Friday, January 18, 2019
Everything makes sense when you look back on it. The truth was right there in front of you as you kept waiting, hoping that it would all turn out otherwise. Maybe it was just inevitable. Bob Fosse’s film of CABARET is always aware of that truth of what’s going on and how we don’t know, how we try to avoid it. It’s a film unlike any other, part musical, part drama but really a look at why the two are separated and how it can be the only way to reconcile the dreams that never emerge out there in the real world. And the things that you avoid until you no longer can. Maybe certain aspects of the history it explores causes the film to stand out more now than it has in years but I’m not sure how much time I want to spend analyzing that aspect. Maybe it just happens anyway. It’s a film of passion and yearning that grabs hold and refuses to let go. If it did, the movie would simply fade away and it refuses to ever do that.
In 1931 Berlin, Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives from Cambridge to complete his doctorate and hopefully make some money giving English lessons on the side while soaking up some of the wild life of the town. Taking a room in a boarding house, he befriends Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American who makes a living as a performer at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret always presided over through each act by the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally grow close immediately, even as her attempts at seducing him lead their relationship somewhere unexpected. As Brian begins teaching English out of Sally’s room his students include Jewish department store heiress Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) as well as gigolo Fritz (Fritz Wepper) who quickly develops an interest in her while keeping a secret of his own. Meanwhile, Sally’s involvement with Maximillian von Heune (Helmut Griem) whose extreme wealth courtesy of his family may be just what Sally is looking for but it soon complicates things between her and Brian. As all this is going on the Nazis are beginning to make their presence known in the city, starting off as a fringe party blithely dismissed by Maximillian and others but soon becoming a growing presence which Brian starts to realize he can no longer completely ignore.
Whether or not CABARET strictly qualifies as a musical, the genre is very much where its heart is and even as the opening credits roll in silence, no overture or fanfare as you’d expect from this kind of film, it embraces the very idea of theatricality while fighting against the concept. There’s no distance. We’re there. Released in February 1972, CABARET is a rigorously entertaining movie that is continually alive through every scene with a dangerous energy, funny and stylish, shocking and upsetting, never easy, the cloud of the future always hanging over every moment as the characters try to think about anything else and another song starts up out of the dreams buried in their desires. The film keeps the musical numbers inside the cabaret of the title almost entirely in this adaptation of the Broadway musical (to cover the extensive writing credits that span the history of the material, screenplay by Jay Allen from the novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood based on the play “I Am A Camera” by John Van Druten and the 1966 musical, book by Joe Masteroff with songs by Kander & Ebb), an approach that makes the Kit Kat Klub almost feel like a completely separate reality at first, lorded over by a Master of Ceremonies who doesn’t seem like he’d belong anywhere else but his silent asides indicate that he understands more about what’s going on in Berlin than he’ll ever let on. He tells the audience –which is us, of course—to leave your troubles outside, life in there is beautiful. We believe him at first but the real world is going to find its way in eventually, there’s no avoiding that.
If the later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN—not to mention the 2002 film of CHICAGO which wears the CABARET inspiration on its much less impressive sleeve—was about the secret yearnings of the characters coming out in song it’s as if this film is more about their desires, what they keep hidden deep down almost unwilling to admit to themselves, as if to uncover the truth of what they’re not seeing around them and it finds a dividing line to that reality unlike any other musical before or since. Sally Bowles is the center of all this even though she’s really just one of the crowd onstage when first spotted and even later on when she gives a giant Liza performance onstage to a disinterested audience there’s nothing more than a smattering of applause. She’s living her life as whatever Louise Brooks figure she wants to be, blithely referring to herself as “a most strange and extraordinary person” and her life is built around waiting for the big thing she’s determined is going to happen to her. It’s always the seduction and what she can get out of it, her life philosophy always to pounce, to forget the father who does nothing but hurt her no matter how devoted she is. She stands below a railway bridge late at night when a train passes and screams as loud as she can when no one will ever hear as if this is the one moment in the day when she can let the real truth come out. Everything is just a game otherwise with no consequences and when someone comes to her with a serious question about love she doesn’t know how to react. Even when the comical bits seem centered all around Minnelli’s timing and presence it fits since, after all, Sally’s the one who wants to be the center of attention. If she isn’t, what’s she even doing there? She latches on to Brian instantly even as she never waits for an answer to any question she asks him, maybe because he’ll actually listen, and he’s a lead character in a musical with no involvement in the music or singing at all, not quite a cipher but the songs are really about her and her dreams and what’s around them more than they’re ever about him as if the film itself doesn’t have the interest in anything otherwise.
Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY from a few years before this was his debut as a film director and is stylized and audacious, fascinating in many ways but with musical numbers that are wildly overblown and, ultimately, it looks like a 60s movie. Coming at the very beginning of the more adventurous 70s, CABARET doesn’t look like any other movie at all. Stunningly photographed by the great Geoffrey Unsworth it goes right for the sleaze found in that darkness with the camera darting around and a clutter giving every scene a particular tempo, always looking for just the right body movement to focus on but also another way to get us in closer to the actors. Every shot matters, even if it’s just the way the light catches someone onstage and every cut found through the editing by David Bretherton, whether during musical numbers or simple dialogue, feels like it has an added power to whatever two images are going together. A cut in a Bob Fosse film is like an electrical charge that surges from one shot to the next and the film moves like a rocket, no desire to linger just as Sally Bowles herself always wants to move on to the next opportunity, the next seduction, so when the film slows down for a confrontation you feel how antsy she is at being forced to actually deal with what she’s done. Even the way dialogue scenes play out through the movement of the characters gives the film a special rhythm, a 30s Lubitsch comedy that doesn’t have to worry about censors yet still knows to tip toe around those subjects that need to be avoided anyway. It’s the awkwardness that builds during the impromptu English lesson party scene and the interactions that build from it, through Brian’s growing horror over Sally’s behavior that he can’t do anything about.
But when it comes to cramming us into the dark, tiny space of the Kit Kat Klub to get a glimpse of the musical numbers, as both director and choreographer (“dances and musical numbers staged by” is the official credit) Fosse zeros in to find the cinematic line between giving us the bodies and holding the shots on their faces to basically let them explode onscreen. It’s like we’re watching them from the third row of the cabaret itself, maybe with part of some guy’s head in view, which gives each number an immediacy and the songs pulsate in a way to make it feel like no other musical ever. The way Joel Grey commands with his smarmy laughter during the introductory “Willkommen”, the independence that bursts out of Minnelli during the early “Mein Herr” number or her joy at singing “Maybe This Time” with all the hope in the world for her foolishness. And the way Minnelli and Grey cavort together during “Money Money” in perfect step with each other going as big as conceivably possible but we never lose sight of how each number relates to the bigger picture. It’s not just about the songs or even going for some sort of perfection with the dance moves but the dynamism that erupts from them, the complexity of one dance onstage late in the film that combines the sexual fluidity of the story being told with what is happening outside as the threat grows. The crassness gives them a charge that lends the whole film a sinuous vibe, the freedom coming out of that morality which the future is going to sadly emerge from. We’re aware of the sleaze in those numbers as much as we can feel the yearning always underneath.
Of course, the infamous “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” sequence is the one song not performed in the Kit Kat Klub; everything feels carefree for much of the film so it makes sense that when music is finally allowed to penetrate the outside world, emerging seemingly from out of nowhere, it’s really just the characters who have momentarily forgotten about what’s happening around them in early 30s Germany, as we have to, as we want to. When the first lines of the song are heard as that seemingly angelic face begins singing and we get the close-ups of all the other people in this beer garden joining in as it becomes clear what’s really going on. One old man silently sits in the middle of it all, fully aware of what it means and this greatest horror of the film is goddamn chilling, driven home by the silent acknowledgment by the Master of Ceremonies of what we’ve just seen. The film takes a turn in the final third as Brian begins to realize that what’s happening can’t be ignored and waved off like some tried to do and the other tenants of the rooming house who once seemed so friendly but suddenly sound like people these days watching a certain news network, aren’t going to shut up anytime soon. Suddenly it’s clear that there’s no hiding, not in the cabaret, not anywhere.
Just as something else is really going on in 1931 Berlin, each of the main characters are hiding their own secrets deep down, just as Fritz is hiding a secret under his gigolo front that he forces out through his romance with Marisa Berenson’s Jewish heiress. We know all too well that whatever happens after the end of the film with them isn’t going to be good but the point is that the film knows and it also knows there’s nothing that can be done about it. Of course there’s what Sally and Brian are keeping from each other as well and one brief sequence late in the film is so haunting, almost shot to be a fantasy that Sally is having, but by this point there is no real line between the two in her head and the 70s darkness it gives off plays as if we’re following her deep down into her soul where she makes that final decision. Michael York’s Brian is presumably the Isherwood surrogate as well as the identification point for the audience but it’s Sally and her view of the world that Fosse latches on to so the film does as well, come what may. Sally pines for that glory of hoping to become an actress as the world burns around her and she’s happy to do it, that one piece of carefree music on her record player she always listens to is what’s in her head, unable to change. But she’s still the one willing to admit that things aren’t going to turn out so well for her and Brian if they do what he’s asking, even if she leaves certain things about him unspoken during their big fight. In his own way Brian, as if we’re watching them from the third row maybe with part of some guy’s head in view, is just as blind to the truth of those dreams as the wealthy Maximillian is about the truth of what’s coming. Like his notions of a trip for that threesome to take to Africa, no thought given to the future, it’s a world where no one needs to give permission but the fantasy of that threesome, let alone the fantasy of simply Brian and Sally living a normal life, is one that can’t be sustained.
Fosse’s direction makes every scene play like a lightning bolt and you almost can’t even pin down what it is he’s bringing, only that anyone who’s ever tried to replicate it has just offered mere flash. He brings a focus to every moment that gets right to the heart of the desperation in the middle of that sleaze, never turning away from the characters so when the camera focus on Sally’s face shifts slightly as she makes a declaration, the jolt that movement creates combined with the look on her face at that precise instant is otherworldly. Fosse knows that love is fucked up and incomplete and if you could really put any of it into words there’d be no point in singing about it (not to mention writing about it) at all. Not a complete love, anyway. The final understanding between them is so unspoken that Brian doesn’t even get a real exit from the film, certainly not the way we see him arrive in Berlin at the beginning. Neither Sally nor the film sees him off, no real interest in him anymore and the big final number isn’t just about Liza singing that particular song but about that acceptance, about staying in that place regardless of those consequences and who knows what but embracing it. To her that’s freedom, even if the instincts that she’s talked about are clearly not doing her much good and she’s already literally slept through the most terrifying display of Nazism in the film. All that matters as she sings the big title song near the end is this is where she can be the star she has to believe she is, at least in her own head, belting out that reminder of how she wants to live as if she’s desperately trying to remind herself of the reason. That’s where life is, that’s where she is and the idea is reflected back at us so we’re reminded who else is there and maybe they always were. Like the best films it changes on each viewing as something else stands out. It gains in power. It hurts more.
As an honest admission, to me Liza Minnelli was always from ARTHUR. That’s the film I knew her from, that’s the film I’ve seen countless times since forever. To others she was something else, something more than that, but I’m sort of out of that demographic. But you know what, watching CABARET again, I get it. It’s a phenomenal performance and the film basically becomes one with Liza Minnelli every time she’s in a scene whether the way she freely takes over a roomful of people or the desperation in her lowest points with Brian as she avoids putting into words the truth that she knows deep down but still can’t admit to. But during each spectacular musical number it’s the way she turns herself into the icon she wants to be but up there on stage even if no one notices it’s all that matters and it’s felt in every movement up there onstage. It feels like the character of Brian can never match this no matter how much he tries but this makes the steady presence of Michael York bounce off her just right and he’s always playing it as how restricted he is deep down while still so eager to please. For a brief time Brian is able to feel like he belongs in Berlin among these people and it relaxes everything about York’s persona until the reality of everything hits home. The charm of Marisa Berenson stands out as well just as Helmut Griem as Maximillian and Fritz Wepper as Fritz each display their own kind of German cockiness, each finding different ways to deal with their own hidden side. And the unrelenting stage presence of Joel Grey, smiling and smarmy through every song, doesn’t stop, lifting each number to an energy level the stage can barely contain. Somewhere along the way it takes the turn from show biz ham to something else altogether and we don’t even realize this until it’s too late.
CABARET is also known as the film with the most Academy Awards—8 in total, including Fosse, Minnelli, Grey, cinematography, editing and the song score—that didn’t also win Best Picture, which of course went to THE GODFATHER that year. Regardless, CABARET is a remarkable film, through each musical number, through each time Brian tries to understand Sally once and for all but fails, all the way through to that final image. It stares right back as you try to face the future and accept what might never be, even as you can’t move on, even as you still feel that pain. You know what looking back means but even the present hurts. And you’re afraid that tomorrow is going to hurt even more. After all, nothing makes sense when you look forward since all you can do is foolishly hope and try to ignore what you’ve already done. Even when things are at their worst and there’s no going back, you still have to think maybe this time. Maybe.