As I’ve mentioned in some other reviews, musicals are not really my cuppa, so if you bring up a classic movie musical chances are I haven’t seen it. Same went for this 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse; the only two things I knew about it was that 1) it starred Liza Minnelli and 2) it’s set in Weimar era Germany, at the time when the Nazi Party was on the rise. After watching the film, I can happily add one more musical I really like to my short list. Maybe my issue is more that I don’t care for the wholesome happy musicals?
One thing I noticed straight away is that the song-and-dance numbers in Cabaret are confined strictly to the stage of the grimy, kinky and seedy Kit Kat Club in Berlin, where Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, so there are no characters spontaneously bursting into a song mid-scene (not that there’s anything wrong with that). All the songs and musical sequences are effusive, superbly choreographed, and metaphorical to the main story about the turbulent relationship between Sally and Brian Roberts (Michael York), a young bisexual English language teacher. The depiction of sexuality kinda took me by surprise, as it must have been pretty daring for a film of its time.
Liza Minnelli is easily the most outstanding thing in the movie, with her unusual, almost-stylised features and huge saucer eyes fringed by impossibly long lashes, and her performance rightly won her an Oscar. Sally is flighty, self-centred, amoral and greedy, but so charming and child-like she’s impossible to dislike, as Brian finds even when she does something terrible that punches him right in the gut. Another memorable creation is the impish, androgynous, leering and frequently creepy Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), who also performs at the club, sometimes with Sally and sometimes with a gang of sleazy female musicians and dancers (and mud wrestlers), and whose song topics include threesomes and anti-Semitism.
The rise of the Nazi Party is shown indirectly: at first they’re a silly group who nobody takes seriously and whose members get kicked out of the club, then much later, a chilling scene in a beer garden shows a young Nazi youth sing Tomorrow Belongs to Me, a scary call to nationalism that’s enthusiastically embraced by the other patrons. In the last scene, the dominance of swastika bands in the audience makes the seemingly happy and joyful concluding song (life is a cabaret!) sound desperate and depressing. This darkness beneath the thrill-seeking and hunt for pleasures is what ultimately made this film appealing, but who knows, maybe I should give The Sound of Music a chance after all.