‘Cabaret’ at 50 – Review

Cabaret (1972)
Director: Bob Fosse
Screenwriter: Jay Allen
With: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson, Elisabeth Neumann-Viertel, Helen Vita

When it made its stage debut in the late 1960s, “Cabaret” resembled (aside from historically rooted subject matter) many other musicals in its style. That changed with Liza Minnelli’s film adaptation of famed choreographer Bob Fosse and the groundbreaking decision to confine her musical sequences to the stage and thus introduce an element of realism into the most unreal cinematic genres. 50 years later, has this iconic Oscar winner stood the test of time? Leave your troubles out while we explore this. Willkommen…

1931, Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a struggling American singer at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, meets equally struggling gay English writer Brian Roberts (Michael York) when he moves into the super-cheap boarding house she rents and begins to give English lessons. As their friendship develops rapidly, the stories of shady wealthy aristocrat Maximilian (Helmut Griem) and two of Brian’s students, Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson), intertwine with theirs as the party’s unstoppable rise Nazi looms on the horizon of Germany. .

Bob Fosse’s film places much of the story on Sally de Minnelli’s emotional turmoil and omits some of the show’s supporting cast in her favor; this is in addition to Cliff Bradshaw’s character being anglicized as Brian Roberts in the film (just as Sally was Americanized), although their respective character arcs remain largely unchanged. The original musical’s main subplot involving a doomed romance between a kindly Jewish fruit seller and a German landlady is also replaced by the doomed relationship between a young German couple who are both Jews (the one of them posing as a Protestant) in the film. .

Fosse’s Cabaret is notable for his distinctive dance choreography and for having staged all but one of his many musical numbers on the Kit Kat Klub stage, telling the rest of the story in standard narrative dramatic form.

The show’s rolling snare drum intro and ominous cymbal outro along with all of its most famous songs – such as “Willkommen” and “Money” – are most memorable here, and while fans of the The musical might miss ditties like Fraulein Schneider’s mighty “So what?”, new additions like “Mein Herr” and Minnelli’s magnum opus “Maybe This Time” fit right in.

The poignant tonal turn of the film, which was previously quite understated and feels good, comes about two-thirds of the way through in a country tavern on a spring day as a golden-haired teenager begins to sing in an angelic voice. As “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” gathers momentum and many onlookers join in passionately, even fanatically, the camera reveals the boy to be a member of the Hitler Youth and the song an impromptu Nazi rally, its bucolic lyrics and folkloric taking on far more sinister implications and a timely reminder of how dangerous ideas are and how quickly evil can set in. Here Brian sarcastically asks Maximilian, who had previously dismissed the Nazis as a powerless gang, “Do you still think you can control them?” before they make a hasty exit.

The film’s most striking adaptation choice (besides leaving the musical elements of the musical to the Kit Kat) is how the iconography and acts of incoming Nazism gradually seep into the fabric of the film as black mold, first as a wink and you’ll-miss-them change lifestyle. Before we know it, they’ve even entered the rowdy sanctuary for naughty fun that is the Kit Kat Klub for the film’s final scenes.

The Kit Kat itself is designed as a den of depravity, a full dive that caters to all tastes to deliver a cheap and risky night of thrills. Just look at how the host brazenly presents Kit Kat cabaret girls as a commodity to their audience: “all virgins.” Often musicals set in an earlier period are tempted to make things brighter and more impactful for cinema, but Cabaret keeps things cramped and dirty and inhabited, cluttered with abused souls just getting by. This commitment to a gritty aesthetic heightens the drama.

The depiction of the emcee (master of ceremonies) character varies widely across different adaptations. He is our host, interacts with the audience, plays alongside Sally, and provides commentary on key story events. He often appears omnipotent, even supernatural, and fully aware of his (and Germany’s) tumultuous future as much as the audience watching him. He’s generally campy, flamboyant, and assumed to be (for the period) sexually deviant. Joel Grey’s take on the character in the film version is chilling, his face looks like a maniacal ventriloquist dummy, but likable enough, while in the various scene reshoots actors like Alan Cumming, Will Young and Eddie Redmayne have unleashed very different character builds on the audience. from over-compensating innocents, to tormented collaborators and grotesque demons.

As good as Michael York and most of the supporting cast are, this is absolutely Liza Minnelli’s show. Her performance is one of the most deserving Best Actress Oscars of all time. Whether passionately onstage or indulging in Sally’s more immature and mischievous side, or even exploring her many eccentricities and vulnerabilities in domestic scenes, she excels.

Cabaret remains the benchmark for grounded, diegetic musical films, capturing time, place and culture at a turning point in history and drawing you into the lives of fascinating characters with a series of jaw-dropping tunes. Woe betide anyone who finds themselves behind the inevitable remake. Auf Wiedersehen…


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