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.
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 home....as 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.
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 time....credit 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").