Set in early 1930s Germany, the Liza Minnelli starring Cabaret (1972), is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. Whilst there are definitely song & dance numbers that are a large part of the film, for me the film does not feel like a musical as such. The songs merely form part of the background to what is an exceptionally clever and adult piece of filmmaking.
Cabaret is an incredibly original film. From the big opening musical number where the focus is on other dancers in the club, rather than Minnelli who is hidden away at the back, the film just does things differently. Plot wise, the film is a love story of sorts between Minnelli’s bombastic Sally Bowles and the newcomer to Berlin, the Brit Brian Roberts played by Michael York. Brian is a naive force, not ready for the swirling mix of a new country, cabaret, cigarettes, booze and sex which revolves around Minnelli’s character. In its second half the film descends into ever evolving triumvirates of jealousy, the last one which takes up the most time, is the boldest and the cleverest. It leaves you questioning and double questioning the motives, love and lust of all those involved. Whilst the first half of the film is good, though a little up and down, the second is exceptional, taking the film to places I could not have dreamt of. Complex, dense and brilliant places. I won’t go into too much detail of what they are, because it is best to discover these surprises with minimal knowledge of what is to come. Needless to say though, it is a pretty bold narrative that is willing to aim its story and message at a genuinely adult audience unlike so many films, even ‘serious’ ones, which feel the need to dumb down their message.
I thought I had the film pegged, I knew it was going to descend into a Nazi-centric ordeal in the later stages. But director Bob Fosse is too clever to take it such an obvious direction. Rather the Nazis continue to loom over the film as an ominous presence, occasionally coming out of the shadows to lay a beating on someone or murder a Jew’s dog, but generally remaining on the periphery of the action. In some ways, they are all the more ominous for this fact as they remain not quite central, leaving the audience to ponder when they will next be injected into the action. The effect is also that the viewer is left to ponder what effect they will have on the characters after the film has finished, as the war years continue to ramp up. The attitudes of some of the characters to the Nazis are also very interesting, especially if they are historically accurate. Viewed by some as nothing more than a fad of young thugs, others (the richer Germans) consider them a good thing. They will get rid of the Commies, and then we (i.e. the German Germans) will get rid of the Nazis. Obviously history shows that is definitely not how things turned out. The film also portrays the ugly narcissism and sheep mentality of Nazism that allowed the scourge to spread throughout Germany like wildfire.
The film is really highly stylised in its shooting, costuming and just overall presentation. It looks excellent and takes you to the time and place that the film is set. The songs, which move from setting the background atmosphere of the cabaret club, to reflecting the narrative action are also really quite good. They are employed very differently to those in a traditional musical. Whilst they do begin to reflect the story, they are never used to drive the narrative. Rather they reflect on it, provide more detailed comment, but do not move the story along. As a young woman experiencing a bold European lifestyle, Minnelli is fantastic, having a unique and very expressive (in a good way) method of acting. Hers is a much more complicated and intriguing character than one is conditioned to expect from Hollywood filmmaking. She is promiscuous, vulnerable, strong, has her hang ups including daddy issues and harbours dreams (or is that delusions) of film stardom. A woman who cannot bear to be constrained by domesticity and family. Whilst Minnelli is undoubtedly the star of the film and the focus of the narrative, all of the smaller roles are equally as interesting and just as well performed by the actors who inhabit them.
Never mind being one of the best musicals of all time, Cabaret is one of the better films of all time. It is a wonderfully eccentric love story, the kind that it is so rare in film history to get. Singularly original and challenging filmmaking, be sure to check it out if you have never seen it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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