now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the
The movie musical occasionally dusts itself off and makes its way to theaters these days, with Rob Marshall being the most frequent director to tackle the genre. Marshall has patterned himself after an earlier choreographer turned director, Bob Fosse, with his first film, the Oscar-winning “Chicago,” clearly taking after Fosse’s own Oscar-winning film “Cabaret” (both musicals based on shows by John Kander and Fred Ebb). Yet Marshall lacks Fosse’s perfectionism, his innate understanding of rhythmic editing to go with the musical numbers, his eye for great images, and “Cabaret” proves that there’s no mistaking an imitator for the real thing.
Set in 1931, the film follows writer Brian Roberts (Michael York) as he falls in love with performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a singer at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic. Initially taken with her bohemian lifestyle, Brian grows uneasy as the Nazi party becomes more powerful and Sally remains unconcerned, even willfully ignorant, of the horrors around her. Minnelli won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her melancholy performance (getting a signature song out of “Maybe This Time”), while Joel Grey’s work as a sexually ambiguous emcee won Best Supporting Actor and Fosse won Best Director. Those last two stick in the craws of many cinephiles, given the people they beat (Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather”), but “Cabaret” is no safe alternate.
Fosse gives the film real bite, cross-cutting between a dance and the Nazis beating a man, introducing a fresh-faced boy singing a folk song only to reveal that he’s a Hitler Youth member. Fosse and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth light the Kit Kat Klub in a way that makes it a seedy little sanctuary, one that can’t fully disguise that there’s something terribly wrong in Berlin, but it’s easy to distract yourself with all of the beautiful women onstage. Best of all, Fosse, unlike many of those who followed him, knows how to shoot dance, pulling the camera back to see the choreography and cutting only on beat, when it makes sense to show other performers. Where “Chicago’s” seemingly arbitrary cuts make dances incomprehensible, “Cabaret’s” enhance, making this one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
Fosse’s genius stroke was to completely sever the movie’s musical numbers from the central story, opting instead to have them offer direct comment on the surrounding action. In every case, the songs performed at the Kit Kat Klub either underline what is otherwise insinuated (“Two Ladies”), force audiences to consider their own duplicity (“If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”), or chronicle events foretold (“Mein Herr,” which brilliantly performs a postmortem on Sally and Brian’s relationship exactly one scene after they’ve met). Read more.
More thoughts from the web:
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“Cabaret” is a thrilling indictment of evil’s specious and banal glamour, and of foreigners’ feeble and prurient and uncomprehending attitude to the growing European threat. Most of all it is a deeply pessimistic indictment of satire itself, a type of comedy that emerges as fatally ambiguous and parasitic, unable to make any real difference to what it is supposedly attacking. Is the Weimar cabaret scene an assault on Nazism? Or Nazism’s minor symptom? Read more.
Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
Liza Minnelli plays Sally Bowles so well and fully that it doesn’t matter how well she sings and dances, if you see what I mean. In several musical numbers (including the stunning finale “Cabaret” number), Liza demonstrates unmistakably that she’s one of the great musical performers of our time. But the heartlessness and nihilism of the character is still there, all the time, even while we’re being supremely entertained. Read more.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Whatever this 1972 feature is, it’s entertaining and stylish, though maybe not quite as serious as it wants to be. Liza Minnelli stars at her near best, and Joel Grey is the caustic nightclub emcee. Read more.
Rob Vaux, Collider
Indeed, the entire movie reeks of despair, plastered over with painted smiles but touching upon the darkest horrors of the 20th Century. The characters either shrug off their own damnation or flee while they still can. Fosse reflects that in every aspect of the production, while drawing us into the same moral quagmire through misdirection and charm. We applaud seemingly benign numbers before devastating reveals turn them on their ears, matching the well-meaning people onscreen who submit to Nazism so gradually they’re hardly aware of it until it’s too late. Read more.