressionistic feel. The Kit Kat Klub sequences, for all their lushness, never are really allowed to maintain the illusion of decadence — the decay always peeks through. The editing is headspinningly quick, leaving the viewer catching up at times. There are no wasted shots, and when the film or the camera slows to a languid pace, it is disarming and usually for good reason.

Outside the Kit Kat Klub, Liza Minnelli’s morally adrift Sally Bowles meanders through her own manic set of adventures. Classic stiff-upper-lip Brit Michael York as Brian Roberts is the perfect foil to her emotional seesaw. Helmut Griem is oily and perfect as the above-morals Eurotrashy Maximilian von Heune. Oh, excuse me, Baron Maximilian von Heune. They are the three main characters, and their story is compelling, but of equal importance to me was the subplot between Fritz Wepper’s Fritz Wendel and Marisa Berenson’s Natalia Landauer. I found it rang a surprisingly true emotional note, and I was disappointed that the couple is pretty much abandoned halfway through the third act.

The music itself is notable on strength of performance. Minnelli’s “Maybe This Time” represents, I believe, the only honest act in the movie. Every other performance, every other line, every other action is a facade. Only in that one lovely, heartbreakingly emotional performance is there honesty. And, true to the film’s bitterness, one person claps. Her final number, “Cabaret,” stands out for just the opposite reason. Her vocals are amazing in the purposeful lack of feeling behind them. Every word is a lie. Sally Bowles knows it, and she is not a good enough actress to maintain the illusion. Minnelli’s performance is simply stunning. The rest of the nightclub musical numbers have a surprisingly sleazy sexuality to them; the dancers are loose and seemingly sloppy, the vocals by Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies are mocking and menacing. What’s shocking isn’t the sex, then, it’s how it’s presented.

The film never lets you forget its historical backdrop. Slyly and slowly the pervasiveness of the Nazi influence weaves its way into the storyline, into the musical numbers, into the settings and finally into the sets themselves. Perhaps much like how it actually happened, by the time the characters (and by extension, the viewers) realize how much the Nazis have taken hold, it is already far too late. Depictions of Nazis in the film run from comedic to chilling and in that order. No early decisions are influenced by the political movement; by the end, it is very much a consideration. The perhaps unintended lesson in “Cabaret” is to not invest so much of yourself into your own pleasures and problems that you fail to notice what’s happening around you. The id-driven characters of “Cabaret” devote themselves to their bohemian lifestyle and are shocked when they discover it has been stolen from them.

This is not, in fact, a complicated love triangle.

So with all this complexity, the great performances, the sense of impending historical doom and the film’s clear place in history, why didn’t I enjoy it more? I have a few theories, the first being that modern audiences are a bit spoiled when it comes to musicals. In the past several years, film musicals have made a bit of a comeback. From the can-can chaos of “Moulin Rouge!” to the heart-wrenching drama of “Rent” to the gory horror of “Sweeney Todd” to the violent sexcapades of “Chicago,” movie-goers are smack in the middle of a modern musical renaissance. “Cabaret” doesn’t have the same freshness it must’ve had to audiences in the 70s simply because it feels somewhat tame in comparison to more recent films, probably much in the same way “The Music Man” felt once “Cabaret” came along.

Its plot points, while still adult in nature, aren’t terribly shocking anymore. Bed-hopping is a mainstay of the practically unavoidable reality television genre, and bisexuality hardly causes gasps. My feeling is that these points may not have been particularly shocking even in the 70s, but I find it difficult to judge what was mainstream then. On the one hand, you had Woodstock, and on the other you have “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” My guess is that much of America was still fairly conservative and that Roberts’ confession that he, too, is sleeping with Maximilian would’ve caused a bigger stir then than it does now.

For all its manic activity, “Cabaret” is fairly slow-moving. Its musical numbers are purposefully not too flashy, and I understand that, but it doesn’t keep them from feeling a little flat at times. (Though when they’re good, they’re amazing.) Minnelli is wonderful and does a fabulous job, but her character’s constant dramatic meltdowns start to wear after a while. When she finally cracks and shows genuine emotion, I was almost too exhausted by the prior 90 minutes’ worth of moaning and wailing to be able to really appreciate the moment. Also, at times the film feels like a series of sketches rather than a cohesive whole, and I have to wonder if some further editing of the story would’ve helped — especially in the frenetic opening third of the film. A lot of plot points are presented that simply go nowhere. They seem to serve as tidbits for character development, but it’s hard to infer what the little asides are supposed to be telling us.

The complaints I have about “Cabaret” are fairly trivial when compared to the lengthy list of things the film gets right. When I think about each of those factors individually, I understand why this film is important and why it is beloved. But when all the pieces come together, I must be honest and admit this film just didn’t captivate me, even if I’m still a bit unsure about why that is. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

Cabaret“: Rated PG. Starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, and Marisa Berenson. Directed by Bob Fosse. Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen with inspiration from stories by Christopher Isherwood, the play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten and the book of the musical play “Cabaret” by Joe Masteroff. Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth. Dancing staged and coordinated by Bob Fosse and Jutta Beil. Original music by John Kander.

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