Bob Fosse’s ‘Cabaret’ remains culturally and aesthetically significant 40 years later
The TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off tonight with a screening of a restored version of the film that won director Bob Fosse an Academy Award: “Cabaret.” The musical was adapted from the Broadway stage production, which was itself based on John Van Druten's play "I Am a Camera" (a drama inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s book “The Berlin Stories").
As previously discussed in a piece on the strange dance that "The Godfather" engaged in with Oscar, “Cabaret” holds the record for most Academy Awards won by a film which did not win the Best Picture award. Francis Ford Coppola's spin on mafia and the American dream ultimately took the Best Picture prize for the 1972 season, but “Cabaret” won eight of the 10 awards for which it was nominated, including Best Director, Best Actress (Liza Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey).
“People hear ‘Cabaret’ and they think, ‘Oh Christ, it’s a musical about happiness,’” Minnelli said to the LA Times in a recent interview. “It’s not about that at all. It’s about opinions and politics and survival.”
Indeed, “Cabaret” takes place in 1931 during the fading of the German Weimar Republic (the liberal parliamentary representative democracy established in 1919) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Minnelli took on the iconic depiction of Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. The vivid if flighty Bowles strikes up a brief but deeply felt affair with her sexually ambivalent neighbor Brian Roberts (Michael York), a British academic who is temporarily in Germany.
Joel Grey’s Emcee functions both as the club’s master of ceremonies and the film’s thematic narrator. He illustrates the seedy underbelly of the self-indulgent nightlife that Bowles so reveres, as well as the escalating menaces of the Nazi movement.
One of the interesting aspects of the adaptation was the decision to confine the musical numbers to the diagetic environment of the club rather than having the characters spontaneously express themselves in song as the musical does. Fosse has a distinct and remarkable editorial sense and often uses the inherently surreal nature of the stage (including the backstage environment) as a metaphor for both human nature and what is happening in the larger text. His choices in the film were bold and dynamic and account for a large measure of the reason the work still feels relevant. And indeed, Minnelli tells a story in the LA Times interview of Fosse's habit of ripping up studio notes aimed at, what else, honing the film's aesthetic down for general audiences.
"Cabaret" does not address the rise of the Nazi party directly (though Roberts is subject to brutal beating one drunken night), but rather via the public’s response to its members. They are often harassed, mocked or kicked out of the club during the film’s first act, as if they are a joke, a silly group that poses no real threat. Later, a chilling scene depicts a spontaneous call to nationalism when a young Nazi youth sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" amidst a primarily enthused crowd in a beer garden.
It is a moment where Roberts and his wealthy friend Max (who in the world of the film supported the NSDAP as they opposed communism, which would threaten his bloated lifestyle of excess) realize that this is not a group that will be easily controlled. In “Cabaret”’s final scene, the moment in which Minnelli’s Bowles wails the exultant “Life is a Cabaret,” the audience in the club is filled with Nazis who have clearly become the dominant force in Berlin.
Indeed, though the constitution was never officially repealed, “the legal measures taken by the Nazi government in February and March 1933, commonly known as Gleichschaltung ("coordination"), meant that the government could legislate contrary to the constitution,” which marked the true rise of the Third Reich. Thank you Wikipedia.
Take a look at the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” scene for a taste of Fosse’s ability to express more with the right song and shot selection than 10 pages of dialogue would yield. And what is fascinating is how salient the themes present in “Cabaret” feel in today’s world.
It is perhaps not as clearly defined as this, but, Brian Roberts is the camera, the observer taking in what is happening in Berlin, a snapshot of a moment just before the world is irrevocably altered (though he is affected by his environment as well, at least temporarily). He sees all, but ultimately, returns to his own life and does nothing. Sally Bowels and the Emcee are in some ways the mirrors, both the positive and negative images that Roberts is capturing.
The Emcee is eerily sardonic towards the Nazis and yet gleeful, as if the destruction of all he is and represents is something he secretly craves. Sally is optimism, enthusiasm and an attitude of undaunted, if unfocused, momentum. But she is also the Ostrich with her head in the sand of personal ambition and indulgence, ever seeking more and more in terms of material wealth and fame. Bohemian in her dwellings, opulent in her desires, she is willfully oblivious to the danger the Nazis represent and the poverty, ignorance and geopolitical factors (continued humiliation and reparations for the German participation in WWI among them) that are compelling the citizenry to blindly back them. People are disposable toys to Sally as much as she is one to them.
The roar of the 1920s is a fading echo and yet the characters in this film seem woefully out of step with the crushing forward momentum of oppression that is upon them. In their thrill-seeking and sensual distraction, they miss what is unfolding right before them. They belong to yesterday because they will not accept the truth of their present time and that is how tomorrow was claimed by Hitler.
“Does it really matter as long as you’re having fun?” Sally asks. The film answers: “Yes, it matters very much.”
Stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey will be in attendance tonight for a post-screening Q&A at the TCM fest's opening night event, which will be held at the historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Cineastes will be pleased to hear that 78 films will screen over the course of the four-day festival, with appearances from Kim Novak (who caused a bit of a tumult with her comments on “The Artist”’s score last season) and Debbie Reynolds.
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