1 Year, 100 Movies #63 Cabaret (1972)

by Trey Hock on November 5, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Well I’m certainly glad that I caught up last week, because a horrendous work week along with a troubling head cold have once again set me back. Fortunately as I look to the next couple of weeks, time and space open up. Maybe I can put this project back on track. Again. Maybe.

It’s not often that musicals are tragic. Usually the diversions into song trend towards the comedic. There is a rupture that comes along with a character breaking into song that causes many to giggle with joy or an awkward awareness of the experience of watching a movie. If you hate musicals, I would suggest that part of the problem is your difficulty maintaining your suspended disbelief when one of the characters starts singing. If this is the case, then definitely give “Cabaret” a try.

Set in Germany in the early 1930s, “Cabaret” follows the exploits of Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American singer at Berlin’s Kit Kat Club, a seedy second tier cabaret. She is energetic, fun, awkward, and has a poseurish drive to cover any depth with a veneer of the hip and exotic. She talks up her sexual exploits, and her worldliness with a fervor that should make us all a tad skeptical.

In this scene with her new friend Brian Roberts (Michael York), an English teacher and new tenant in her building, Sally wants Brian to tell her everything about him.

As the grip of fascism starts to rear its head, the willingness to revel in the fringe social groups becomes more pronounced. Questions of gender, sexual orientation, and polyamorous relationships posed by the Kit Kat Club are the counter point to the unforgiving control of the Nazi Party.

Brian’s entrance into his own sexual exploration comes after an awkward confession to Sally that his previous love affairs were unsatisfying at best. When he returns home to find Sally remorseful after her father cancelled a trip to see her. Brian comforts her and soon his embrace becomes more than friendly consolation.

This scene also illustrates how the musical numbers are integrated into the whole film. Director, Bob Fosse, who also was the choreographer, allows the songs to reinforce or predict the story progression throughout “Cabaret.” Sally’s song speaks to the hope of a new relationship, but maintains a slight pessimism. The song, intercut with shots of Sally and Brian, progresses the relationship in an elegant montage.

In spite of the festivities the Nazi’s continue to tighten their grip on Germany. Fosse builds their presence through incredible staged and static compositions, which our main characters travel through.

The collective social denial of the threat, which the Nazi’s pose, is part of their power. While the world is changing around them, Sally, Brian and their new friend and obsession, Max von Heune (Helmut Griem) decide a getaway to the country is in order.

Let’s talk a bit about Joel Grey. His portrayal of the Master of Ceremonies is creepy and wonderful. He is a funny, yet unforgiving ringmaster, and Fosse uses his character as a narrator for “Cabaret.” Watching the MC on stage, I’m sure that David Lynch has had more than one nightmare about this film, which inspired him and found its way into his own work.

Again the music hints at the growing tensions in the developing love triangle. Fosse moves further to complicate the interconnections between the three.

This scene is both delicate and exceptionally suggestive. It is no surprise when we find out later that both Sally and Brian have been sleeping with Max. Max continues to play the role of millionaire playboy until it comes time for him to escape Germany. He leaves Sally and Brian in Berlin to pick up the pieces. When Sally discovers she is pregnant, Brian proposes.

It seems that Sally is finally allowing the reality of life and her surroundings to penetrate the veneer, which she maintains with such tenacity, and yet there is a hesitant tone to Sally. It’s as if she’s trying to convince herself that she can marry Brian, have a baby, and move to Oxford. This hesitancy keeps the viewer on edge, and when Sally returns after her abortion, we know that her devotion to the glitter, and image will end up destroying any chance she has at a “real” life.

“Cabaret” is a film about people on the edge of a cliff. Brian, Max and Sally react to the inevitable political and social changes that are occurring, each in their own way. Max is the fun-loving pragmatist, Brian is the hopeful romantic, and Sally’s need to be loved and adored keep her entrenched in her denial. When the final number comes, it is not an anthem of fun and frivolity, but a desperate call from a broken woman. It is a beautiful and crushing moment.

Liza Minnelli’s awkwardness coupled with her undeniable talent make her perfect for the role of Sally Bowles. We can love Sally because she is fun and endearing, because she is bumbling and misguided. “Cabaret” overall has that quality. It makes strengths out of everything, from motivating the songs within the story, to perfect casting. Truly hip and filled with songs which are earworms, “Cabaret” can be the in for folks who may think they are otherwise too cool for musicals.

“Cabaret” was added for the 2007 revision of AFI’s list, and I think it makes a compelling addition. It’s challenging and approachable and it does something that most musicals never attempt. Just take a tip from Sally’s friend Elsie, “Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.”

Up next #62 American Graffiti (1973)

1 Year, 100 Movies #64 Network (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #65 The African Queen (1951)

1 Year, 100 Movies #66 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rosie November 5, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Cabaret is not so tremendously obnoxious as a musical because, IMO at least, it makes sense to have Sally signing, occasionally. In other musicals, like Rent for instance, I have no idea why the character just suddenly burst into song. Plus, I also think the songs are terrible. Cabaret the songs have a certain je ne se quois that when sung outside the musical makes them stand on their own.


2 Trey Hock November 5, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Rosie, I often refer to the pomposity of the musical. The characters feel things so deeply that they must burst into song. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, but it’s something that happens in most musicals. In Cabaret the songs always make perfect sense, and most of them are darn catchy.


3 Streams of Whiskey November 7, 2010 at 7:57 am

I’ve always had something of a weird soft spot for Cabaret since the music was written by a guy who went to my high school (long before *I* went there, though). I’ve never seen the film but I saw a traveling version of the 1998 stage revival, which starred Teri Hatcher as Sally. Nice review, Trey.

And not to hijack the thread, but I really like Rent! (Even though the story hasn’t aged well…)


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