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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Cabaret (1972)

Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Cabaret takes place during the dying days of the Weimar Republic, that chaotic period between Kaiser Wilhelm II and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. It is filled with characters who seemed determined to drown in excess before the coming political wave can crash over them and wash them away. The story plays out like a party being dragged on beyond it’s natural lifespan as those participating try to wring out just one more carefree hour of celebration even as the writing makes itself clearer on the wall.

The film centers on Brian Roberts (Michael York), a British student who plans on earning a living in Berlin by teaching English to Germans, and Sally Bowles (brilliantly embodied by Liza Minnelli), an American who performs in a local Cabaret and dreams of breaking into films. Sally is one of the great creations of fiction, a woman who is unconventional in only the most conventional of ways, an actress who has barely mastered the art of playing herself – or, rather, the image of herself that she wants to leave with others. Early in their relationship, she says something she thinks will scandalize Brian, then turns to him, asking ,”Did I shock you?” When he says that she didn’t, she’s disappointed. She’s very clearly adopted the role of the “Urbane Wild Child” (“That’s me, darling. Unusual places, unusual love affairs. I am a most strange and extraordinary person.”) but she overdoes it not only by sounding over-rehearsed in her “casual” witticisms and observations, but also by caring too much, and too openly, what other people think of her. Both of these aspects of her character make her ultimately unable to sustain that initial image of herself that she wants so badly to establish in the minds of others. She tells Brian that she wants to be a great actress like Liane de Pougy. Given her behaviour during the course of the film, you can’t help but wonder if she wishes to emulate de Pougy’s notoriety as an actress, which was minimal, or her notoriety as a courtesan, which was considerable. At any rate, she might have done well to consider the advice that the great Sarah Bernhardt once gave to de Pougy, to keep her “pretty mouth shut.” Late in the film Brian, who adores Sally, will lament that he wishes she could hear herself and the way she carries on.

Much of the story is concerned with Sally’s relationship with Brian, which evolves from friendship into a sexual relationship despite Brian being gay. There is a parallel relationship as a supporting storyline between Brian's friend, Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson). Fritz is a fortune hunter looking to make a good marriage and sets his sights on Natalia, whom he meets through Brian. He falls in love with her in earnest but she, despite her love for him, won’t marry him because she’s Jewish and thinks that he is not. Through these characters (mostly Natalia, but through Fritz as well in the way that he’s seen it as necessary to hide his own Jewishness so completely) we encounter the anti-Semitism that would soon overrun the nation. The Nazis are always a presence in the film, occupying at first the very edges, but slowly encroaching more and more towards the center and finally taking over when a group of chillingly wholesome Nazi youth sing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” and gather the crowd of onlookers into their song. After this, the Nazi presence becomes so prominent that the main characters can no longer ignore it. The final shot of the film shows the Nazis as having, essentially, taken over the Cabaret. The way that the characters deal with the increasing presence of the Nazis works on both literal and metaphorical levels. Literaly, Sally and Brian, whose interests lie mainly in pursuing their own pleasures, are able to look away from the Nazis until it’s too late, while Fritz and Natalia, being Jewish, are constantly aware of the Nazis. Metaphorically speaking, the way that Sally, the American, and Brian, the Brit, close themselves off from what is going on around them can be read as a commentary on the way that the world was content to pretend that nothing untoward was going on in Germany until it was too late.

Cabaret was made after the heyday of the Hollywood musical and doesn’t play as a traditional musical. Characters don’t burst into song in the middle of the street or the middle of a scene. The musical numbers, with the exception of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” all take place on stage at the Cabaret. Which isn’t to say that the numbers aren’t good, because they are, but just to explain that this is a very contained musical. It ends with Sally performing “Life is a Cabaret,” which, on paper, looks like an upbeat song but when you see it performed in the context of the film, you see that it’s actually very sad. This is a song of desperation, a plea from a woman who wants life to be full of fun and joy but is consistently reminded that it is not, that the time for fun and joy is quickly passing. Even Sally, who has spent her life convincing herself that things are better than they seem, has to admit that the party is finally over, that the spectre that has been looming over the narrative is about to takeover and change everything forever.

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