Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A really good musical about the Nazis.
What did I get? If anything, I underestimated it. Cabaret is a fantastic movie, every bit as good as its reputation. I’ve always had an aversion to Cabaret, its pretensions to seriousness, its apparent reveling in kicky perversity… the whole thing never appealed to me at all. I knew it was about the rise of the Nazis, but it never occurred to me that it could have anything worthwhile to say about the subject. Boy, was I wrong about that.
For one thing, the movie is structured quite differently than I had supposed. I had assumed that the movie was really about the cabaret, the Kit Kat Club, and that the Nazi stuff was essentially local color, albeit of the most world-historical sort. It was about (so I imagined) this sinister and seductive “Emcee,” played by Joel Grey, who, simpering and vamping, lures Sally Bowles, full of the inexplicable hopes common to starlets, into some den of iniquity — prostitution, drugs, or something. Nothing could be further from the truth. What makes the movie so fascinating and original is that it’s really a straight drama about Nazi Germany, studded with these musical numbers, all of which (with one very notable exception) take place at the club, which properly speaking has little to do with the plot at all. Nothing of any importance ever takes place in the club, except the musical numbers, which are there to comment on the drama and (while we’re at it) chillingly remind us of the tragedy inherent in the eventual fate of these supposedly “worldly” and “naughty” and “knowing” Weimar scenesters, all of whom turned out to be as woefully naive as everyone else — innocent, even. Now that is a mean trick for a mere “musical” to pull off.
If the whole idea of Grey’s “Emcee” repelled me, so too Liza. The very qualities that make her so effective as Sally and that cemented her star status — a certain overripe vulgarity, shall we say — are not ones that appeal to me much, and in all honesty they still don’t. But she is very well cast in Cabaret, and she did a terrific job. It sort of bugs me that “Sally Bowles” is such an ineffably British name, they so clearly altered her nationality to suit Minnelli’s abilities. But it’s not important, she’s excellent in the role. Given that I don’t instinctively like Sally or the Emcee, I suppose I identify with the diffident, intellectual Brian (Michael York).
Cabaret is the most mature and probing musical I have ever seen, by far, and the best demonstration of this is the beer garden scene. As I said earlier, all of the musical numbers but one are almost hermetically sealed within the Kit Kat Club, the poison in their satiric barbs powerless in the face of History, capital H and all. But one song does not happen in the club and is not orchestrated by the Emcee. It’s a small scene, in a way, but so powerful — Liza and her pals, out in the German countryside, devil-may-care, stop in at a moderately crowded beer garden. It’s a lazy weekend afternoon, and plenty of beer and Schweinsbraten (or something) has already been consumed. A fresh-faced young man rises and begins to sing what is clearly a German Volkslied of some sort — mind you, given that this is an American movie, he’s singing in English. The song is lovely, and unmistakably German (even as sung in English), and appropriately stirring, and eventually it coalesces into the sinister (under the circumstances) refrain “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” By song’s end, every patron in the garden (except for our protagonists) is standing and singing along, in beautiful, chilling harmony. The young man is finally revealed as a member of Hitler Youth, and he caps the song off with a Heil Hitler salute.
Let me say: my name is Schneider, my father came from Swiss stock, my mother was born in Austria, during the war. I myself have lived in Austria, been to Mitteleuropa countless times. I visited Austria just a few months ago. To say that I’ve given the German identity some thought would be putting it mildly, and I likewise have noticed the American tendency to lampoon German-ness, to make a stock villian of warlike or humorless Germans, to imply that somehow the Nazi era explains everything one needs to know about Germany. I’m not crazy about these simplifications, often meant humorously. And yet (to say the least) events have certainly established that there is plenty of proximate cause for such broad, even crass dismissals of Germans, Germany, German-ness.
Having said all of that, I must now assert that I have never seen an American movie address the question of what exactly was behind the rise of the Nazis with as much intelligence and delicacy as Cabaret, especially in that exquisite beer garden scene. It would have been so easy, so crowd-pleasing, to depict ordinary Germans of the 1930s as the stock villains we all know them to be — but Cabaret doesn’t go that route. Instead, it tries, honestly, bravely, ambitiously, to depict the positive, attractive pull the Nazi ethos must have had on ordinary Germans. As I said earlier, for a “musical” to attempt such a feat — it floors me. Bravo.
Even on its own natural terrain, in the relationship between Sally and Brian, the final scenes show precisely the same maturity, frankness, and intelligence, so seldom seen in American movies, or any movies for that matter. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the movie never stops treating Brian and Sally as fully rounded human beings, attempting quite successfully to depict what they would actually do, if they existed, as opposed to “movie characters” who are required by the plot to do this or that.
In an odd way, Cabaret has some striking similarities to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Surely someone’s commented on this before, it’s so obvious. Both movies are set in the early 1930s, albeit in very different locations. Both movies feature a vaguely sinister emcee figure. In both the songs are an ironic comment on the drama, which touches on the desperate yearnings of ordinary folks in hard times. Just real similar, somehow. In my view, Cabaret shows up the flaws of Horses, its oversimplified, haranguing picture of human nature. Which isn’t a knock on Horses, it’s a terrific movie too, it’s just a bit obvious sometimes. Cabaret, on the other hand, never lacks for nuance.
What here smacks of 1972? Fosse’s choreography — indeed, his sensibility.
IMDB score: 7.8
My score: 10
Director: Bob Fosse
Writer: Jay Presson Allen
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
IMDB synopsis: Sally Bowles, an American singer in 1930s Berlin, fall in love with bi-sexual Brian. They are both then seduced by Max, a rich playboy. Sally becomes pregnant, and Brian offers to marry her… All the characters are linked by the Kit-Kat club, a nightspot where Sally sings.