And now, for a completely different kind of musical. Bob Fosse directed a grand total of five movies, Cabaret being the second, and he apparently wanted little to do with the song and dance in film, working to move away from the stuff he was known for on Broadway. Well, when he chose to adapt Cabaret for the big screen, his producers were going to get song and dance out of an adaptation of a Broadway musical directed by a famous Broadway song and dance director and choreographer. And yet this tale of Weimar Germany falling to Nazism is just odd stuff for a song and dance musical in any combination, and Fosse leaned heavily into the anti-musical tendencies of the story.
It’s the tale of two people, a British author, Brian Roberts, and his fellow renter at his pension, the singer Sally Bowles, as they live their little lives while Germany descends into totalitarianism around them. It’s kind of interesting that you could cut most of the Nazi stuff out and you would have a nice little movie about two flawed people looking for love and connection. What makes the movie special is that the Nazi stuff is always at the edge of the frame. Almost never brought forward to take center stage (except in the one musical number done outside the Kit Kat Klub), Nazism’s rise provides a rather stark contrast to the little lives playing out at the front of the stage.
As Brian and Sally unsteadily fall in love, get roped in by a rich baron who takes both as his lover, and then discarded, things obviously are getting darker around them, but they all trust that “Germany” will make things right. That “Germany” will ignore the Nazis. That “Germany” will ensure that nothing bad really happens to their country. However, what very subtly happens is that the crowd of Nazis and those who support them in the small moments that they appear grow in number as the movie goes on. First it’s a young man handing out leaflets in the club, then a small gang in the shadows beating someone. Then a young man singing a song (written for the stage musical) about how Tomorrow belongs to him with everyone but Brian and the baron joining in. Then a pair in the streets handing out leaflets followed by them beating Brian in broad daylight. They simply grow in power as the movie goes on while Brian and Sally negotiate their little lives with Brian translating a bit of smut from German into English for pay and Sally singing and dancing in the club every night.
Now, all but one of the numbers is done on the stage in the Kit Kat Club, and they use a shocking amount of editing. Watching this very shortly after Singin’ in the Rain, it acts as a contrast to the earlier film in rather drastic form for how to present dancing in film. Where Kelly and Donen kept their camera back to capture all the motion, the Broadway veteran Fosse heavily relies on editing to capture specific moments. From leg kicks to hands pounding on the ground to even specific moments of singing, Fosse was interested in using editing to highlight particular moments, cut together quickly. It never gets confusing or feeling like we’re missing anything, it is rather judicious use of the technique, but it still remains interesting in contrast to traditional Hollywood musicals.
There is one particular cut that really sticks out in the best of ways. It’s completely non-traditional and effective in equal measure, ensuring that it’s going to stick with the audience. As the number “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is coming to an end and Brian and the Baron drive away, we suddenly see the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub looking gleefully devilishly into the camera for about a second before cutting right back. The Emcee always felt a bit outside of the movie, having introduced the audience to the film in the fashion of a Greek chorus (and later saying goodbye in a similar way), but this moment solidifies it. The Emcee knows what’s coming, what the moment means, and how off put we, the audience feels by it, and he’s gleeful at the prospect. Is it the moment’s intended effect on the audience that makes him happy? Is it that he looks forward to the Nazi reign? It’s hard to tell considering how enigmatic and opaque the character is, functioning almost exclusively as a portal to debauchery on the stage of the cabaret, but it’s still a moment that sticks.
Weimar Germany was not a place that could really be called decadent, but the movie presents Weimar Germany as just that. The glittering display of debauchery at the Kit Kat Klub is something out of the American flapper era, not pre-war Germany, but the movie doesn’t really seem to be aiming for any kind of historical fidelity. It exists outside of that moment, reflecting the 70s, when the movie was made, back to the 30s and imprinting itself on that time. However, the message of the film seems to be much more universal than just a retelling of events of a gay author in 1930s Germany. The central idea really does seem to be that people who refuse to engage with the world will be subject to it whether they wish it or not. Just as Brian and Sally tried to ignore the Nazi menace, so shall the Nazi menace do nothing of the sort to them.
Sally spends the movie hoping against hope that she’ll be a big star, but she’s never going to go anywhere. With Liza Minelli’s pipes, it’s a wonder why she wouldn’t. I agree that she’s simply too good a talent for the role, but it doesn’t make her appearance in every number all the more compelling. “Money Makes the World Go Round” is a personal favorite, but it’s obviously the final rendition of “Cabaret” that gets all the attention. She belts out the number with all her heart and talent, and it’s compelling to watch her, as Sally, lie to herself in those final moments about how much meaning she has in her life. That the movie ends with a slow pan over a warped mirror to rest on the reflections of two Nazi officers shows the depth of her self-deception.
This really is a great movie, the anti-musical designed to make you feel depressed rather than elated. Watching this back-to-back with Singin’ in the Rain was a fascinating little experience. Two musicals, diametrically opposed in every stylistic and narrative way, and both of them great in their own ways, using the form of the musical to completely different ends. Compelling, wonderfully acted, and a great watch, Cabaret really is a great film.
4 thoughts on “Cabaret”
Bob Fosse is one of the true talents of dance and choreography. I don’t much approve of ‘modern’ dance, but, like Jazz perhaps, when someone of top tier does it, it shows. I’m a fan of quality in all art forms. Fosse has a certain contempt for a lot of peers too and I can’t help but think that Cabaret is as much an indictment of the leering audience, and the actors/dancers whoring themselves out.
I always took the Emcee to be the Devil. But that might just be my head canon.
The Devil would be a good fit. The movie is intentionally vague about him, but the Devil is the sort of character that can exist both within and outside a story at the same time.
It would also explain his supposed glee at the rise of Nazism as those who oppose it do nothing.
Ja, he’s just too…arch to ‘merely’ be a gay master of ceremonies. As you say, he moves in and out of the scenes, talking directly to the audience at home. And it also fits in with the theme of corruption and debauchery in the face of evil.
There’s a lot of unpack in Cabaret that I didn’t think about as a college kid.
I first saw it in college, but it was during a course with a professor who helped elicit responses afterwards. He particularly asked about the cut during the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number, which may be why it’s stuck in my head so well.