American cabaret singer Sally Bowles meets Englishman Brian Roberts in 1931 Berlin where they begin a tumultuous relationship as the Nazi Party begins to rise.
WON 8 OSCARS – Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Lead Role, Art Direction, Cinematography, Director, Editing, Music and Sound.
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“Does it really matter so long as you're having fun?”
From a river of smoke and liquid colour emerges the Emcee, impish and slightly grotesque. “In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful!” he tells the audience. Wilkommen im cabaret.
Released in 1972 and garnering eight Oscar wins, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s book The Berlin Stories and the 1966 Broadway musical by Kander and Ebb. The film follows American cabaret singer Sally Bowles (the electric Liza Minnelli) who performs at the downtown Kit Kat Klub. She befriends Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) and they begin a relationship that is both exciting and doomed. As they attempt to experience a care-free lifestyle, a dangerous political party rises in Berlin, slowly affecting their lives and the people they know.
From the very first scene at the Kit Kat Klub, the audience is invited into a world of fun, exposing the underlying darkness on and off the stage. 1930’s Berlin comes to life with the smoke filled rooms, darkly lit streets, gaudy make-up and skimpy costumes. Sally explains the rules: “Divine decadence darling!” She wears sexy clothes and paints her nails bold colors. The Emcee (the astonishing Joel Grey), slides from comically refined in a suit, to smutty in burlesque drag. These shiny images are then shown in stark comparison to the boy-scout type uniforms of the Nazi party members, growing in numbers around the city.
Sally’s need for money and fame creates a rift in her relationship with Brian when she meets a rich, young German gentleman, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). The situation gets stickier as Maximilian and Brian begin sleeping together as well. A scene where they all dance in a boozy haze while the camera lingers on their faces is remarkable; revealing the emotions they try so hard to hide. When Maximilian leaves them both abruptly, Sally and Brian are left to deal with their crumbling relationship.
Contrasting this relationship is the union of Fritz (Fritz Wendel) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson), who meet when Brian tutors them in English. Smitten by Natalia, Fritz attempts to woo her but comes across a major obstacle. “I’m a Jew. And you are not,” she tells him. By the end of the story, this couple shows growth whereas Sally and Brian are forced to realize how wrong they are for each other.
True to form, Fosse creates amazing musical narratives that are stylized and provocative. Showcasing his genius for blocking, angles and movement, the performances are filled with energy, sex and emotion. Only two cast members sing in the film, Minnelli and Grey, and it works for the story. The Emcee is a dark, all-knowing figure whereas Sally is constantly juggling her carefree stage persona with the broken, lonely woman she refuses to face. Minnelli’s singing and dancing skills are stunning, especially in the performance of Mein Herr; revealing a sexy confidence that Sally can’t seem to completely find in her off-stage life. Joel Grey, reprising his role from Broadway, is disturbing, comical and hypnotic. It’s hard to look away when he’s on screen.
The musical numbers in this film are particularly effective as they are confined to the Kit Klub Klub, except for one. Characters don’t burst into song during a scene, instead performing on stage, in the skin of various personas. Fosse displays brilliant timing, inserting the songs to show the fear and uneasiness that is slowly creeping up around the city. The editing of the musical numbers with the scenes of dialogue is beautifully done; emphasizing or contrasting the scene prior to the performance. Fosse chooses to show scenes of exciting flurry then directly cuts to stylized tableaus of bloodied bodies on the street. Scenes cut abruptly to stage performances or an eerie Emcee grinning as if he knows exactly what a character is thinking. Nothing is ever blatant but slowly rises like cigarette smoke, choking the viewer with desperation disguised in exuberance.
Cabaret is a visually gorgeous film, combining art, film noir, and burlesque to tell an evocative story. With stellar performances, amazing songs and subtle images, this film depicts a particular time in history while remaining a timeless work of art.