Movie Review: Cabaret (1972, starring Liza Minnelli, dir. by Bob Fosse)

Note: While this blog was originally intended to focus solely on books (book reviews and writing advice), I’ve decided to broaden the scope to storytelling in general.

I can’t get “Cabaret” out of my head.

Let’s rewind a second. Back in high school, I used to write a weekly movie review column with Scott*, and for the most part, we were pretty much on the same page for the vast majority of movies we saw. More recently, we’ve been going through the AFI Top 100 movies list, and we’ve been talking about the ones we’ve seen so far. Our opinions are generally the same these days.

When it came to “Cabaret,” a movie I hadn’t seen yet, he told me he didn’t like it. At all. Too much focus on personal drama and Liza Minnelli’s vaudeville performance grated. Given that we’ve been pretty much identical with our views, I expected to come out hating the movie when I finally watched it.

Instead, I loved it.

The opening sequence, a slightly disturbing performance from Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (and featuring the introduction of the surprisingly hot Michael York) was unsettling. The cuts to those wax-like audience members, and the jarringly unemotional and un-seductive appearance of the Kit Kat Girls, was not at all what I expected, and the movie only grew more interesting from there.

Throughout the movie, there are quick, seemingly random asides that focus on life in pre-Nazi Berlin. Those snippets, as well as a minor subplot featuring secondary characters and two certain songs (more on those later), show the rise of Hitler’s Germany. Yes, there was Liza as Sally Bowles in all her vaudeville glory, and there were overdramatic proclamations of love and lust and angst and personal issues, and the main characters are self-absorbed narcissists. But those two themes are not disconnected.

If those little asides (and subplot/songs) weren’t there, then I’d be inclined to agree with Scott, that the movie focused too much on personal drama to no effect. But because of those little asides, “Cabaret” turns out to be much darker, much more cynical, and pessimistic than I expected. See, all that personal drama is the point – it’s the subtle message that while Liza and Michael York’s characters of Sally and Brian are wrapped up in their own lives, there’s something much bigger, something much uglier, that’s rising and threatening their world, if only they’d take the time to notice and do something about it.

When I looked up who wrote the music, I realized why this felt a little familiar.

Kander and Ebb pulled off this same trick in spectacular fashion in another production, “Chicago.” That play, and movie, is a deeply cynical look at the nature of celebrity worship in America, about how a person can literally get away with murder and be celebrated for it, if they just make the audience laugh. Sure, tap your toes while listening to “All That Jazz” or “Cell Block Tango” but pay attention, and you’ll realize that Kander and Ebb are showcasing our darkest whims and making us cheer.

Take “Money,” for example. It’s catchy as hell, and it got stuck in my head for days, but what a deeply cynical message this is. To the Master of Ceremonies and Sally, it’s not love, it’s not human kindness, it’s not empathy or decency or charity that moves the world – it’s money. Cold, hard cash. For all of Sally’s declarations that she wants to be a big movie star, and for all the Master of Ceremonies’ enthusiastic celebrations of having a good time (read: sex and booze), they’re driven by nothing more than simple greed. Sally’s ardent pursuit of a wealthy Baron underscores this point.

And all the while, outside the Kit Kat Club, there’s an uprising going on. The tide of hatred and antisemitism is creeping over Berlin, casting a shadow the main characters can’t see, because they’re too busy focused on drinking, lovemaking, and chasing money – they’re too self-absorbed to be any other way. And even those who are aware of the rise of Nazism (like the Baron) are deeply underestimating its potency – flippantly dismissing the Brownshirts as a tool to be used against Communists.

Besides the aforementioned snippets, there’s also the storyline featuring secondary characters Natalia and Fritz, who are Jewish, and are suffering the effects of the rise of the Nazis (graffiti, the murder of a pet). The Master of Ceremonies also performs “If You Could See Her,” a meta performance describing his romance with a gorilla, a not-so-subtle allusion to how the Nazi propaganda machine depicts Jews as subhuman creatures. Like everything else Joel Grey does in this movie, it’s unsettling and disturbing.

The point is that none of these things are in there by accident, and one of the strengths of “Cabaret” is the knowledge of what’s in store for Nazi Germany, the fact that tens of millions of people are going to die, many of them horribly, and usher in a bleak era of suffering, pain, and destruction, and if only our main characters could just open their  eyes and look at what’s going on around them, maybe, just maybe, something could have been done to stop all of this. Instead, they’re too busy navel-gazing and worrying about their own problems, their own drama.

But even when they are reminded of how things are going outside the Kit Kat Club, it’s probably too late, as this gut-punch of a scene shows. “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is the masterpiece of this movie. The only song set outside of the Kit Kat Club, in a bucolic beer garden drenched in sunshine, it’s a brightly lit, optimistic scene that’s sinister only because of the viewer’s knowledge of what comes after (and, of course, because of Joel Grey’s knowing, chilling smirk at the very end). It’s a breathtaking scene, precisely because of what it doesn’t contain – it doesn’t contain any sign of things to come, but the horrors are all there in the viewer’s mind. And that’s enough to make this scene one of the most potent in movie history.

As Michael York’s character, Brian, leaves, he asks the Baron, “Do you still think you can control them?” Already, there are hints that the world is spinning beyond their control, but with a shrug, they simply drive away. Only Joel Grey is there to remind you that the bright, sunny scene is a harbinger for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Like “Chicago,” “Cabaret” has some great music in it, and some over-the-top performances. They’re both awash in booze, blood, and sex, but both movies are deeply cynical and dark. In the case of “Chicago,” it’s a critique of celebrity culture. In “Cabaret,” it’s a reminder that no matter how indulgent or decadent the times seem, there’s a world outside the Kit Kat Club that’s on the verge of crashing down on them and wiping the stage clean, shutting it down in an instant – a foregone conclusion that might not have been so foregone after all. It’s a theatrical sleight of hand, and it’s only the viewer’s knowledge of history that allows us to look past the razzle dazzle to see the true heart of “Cabaret,” that it’s not really about Sally Bowles trying to have a good time, but whether the course of history itself could have been nudged ever so slightly in a different direction if any of our characters were a little less self-absorbed. As Sally sings in the titular song:

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom?
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum!

In the end, the whole point of this movie is that life is not a cabaret, old chum. None of the main characters understood this, at least, not until it was far too late. And that is the real tragedy behind the movie.

* Scott, by the way, has a terrific blog himself, called ReelHeartWork. He’s an aortic dissection survivor and has been doing a lot of soul-searching since. He’s also a storyteller, and talks a lot about movies too. You should give his blog a visit.

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