There is a moment in Cabaret, in my mind the single greatest musical ever made, that sets the film far apart from all other films of the genre. It happens in the second half of the in an outdoor beer garden where Sally, Brian and Max have stopped for refreshment. A beautiful young boy stands up and begins to sing, his face that of an angel, his blonde hair shining in the mid-day sun, his blue eyes almost piercing. His song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is an anthem for the youth, a soaring song about the joy the world holds for the youth of the next generation. The camera slowly pans down from the teenager’s face to reveal that he is a member of the Nazi Brown Shirt Party, and suddenly the mood shifts to something dark and terribly sinister. He becomes obsessed with the song, his passion and voice rising, the people in the outdoor garden joining in singing to the increasingly passionate lyrics, though the elderly decline. We see at once how Hitler seduced Germany, through its youth, through promises of a bright tomorrow and suddenly Cabaret becomes unlike any movie musical ever made.
Of all the genres in film, the musical is my least favorite, though I count this one as one of the greatest films, not musicals, films ever made. No bursting in song in the middle of the Alps, no running through the streets singing songs with no story point at all, but rather an intense dark look at the impact of Nazism on Berlin in 1931 and the effect it would have on the lives of two young lovers from different parts of the world. Brain (Michael York) comes to Berlin to teach English and meets night club singer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) a talented woman who will do anything for success, including sleep her way to the top. He enters into a relationship with Sally which he must know is doomed from the beginning, and they walk a precarious line towards a threesome with a wealthy bi-sexual Max, who has larger eyes for Brian than he does Sally. Finding out that Max and Brian have sletp together Sally is stunned at the betrayal, but far worse more upset at being pregnant and not knowing who the father is. Brian agrees to marry her and raise the child, but Sally unable to leave her dream of being famous, sells her fur coat to pay for an abortion, enraging Brian who leaves her to continue singing her heart out for the audience, now mostly Nazis of the Kit Kat Club.
The film made a star of Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincent Minnelli, earning her an Academy Award for Best Actress and the adoration of film critics around the world for her mesmerizing performance as free-spirited American singer Sally Bowles. Though her career never took off like an Oscar winner’s should, her film career that is, she has remained one of the world’s greatest entertainers and most famous personalities. Sadly she would best known for being Liza than for her work as an actress, which never once even came close to equalling her magnificent performance in this film, easily one of the greatest female performances in film history. Of course the real star of the film was director Bob Fosse, a former dancer turned choreographer turned director who would become one of the most inconic filmmakers of the seventies, each of his films dealing with the foibles of the world of entertaining, including All That Jazz (1979) a scathing self portrait of himself that brilliantly explored his curious dance with death, the self destructive manner in which he led his life, and tapped into the brilliance that lurked in that dark mind. There is something dark and sinister happening in Cabaret, always in the background, and we realize it is the growing presence of the Nazi party, just a few in the bar at the beginning of the film, but by the end they populate nearly the entire bar. Fosse superbly shows what was happening in Berlin at this point in history, often through the music, as the songs sung in the Kit Kat Club each makes an interesting story point, the best being the masterful “Money, Money” tune sung by Minnelli and Joel Grey which has become the film’s most popular scene. Fosse understood decadence, he understood the lurid world of a club such as this, having grown up in them, performing in the them at an early age, and he seemed to have an innate ability to tap into the world that lurked just beneath the surface of what we see.
The dance numbers sway of sex, as the director uses the bodies of the actors in a way not seen before, even managing to hide the fact (for a bit) that some of the female dancers are not female at all!! Watch the manner in which Minnelli’s body moves; the inviting manner she moves her legs, as though inviting us in to a place private and warm, though we know there will be terrible consequences. Fosse’s choreography became synonymous with sex. Joel Grey’s performance as the Master of Ceremonies is a revelation that won the diminutive actor the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Is he the face of evil? Is he the face of Nazism and Hitler? Is he the devil himself, we never really know because not once do we see him out of the pasty white face he wears on stage in his act, nor do we ever see him out of the Club. His haunting ballad, “If You Could See Through My Eyes” in which he dances with a man in a gorilla suit ends with an aside to the audience, “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all” which cuts to the quick. It is a mesmerizing piece of acting, brilliant on so many levels, one wonders how Grey could possibly follow it. Well he could not, he made a handful of films after this, not one any where near the sucess of Cabaret, most of work was onstage.
The film became the the most honored film at the Academy Awards NOT to win Best Picture, grabbing eight Academy Awards over the course of the night, seemingly on course to win Best Picture after Fosse stunned the audience by beating Coppola for Best Director for The Godfather. But it was not to be, the film lost Best Picture, and Fosse’s win to this day seems odd. He became the first director to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony in a single year, and continued his hard living right through to his death in 1987. The film, unlike so many movie musicals, is actually about something, and the director does a marvelous job giving us a portrait of a time when things were on the cusp of change, and the winds that were blwoing that change, were dark storm clouds about to unleash a hell on earth. Cabaret is about the twisted souls who would not be able to help being caught up in something far beyond their realm of understanding, and ours for that matter.
A dark and powerful masterpiece.