Cabaret is one of the best musicals ever made–and that’s saying a lot, even coming from me. The Seventies were notoriously tough on old Hollywood methods of movie-making (as Paint Your Wagon can attest), and unsentimental realism became the hallmark of the day. So, how to make realism out of a genre that specifically calls for your characters to drop out of normal conversation and croon their dialogue? Set your film in Weimar-era Berlin, and have your lead sing in a cabaret that pokes fun at the joys and perils during the tide before the Nazi storm.
Of course, I know that the musical was a stage-play before it was a film, but Bob Fosse (as always) did a great job of adapting it to the tough, gritty world of Seventies cinema. Gritty, and yet still very camp–but whereas an earlier Fosse musical, Sweet Charity, was a campy look at a gritty sexual lifestyle (and even then toned down from its source material, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria), Cabaret goes further.
Some of the fun of the film comes with the tawdriness that seems silly yet sexually liberating on stage (“Two Ladies” comes to mind). Joel Grey as the “Master of Ceremonies” wears ambiguous make-up, appearing sometimes in drag as a put-on (think Bugs Bunny with a mop on his head). Yet his sinister leering and groping in quick jump-cuts behind the stage, sometimes interspersed with scenes of early Nazi street-thug violence, lets you know that all vice reaps its just reward, and everyone there will pay the piper very soon.
Perhaps the most diabolic part of the movie, though, comes not in the dank cabaret but in a bierhaus in a golden field, when an angelic cherub starts singing. Capturing the rise of Nazism better than most historical dramas, Fosse illuminates us when his Hitler Youth leads his call to arms, a chant about taking the future for a better tomorrow. It’s a real battle hymn of the reich, and when his sonorous angel voice is suddenly joined by an ever-growing chorus of voices young and old, some adamant, some proud, some angry, you know it’s the beginning of a terrible juggernaut of destruction.
It’s horrifying and grim, yet the movie motors it way back to the relationship between two people caught unaware and unable to change much of anything in the world around them–a nightclub dancer and an English Tutor. She’s promiscuous, he’s unsure of himself sexually, but when we find out Michael York’s character has shagged a Baron–well, that’s the gayest thing to ever hit cinema since The Boys In the Band. And yet it all falls apart into confusion, pregnancy,and regrets, it picks you up and reminds you that life is a game, and at it’s worst, sometimes you just gotta rail against the darkness and say “fuck it, I’ll be the grandest flop ever to wallow in obscurity!” Like at the end of The Seventh Seal, sometimes you just have to stand up to death, eyes wide, and bask in your aliveness.
Anyway, somewhere in the midst of all the Nazi imagery and decadent thirties Jazz and cross-dressing, the budding minds of glam rock got a huge kick out of this film. I mean, did you ever hear Lou Reed use a tuba before this movie came out? Tell me this song isn’t ripped right out of the Cabaret template: