Illustration by Tabitha Underhill
Set in 1931, Cabaret follows shy English scholar Brian Roberts (Michael York) as he falls in love with American nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), during the last months of the Weimar Republic. Initially seduced by both Sally and her bohemian lifestyle, Brian grows uneasy as the Nazi party becomes more powerful and Sally remains unconcerned, even delusional, as to the severity of the situation around them.
Liza Minnelli steals the stage – or in this case, the screen – as Sally, the least ‘free’ of ‘free spirits.’ Joyful and outspoken, she is also interminably melancholy and damaged, belonging to the life she leads rather than having chosen it. It is fascinating to see the contrast between Sally, with her unremitting sensuality and passion, and Brian, with his repressed sincerity, especially in the early stages of their relationship (‘Sally, you don’t ask questions like that!’/ ‘I do’).
Joe Masteroff’s script (from the original musical Cabaret) is full of dark humour and irresistible cynicism: it’s a world where the automatic response to, ‘God damn it, I think I’m falling in love,’ is, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ But it is Fosse’s filmmaking that gives this adaptation its razor-sharp edge, whether he is cross-cutting between a cabaret jive and a backstreet beating, or panning out from the fresh face of a boy singing a folk song to reveal his Hitler Youth uniform. Fosse and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth paint the Kit Kat Klub in all its dark, seedy glory, turning it into a kind of sanctuary, a place to avoid the outside world, yet one in which one can’t ever fully escape the fact that something is terribly wrong in Berlin. The camera comes voyeuristically close to the dancers, lending a slightly sordid intimacy to the viewing experience – we can almost see the bruises beneath the greasepaint. The film has certain stylistic and symbolic advantages over the stage version: Fosse can play ‘Willkommen,’ the first song in Sally’s show, over footage of Brian’s train pulling into the Berlin station, a simple act of juxtaposition that turns the glamourous, twisted world of cabaret into a dark mirror of the real world of Germany.
For me, Joel Grey’s turn as the Kit Kat Klub’s mysterious Master of Ceremonies will always be the most memorable part of the adaptation. The MC has no real part to play in the drama between Sally and Brian, and no backstory – yet dapper, doll-like, and sexually ambiguous, Grey’s performance punctuates and comments on the wider story. At times, he mocks the Nazis – his highly sexualised de-construction of their uniforms is clearly sending them up, but his cynicism is rootless; he appears no longer to care. He laughs his own act off the stage – literally- with a draw on his cigar, all suspenders, gleaming eyes, and grotesque indifference. ‘What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play!’ The whole world is a panorama of lunacy to be dismissed with a smirk, a snappy couplet, and jazz-hands.
This leaves Sally as the emotional core of the show. Her vulnerability grows ever more apparent; what will happen to Sally after the cabaret curtain falls and war is declared? What awful fate is in store for this creature– who for all her outrageous sexual energy, is strangely innocent? As character voices it explicitly, ‘Don’t you see what is happening in Germany today?’ But Liza Minnelli is still drinking whisky in from of her dressing room mirror. Towards the end of their affair, Brian calls out her act: ‘You’re about as fatale as an after-dinner mint!’ Whether or not this is true, it is, inescapably, 1931, and for Berlin, ‘tomorrow belongs’ to the Nazis – but to what world does Sally belong? This unanswered question hangs over the film after its final chords have died away.
Cabaret is a film in its own right, not merely a filmed version of a stage show. It’s also a musical for people who hate musicals – there’s nothing artificial about the way the songs belong to the story. Fosse was keen to bring realism to his adaptation: ‘I get antsy watching musicals in which people are singing as they walk down the street or hang out the laundry … in fact I think it looks a little silly.’ Cabaret is a show that critiques showbiz, a piece of theatre that takes us behind the curtain. We follow the dancers as they clatter off stage, and watch Sally mouthing the MC’s nightly spiel before her act, in half-affectionate, half-jaded anticipation. Rather than being the audience, as we would if we were watching Cabaret on stage, we have the opportunity to observe the audience – right up until the last shot, which pans slowly across to reveal that almost every man watching Sally’s show now sports a Nazi arm badge.
The closeups, location switches, and quick intercutting would be less affective (or impossible) to pull off on stage. As it is, Fosse’s Cabaret is an anarchic portrait of the delusion and denial that played a part in the Nazis rise to power, of a society distracted from descending darkness by shuck and jive. ‘No use permitting some prophet of doom/ To wipe every smile away/ Come hear the music play/ Life is a cabaret…’ It’s sexy, sublime, frightening, and deeply necessary – a reminder of how easy it is to distract ourselves from the truth of a situation until the moment that it is too late.
This is part of the series ‘Beyond the Frame,’ in which writers explore the relationship between theatre and other mediums of art. Please be in touch if you would like to contribute your own!