Musical Cabaret challenges societal norms amidst Germany’s rise of Nazism

Cabaret 1972 Review

In the grit and realism-fixated days of the ’70s Cabaret proved that a musical could be more than just entertainment. It was social commentary, too.

It tut-tuts at Germany’s embrace of Nazism, yet it’s also a film that celebrates life in the Kit Kat Klub. Many movie-makers could learn from this: it’s possible to incorporate a disturbing topic into the most joyous of genres.

Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli)

The cast of Cabaret – both on and off stage – is fantastic, but it’s the irresistible Minnelli who holds the film together with her dazzling presence. She’s a triple threat as singer, dancer, and actress, but her performance as Sally Bowles is the one that truly stands out. The character, based on Christopher Isherwood’s bookish bi-sexual stand-in, is a naive and winsome dynamo with buckets of charm, but a darkness brews just below the surface, informing everything that happens at the Kit Kat Klub.

Despite the obvious facade she puts on, Sally is still just a headstrong girl who’s been knocked around a bit by life and is determined to make the most of it. Minnelli, a Broadway stalwart who auditioned for the role of Sally before winning the movie version, brings to the character an unforced grandeur that’s both entertaining and poignant. In addition to her singing and dancing, she captivates the audience with a sense of vulnerability that reveals Sally’s true persona.

Brian (Michael York)

Released during the height of New Hollywood, Cabaret was one of the first movies to reinvent what a musical could be. In a film genre that tends to be more about spectacle than narrative, Fosse and Minnelli made a musical that used songs to comment on the story. By saving the big musical numbers for specific moments (mostly in the seedy Kit Kat Klub), the movie is able to ground them in a realistic narrative.

This approach is largely due to the performances of York and Minnelli. While the pair couldn’t be more different, they are both compelling as characters struggling to survive in a world that is rapidly coming apart at the seams.

While the movie does explore some of the kinky territory celebrated in Visconti’s The Damned, it is most often a thrilling indictment of evil’s specious glamour. In a world where machismo is for rent, Sally and Brian find themselves at the center of a moral maelstrom.

Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper)

The film explores the kinky territory celebrated in Visconti’s The Damned—the fact that the rise of Nazism was paralleled with a surge in homosexuality, transvestism, and sadomasochism. Joel Grey’s raunchy performance of “Two Ladies” is just one example.

Struggling American cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and British academic Brian Roberts (Michael York) become involved in a love triangle that plays out against the backdrop of rising fascism in 1931 Berlin. The arrival of rich, louche playboy Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) complicates matters for both Sally and Brian.

Director Bob Fosse reworked the stage book by John Kander and Fred Ebb to give Cabaret a unique cinematic structure that combined a standard narrative drama with musical numbers. The memorable songs – including “Willkommen,” Mein Herr, Money, Money, and Tomorrow Belongs to Me – functioned as interior diagetic numbers that entertained while commenting on the darker issues below the surface. This was a radical reinvention for the movie musical genre.

Natalia (Marisa Berenson)

Many stage musicals make it to the big screen and fail, falling short of reconciling their inherent fantastical diegesis with movie audiences expecting a certain degree of realism. Cabaret is a rare exception, and it owes its success to director Bob Fosse’s legendary choreography. His skill in blending the themes of the song-and-dance interludes into the flow of the narrative gives it a propulsive physicality that helps to mask its essentially simple story.

Unlike other musicals of the period, Cabaret never lets audiences forget that just beyond the Kit Kat Klub’s insular world lies genuine horror. And its depiction of this threat as both specious glamour and banal symptom provides a profoundly pessimistic indictment of the nature of evil.

Although this is a star-studded film, it is arguably Minnelli’s show. She proves she’s a force to be reckoned with on and off the stage as she delivers one of the most deserving Best Actress Oscars in history.

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