Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Classic Film Review: Cabaret (1972)

CABARET (1972)
Directed By: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem and Joel Grey

I've been a fan of big, bold musicals since I was first introduced, as a young child, to Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1956) with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Since then, I've loved musicals with vibrant colour, powerful voices and a side order of melodrama and sentimentality. That being said, Cabaret is no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. 

American cabaret star, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), is living in Berlin in 1931, right in the middle of the growing prominence and popularity of the Nazi Party. Completely oblivious of the social and political ramifications of the rise of Nazism, Sally engages in romances with two men, Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) and German millionaire Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). 

There are no hills that come alive, no flight from Nazis in the cover of darkness, nor any singing nuns to portray the social upheavals of Nazism. Cabaret is a much darker musical than The Sound of Music: although both are set during the Weimar Republic era, that is where the similarities end. The former film never lets you forget the dire situation of mankind under Nazism while the latter has the tendency to move away from issues when they get too heavy, instead focusing on a governess and her large brood of children.

Right from the start, we are introduced to the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, who deservedly won Best Supporting Actor for his performance). The opening number, "Willkomen", is dark and grimy, with a Lynchian nightmare quality to it (a la Blue Velvet and the famous "In Dreams" musical interlude). The diminutive Master of Ceremonies sets up the tone and overall atmosphere of Bob Fosse's film; introducing the zombie-like cabaret girls individually and prancing around the stage like a madman. His message? Inside, life is a cabaret.

This was my first Fosse film. I'd heard the name, however, I never really associated it with anything in particular. His vision for Cabaret is appropriately bleak, with a strange circus-like quality that parallels the dark, frantic upward mobility of Nazism. The choreography is amongst some of the best I've seen in a musical adaptation. Adding to the excellence of the dance routines and musical numbers is the camera-work. It gets right in the middle of it all, as though a part of the dance sequences. Great choices are made in terms of interspersing the songs being performed at the Kit Kat cabaret with scenes of violence on the streets of Berlin. 

Society is in a state of flux. Inappropriate behaviour is found in political, social and sexual spheres, all of which is appealing to young Sally and her desire for fame and the breaking down of sexual barriers. Her instant attraction to Brian is doomed from the start, despite many valiant attempts on her part, as Brian prefers the company of men. In a twisted effort to make Brian jealous, while satisfying her own sexual cravings and desire for fame, Sally brings in Maximilian. Both Sally and Brian are drawn to the German millionaire, and he to both of them in turn, resulting in an inevitably doomed love triangle. Consumed by her own selfish desire for success, Sally will do what she has to do in order to ensure her wealth and fame. 

As all this drama surrounding Sally plays out, it is all mirrored in the performances at the Kit Kat cabaret, led by the Master of Ceremonies: the love triangle is reflected in the song, "Two Ladies" and the romance between two secondary Jewish characters, Natalia and Fritz, is portrayed in the medley, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes", among others. 

Liza Minnelli is a powerhouse of a performer and it's hard to imagine anyone else filling her  (Oscar-winning) shoes. She contrasts Sally's naivety with confident and sensual cabaret performances. My personal favourite was "Maybe This Time ", an anthem for that feeling of excitement when someone new enters your life. Minnelli owns the stage with both her presence and her vocal work. Minnelli manages to make what could have been an otherwise selfish heroine into a flawed, but likeable, human being.

Michael York (who was impossibly beautiful in his younger days) makes Brian a vulnerable man the audience can root for, whether you feel sympathy over his guilt for not doing his part in stopping the rise of Nazism or his confusion over his sexual orientation. 

However, both Minnelli and York are in danger of being completely overshadowed by the incomparable Joel Grey, who pretty much steals the film right out from under the two main stars. His Master of Ceremonies (pictured above) is hilarious, creepy and playful, all at once. He even manages to inject pathos into his characterization, which is a testament to the talent of Grey. The man can sing, dance and doesn't look all that bad dressed in drag. The man is naturally gifted performer.

The themes of decadence and unrealized dreams are at the core of Cabaret. The misunderstood threat of Nazism at the time is well-portrayed, illustrating what can ultimately happen when good man stand by and do nothing when something evil is on the rise. The tension and changing attitudes of the time is perfectly captured. 

Cabaret is unique and dark film. It deserves its place on the list of classic Hollywood musicals.