|Joel Grey in CABARETCourtesy of Warner Bros.|
1972, 124 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
Cabaret is showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of a film series entitled "Roadshow: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s" which takes its name from Matthew Kennedy's book of the same name. Kennedy introduced the screening of Cabaret that I attended.
Bob Fosse's Cabaret is a largely-forgotten film. Back in 1972 when it premiered, it was a critical and commercial success. At the Oscars, it won eight awards including Best Director for Fosse, Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, and Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey. Cabaret still has the record for most Oscars won without a Best Picture win. Unfortunately for Cabaret, The Godfather was released the same year and the rest is history. However, Cabaret is a great film and an unusually racy one for its time. It is the first in a series of films Fosse made in which characters or societies self-destruct. Lenny and All That Jazz (two other jaw-droppers) followed.
With Cabaret, all of the music is diegetic - the music is heard by the characters and exists in the world of the movie. With the exception of one song, every song is sung in the Kit Kat Club, a nightclub in 1930s Berlin where Minnelli's Sally Bowles works. The songs sung at the club comment on the plot - a daring move on the filmmakers' part. Up until Cabaret, musicals were big affairs; three-hour extravaganzas full of stars, lavish sets and costumes, and too many musical numbers for their own good. Cabaret was fairly economical at 124 minutes (it's a bit too long, but nothing compared to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story). These films are quite good in their own rights, but none of them ever needed to be three hours long.
And what's more, Cabaret is actually about something. It is about the fall of a corrupted society and how it made way for an even more corrupted one. It is a scathing indictment of the blind upper classes of German society during the Weimar Republic. In fact, it is not unlike Vittorio De Sica's heartbreaking The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
Cabaret is not a piece of escapist entertainment. As Sally's world starts cracking under the growing darkness in Germany, the music and tone of the film get darker. Sally may try to deny the fact that the world is changing (for her, life is a cabaret, as the song goes), but Fosse shows us the true evil lying in plain sight.
Fosse, for all of his maximalist tendencies, was a master of subtlety, at least in Cabaret. Nazism isn't something that is shown as an overwhelming force of evil throughout the film; it is something that takes hold and gradually begins to become more overwhelming (the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sequence is chilling), just as it began to overwhelm life in Germany.
Overall, Cabaret is a great film and one that time has been very kind to. Unlike other musicals produced around the time Cabaret was released, it hasn't aged much. The songs are just as catchy, the humor is very racy, and the filmmaking still feels fresh. The only fault I can find with Cabaret is that it drags a bit late in its middle portion. However, that is not nearly enough to sink a film I consider one of the greatest ever made.