Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Return of Christopher Isherwood, Part 2: "Cabaret" Re-Visited

I saw "Cabaret" for the first time in a crowded suburban Chicago theater in May of my high-school freshman year.  I was then an aspiring film critic and moviemaker, and had just read Pauline Kael's stellar review of the film in the school library's copy of The New Yorker.  I was excited to have the chance to see it on a week night, after which the following day I could tell all my school mates about the experience.  I remember feeling unusually exhilarated as the film unfolded, drinking in the intoxicating color and framing, camera movement, rhythms, mise-en-scene,  musical numbers, and jarring editing effects.  I had never seen anything like it before; and years later, I still can't compare it to anything else.

What I wasn't prepared for was the subject matter and how deeply it would affect me, creatively, and also emotionally. I didn't know then who Christopher Isherwood was, other than a name in the credits on whose material the movie was based. But it was the essence of Isherwood and his experiences as a young gay man in pre-Nazi Berlin circa 1931, that linger to this day.

An aura of menace pervades the film, lending it the excitement of things taboo; I was seduced by an atmosphere of forbidden desires, confronted by images from the depths of imagination, and I witnessed the violence and decadence I had only studied in the abstract. Much as I had a certain budding sophistication about film, I was certainly not prepared for these elements in a "movie musical" (memories of "The Sound of Music" and "Fiddler on the Roof", which treated the same subject matter in tangential ways, were still too fresh in my mind).  My still-delicate adolescent sensibilities were gripped in an almost suffocating vice of emotion. 

"Cabaret" is best described as a drama with music, a serious, heavy work, not the kind of sparkling musical film that Hollywood had done before and audiences were prepared to expect.  It was directed with consummate style by Bob Fosse, who quietly, expertly manipulated the audience's expectations in his crafting of the story of  Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American cabaret singer in Berlin, her relationship with a British bisexual writer (Isherwood's alter ego, played by Michael York), and their undoing at the hands of a seductive baron (Helmut Griem);  all this in an atmosphere of chilling political oppression that few bothered to pay attention to.  Even more effectively, Fosse let us glimpse the tawdry world of show business he knew so well .  With the help of his technicians and designers, musicians and performers, all of them at the height of their creative powers, Fosse re-created a world that holds up amazingly well almost 40 years later, with a meticulous attention to detail that makes the picture almost obscenely alive.

I recognized myself in the character of Brian Roberts (Michael York) but it was too threatening to admit this to myself during my early viewings.  Actually, that was not the real attraction  of "Cabaret" for me at the time; it was the style of the filmmaking and the images, often too potent, that brought me back time and again.  Take almost any frame from this film, and it could rightfully be displayed in a gallery. Students of serious filmmaking would do well to analyze "Cabaret" even now.

It reworks the material of the Broadway musical, bringing it closer to the source material, and drops some central characters, while Jay Presson Allen's screenplay invents new ones for dramatic effect (Marisa Berenson's Baroness and Helmut Berger's Fritz, in a poignant backstory of a Jewish couple whose budding romance is almost doomed).  The script strips the story of all artifice, except for one remarkable device: the character of the Emcee, played to perfection by the unforgettable Joel Grey.  In death's-head makeup and lewd sneer, he addresses us directly, grinning at us in ironic glee as he implicates us in the political evil that unfolds around him (and us).

The film's non-musical sequences are compelling and emotional without the heavy sentiment that burdens many musicals.  But it is the astonishing musical numbers, played on the stage (with one frightening exception), that I remember most.  The camera moves in rhythm and counterpoint to the movement of the characters....the horrors occurring on the streets of Berlin are intercut for punctuation, or irony....shots are inserted for shock effect, bringing the message eloquently the lyrics of the songs become progressively, more pointedly political.  "Willkommen", "Mein Herr", "Two Ladies", "Money Money", and "If You Could See Her" are minor masterpieces in their own right.  Echoes of Weimar-period paintings, Marlene Dietrich and "The Blue Angel", and the tunes of Kurt Weill lend the film a period authenticity.

The only number not performed on stage was the Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me", which begins as an innocent ballad sung by a dreamy young man in a beer garden who, it is soon revealed, is one of the new Hitler Youth.  The number builds in intensity, suddenly interrupted by a brief, jarring insert of Grey's Emcee, nodding at us as if to underline the apathy that opened the door to the growing catastrophe.  The scene is edited to perfection, and never fails to stop the show.

Perhaps one thing that made "Cabaret" a lasting favorite of mine was, ultimately, it's clear-eyed and matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transvestitism.  There are some critics who interpreted this aspect of the story as a signal of the breakdown of morality which opened the door to totalitarianism; but they are, I think, greatly mistaken.  It was the exaggerated attention paid to sexuality in general, of any kind, and an air of forced frivolity, that contributed to the people's uncaring ignorance of the growing political horror around them.

In terms of the story, the baby that Sally carries, not knowing who the father is, could well represent the infancy of a cataclysmic event that affected millions.  One of the most interesting lines in the film, in which we have just witnessed the effects of  burgeoning anti-semitism, is Sally's assertion that "it's probably the most significant baby the world has ever known---since Jesus!".  The story has a bittersweet ending, and Sally's final number, the famous title song in which she declares that "life is a cabaret", has never seemed more wistful, more desperate.  And I can't speak highly enough of Liza Minnelli's energy and unique vulnerability.  Her Sally Bowles is a modern movie icon, and her huge talent, maybe outsized for the character, is needed to put the character over, and her performance, for me, works.  I can't imagine the film without her.

As I look at "Cabaret" today, years later, and after countless screenings, I am aware of two things.  First, I still manage to see something new each once again to Fosse and his crew for insisting on authentic and sumptuous detail (for example, as the film begins and Brian (York) departs the train to Berlin, I caught a glimpse of a dachshund on a walk.....)  Second, I am more troubled by the subject matter and images than I ever was; the exhilaration of the filmmaking is still strong, but I am even more astonished by the maturity and honesty of the world that is created.  This film looks away at nothing.

This is a masterpiece......and it all began from the mind--and pen--of Christopher Isherwood.

For trivia--and Oscar--buffs: "Cabaret" has the dubious distinction of having won more Oscars (8) than any other film that did NOT go on to win Best Picture.  (That year, 1972, it was "The Godfather").


  1. Do you agree with Chris's suggestion (below) that Liza Minnelli is too good for the role?

    In my opinion he's got a point, she is a fantastic singer and relaxed performer, there's little to suggest in the way she holds the stage that she couldn't go on to make it.

    Or maybe Fosse is pointing out that show business is a tough arena, where even great singers are doomed to stay in dingy nightclubs.

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. Runs...

    First of all, it is great to have you visit, and comment. Thank you!

    I have struggled with this same idea, and critics have discussed this too. Honestly, Liza is probably too talented for the role...and I think Fosse would have agreed that true talent often goes unrecognized, even by the performers themselves, especially in an atmosphere of hedonism in which other satisfactions stifle ambition...

    And yet, I loved her so much in the role, that it really worked for me... You inspired me to add a sentence to my post in this regard.

    It was a tricky balance, but I think Minnelli and Fosse pull it off....I'd love to read your review of "Cabaret."

  3. Tom, yet another fascinating narrative about a very special film. It has been some time since I have seen this last, so I may have to have another look at it and pay attention to the subtleties of the film that obviously escaped me before! Great post!