10 March 2011

Divine Decadence, Thoughts on Cabaret, Ole Chum

I watched Cabaret (1972), one of my all time favorite films, for the zillionth time yesterday. However this was my first viewing since having read Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories upon which the story is partly based. I love Isherwood's writing. Simple elegance. The "I am a camera" objective style.

Of course, Cabaret is only very loosely based on on Isherwood's stories. If you're terribly fussy about films replicating the books or events they're inspired by you'll be hugely disappointed. But cinematically it's nigh on impossible to create a better story. Isherwood's stories are a nice companion piece to appreciating the film even further and well worth reading for their own merits.

I was struck this viewing with the extent to which Cabaret foretells the rise of the Nazis. They start the story as minor players being bullied out of the Kit Kat club and before you know it they're beating up the proprietor and becoming a most visible presence. This is analogous to their presence throughout Berlin and Germany. It's amazing how, if anything, films have been quite accurate in their depiction of Nazis. They were plain and simple thugs who relied on brute force to gain and especially to hold power.

Cabaret also features the dramatic scene in a park where the Nazi youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" (surprisingly, it was not a real Nazi anthem but written for the film). I once saw Cabaret in Finland and aside from subtitles, of course, the only difference was the song being sung in German. Even without understanding the language, it made the scene even more powerful. The Nazis came into power without majority support, but one of the ways in which they quickly attained it was by playing on the citizenry's patriotism. They made great use of iconography as well. The scene in the park captures this.

Michael York plays Brian Roberts, a character who bears a resemblance to Isherwood. His sexuality is more ambiguous than the homosexual Isherwood and makes for one of the story's more dramatic elements. He of course becomes smitten with Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli in on Oscar winning performance) with whom he has his first successful heterosexual experience. Nonetheless he also has a dalliance with a man, a Baron who is also screwing Sally.

The frankness of the sex was relatively knew when the film came out and, while tame by today's standards, it serves the story quite well. The whole screw the baron, I have and so have I exchange is still powerful today. Indeed, Cabaret is a movie that holds up quite well and likely always will.

Among other things Cabaret is about a doomed relationship. Brian and Sally are meant to be the good friends they start out as, but marriage and children is not in the cards. This is not meant to surprise us. We've all been in relationships in which we pretend its going further then we know it possibly can. Like Brian and Sally's.

I don't generally care for musicals. I mean there's often a rather nice story being told and suddenly everyone bursts into a choreographed song accompanied by orchestration. Fine, perhaps, for you. Just not my cup of tea. That said, I love a good Astaire and Rogers movie, perhaps because its them doing the dancing. Also their numbers often are part of the story and not a separate reality. All the songs in Cabaret are in the night club and enhance the story telling process. Besides that they're all either very good or bloody wonderful numbers. Minelli and the title song have a lot to do with that but there can be no under estimating the performance of Joel Grey as the master of the ceremonies (he too won an Oscar).

He is truly one of the more...hmmm, let's say, interesting, characters in film. This despite the fact that every line he speaks is from the stage and is either part of a song or is spoken as part of his emcee duties. I have variously found him creepy (that tongue directed at Sally) charming, delightful, and menacing. He is a very broad character yet one we can draw our own conclusions about.

Cabaret is one of those films that, if you'll excuse the cliché, works on so many levels. It is a toe tapping musical, a love story, a history lesson, a vehicle for the incredible talents of Minelli and Grey. Bob Fosse directed and neither he nor Minelli nor Grey ever did anything to match Cabaret on film. That is, to turn a phrase on its head, criticizing them with faint damnation. You could certainly hang your hat on this film and call it one helluva career.

Here's a post I wrote about the film in 2009.

1 comment:

Tudor Queen said...

I'm a history instructor, and one of my courses is on The Holocaust. When I get to the unit on cultural Nazification, I show "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" to my students. The impact is invariably immediate and they do get the point.

Minnelli's assurance in a difficult role is all the more amazing when you remember how very young she was. And while I do miss the songs and subplots dropped from the stage musical, I agree that Fosse was masterful in turning the material into something purely cinematic.