Life's a ... Cabaret

Cabaret (1972, USA, 128 mins)

Source: Chapel Films Prod. Company: AA-ABC Prod: Cy Feuer Dir: Bob Fosse Scr: Jay Presson Allen, Hugh Wheeler based the Broadway musical from John van Druten’s play I am a Camera Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth Editor: David Bretherton Art Director: Rolf Zehetbauer, Jurgen Kiebach Music: John Kander, Fred Ebb

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson

“A great movie musical. Taking its form from political cabaret, it’s a satire of temptations. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy; yet we also see the animal energy in it – everything seems to become sexualized. The movie does not exploit decadence; rather, it gives it its due.”

– Pauline Kael (1)

“If the Germans [on location in 1971] were reticent about the past, it only made [Bob] Fosse more persistent in his efforts to reclaim it. He and [Liza] Minnelli visited several places on the Reepersbahn, where they watched lesbians mud-wrestling and live pornographic sex shows. In Bavaria, they made a frightening discovery when they were told about a group of neo-Nazis. The strange juxtaposition of rampant sex and fascism was too tempting for Fosse to resist; it was, after all, the core of Cabaret.”

– Kevin Boyd Grubb (2)

“Outside it is windy. But here it is so hot! Every night we have the battle to keep the girls from taking off all their clothing. So, don’t worry! Who knows? Tonight we may lose the battle!.”

– MC (Joel Grey) in Cabaret

Within a couple of years of my seeing Bob Fosse’s filmusical Cabaret (no less than seven times within two months following its city release) I can remember a dear, darling lesbian chum (and fan of the film) turning to me at some druggy, drunken dinner party and proclaiming, amidst post-prandial debris, in slurred tones from the side of her slightly older-and-maybe-wiser-than-me mouth, “There are only two kinds of people in this world, Peter. The corrupt and the corruptible.” This same loveable good-timesy companion would adamantly insist on not doing any damned social thing unless she deemed it or the proposed participants to be sufficiently ‘festive,’ as in “But will it be festive?” or “Is X, Y or Z a very festive person?” So, for me, first and foremost, Cabaret, which was promoted as a “divinely decadent experience”, is primarily a festive one, a cynically festive foray across the politico-personal heights and depths of human corruptibility. It’s movies like Cabaret that can, for certain people at impressionable ages (I was eighteen), both rescue and ruin you, both ravish and ravage you for life, which is, after all, a cabaret (old chum).

But even by that stage, in the early 1970s, the budding cinephile in me had already viewed, thanks to film societies and university screening groups, a bit of Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Ophuls and Welles. All of them stylish, worldly recorders of passionate, susceptible folly. Surely enough of these masters to be able to look past and see through the somewhat manipulative conceits, the rather over-stated mechanics of upstart, theatre-trained, non-auteur Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, a musical revamping of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories by way of John Van Druten’s filmed stage version of the same, I Am a Camera (1955). Some of my (again older and supposedly wiser) film buff friends poo-pooed the very idea of any film which set out to reflect and juxtapose the social currents of 1931 Weimar Germany with the cramped, tatty milieu of a Berlin nightspot (the Kit Kat Klub) where can-canning chorus girls turn into goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and where a giant female gorilla dressed up in taffeta performs as a metaphor for persecuted Jewry. What’s there in Cabaret that you don’t already ‘get’ in To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Blue Angel (1930), La Ronde (1950) or The Lady From Shanghai (1948)? (Not to mention Billy Wilder!) What does Fosse’s singing ‘n’ dancing pseudo-Brechtian microcosmos have over these other perhaps more subtly suggestive, equally engaging, more complex studies of sense and sensuality?

Well, Cabaret has (for this filmusical fan) a lot more singing ‘n’ dancing. The metallic, razor-edged lyrics and music of Fred Ebb and John Kander were adapted (and re-orchestrated by Ralph Burns) from their 1966 hit Broadway show with almost half the original material jettisoned in favour of three new punchily perfect pieces: “Mein Herr”, “Maybe This Time”, and “Money, Money”, each of these added beauties contributing to the narrative’s overriding, infectious mood of fickle, live-for-the-moment, bitter-sweet desperation. The score’s corrosive stream of pertly apposite, quite jauntily hummable songs are matched, often eclipsed, by choreographer-director Fosse’s dazzling, daring, always dynamic dances. The boldly distinctive Fosse signature weaves and underwrites its sinuous way throughout Cabaret‘s amazing array of numbers. The ‘amoeba’ groupings in the opening “Wilkommen” routine; the brilliant bits of business with sloping chairs and floor-slapping hands in “Mein Herr”; the frisky, frenetic play with a tablecloth/bedspread in “Two Ladies”; the erogenously charged fetishization of juggling breasts and jiggling balls in the shimmying, delirious “Money, Money”; the ever-so-dainty courtliness and gentility of gestures that underscore the gleeful nastiness of “If You Could See Her”. Angular corporeality, staccato pacing, comic-book stylization, ferocious thrust, contorted attack, what dance critic Arlene Croce calls his “narcissistic display and slithering innuendo”, all these make Fosse’s choreographic vision and its pulsating realization possibly the one indelible after-effect of Cabaret which you just can’t shake. (3)

Also indelibly unshakeable are two absolutely remarkable performances. In spite of the institutionalised caricature of herself which she later became, Liza Minnelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles, the young-ish American entertainer hoping to break out of the Kit Kat Klub’s squalid arena and make it big time as a UFA movie star, is an inspired symphony of faltering laughter, eager gasps, sniffling tears of insecurity and self-doubt, loud squawks of assertion and a bellowing belter of a voice when it comes to delivering her big ballads. Plucked up in the prime of her burgeoning perfomative talent, Minnelli’s wonderfully wide-eyed gamin is a tour-de-force, exuding the kind of raw emotionalism we’d associate with merging the ever-present ghost of her mother, Judy Garland, and the sing-and-shout-it-like-it-is gutsiness of rock diva, Janis Joplin. In the annals of memorable female leads in filmusicals, this superbly driven, always ‘on’ performance is right up there in the pantheon alongside Garland’s Vicki Lester in A Star is Born (1954), the still underrated Doris Day’s Calamity Jane (1953), the great Julie Andrews’ Maria in The Sound of Music (1965) and La Streisand’s Yentl (1983).

Minnelli’s singular achievement, for many, is virtually capped and topped by Joel Grey’s as the Kit Kat Klub’s pasty-faced, pixie-thin Master of Ceremonies, the compere to Cabaret‘s darkly glittering universe and its one-man chorus, constantly commenting upon the narrative action outside his tawdry tinsel realm. This deliciously dirty-minded imp seems to prey on everyone else’s foibles, ready to transform any plot move or thematic register into some nastily pithy song or dance. If Caliban were transplanted into Ariel’s body, you’d probably end up with Grey’s mischievously malevolent MC, the nimble-witted, camply kidding court jester who, through a smirk or a wink, a deft twist of the wrist or turn of the head, is able to ridicule rulers, mock the winners, laugh at losers. Of all the creatures that inhabit the fantastical spheres of the filmusical, Joel Grey’s MC would have to be amongst the weirdest and most weirdly disturbing.

But it’s not just as a Brechtian backstage ‘meta’ filmusical that Cabaret impresses us. As a parable or metonym for the rise of German Nazism, as a comedy of social and sexual manners, as a romantic drama involving widely divergent character types and sexual tastes, Fosse’s film kicks in, clicks, works triumphantly well. Much of this appears to comes together in a memorable sequence which is the film’s only number not staged inside the Kit Kat Klub, namely the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” song which is performed at a sunny, innocent-looking beergarden. Here a handsome, blonde youth stands and starts to sing of meadows, forests and stags running free which then associatively flow into images of babes in cradles and bees being embraced by blossoms. Somehow at the same time we are shown the swastika armband the tenor-voiced teen is wearing and we are aware that his solo turn is being taken up by others so that by the point where lyrics are referring to the fatherland showing us a sign to arise! arise!, a pastoral tune has become a strident populist anthem; spanning generations (middle-aged women sing, a young girl sings) and crossing classes. The literal germ of Fascism’s sentimental Utopian appeal has been lucidly demonstrated. Sally and her two bi-sexual beaus choose to leave the scene but they can’t finish it or escape its wide-spreading repercussions. The whole Dystopian turnaround of this number puts a disquieting lateral spin on any other more Utopian musicals’ paeans to beautiful mornin’s, Junes bustin’ out all over and hills being alive.

For its Dystopian anti-filmusical-ness, for the ample bravura opportunities it presents to the Fosse-Minnelli-Grey triad, for its satirically cutting edginess, for its appeal to the festively corrupt (and corruptible) amongst us, Cabaret is a Pandora’s Box of ‘strange and extraordinary’ treasures. Wilkommen! Bienvenus! Welcome!


  1. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Arrow Books, London, 1984, p.86.
  2. Kevin Boyd Grubb, Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse, St Martins Press, New York, 1989, pp.145-146.
  3. Arlene Croce, Afterimages, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978, p. 183.

About The Author

Peter Kemp is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in cinema studies in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

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