It’s incredible how effective Bob Fosse’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway stage musical Cabaret still felt to me on a delayed introductory viewing after years of feeling over-exposed to its basic elements. The lush sets & performative androgyny of its stage performances are a tamer, Hollywood-flavored version of the same acts I’ve seen play out at New Orleans cabarets like One Eyed Jacks & The AllWays Lounge for years. Liza Minnelli’s central performance as the lovable Manic Pixie Dream Bawd extraordinaire Sally Bowles might, unfathomably, be the first time I’ve ever seen her in a proper film, but I’ve already spent plenty of time with her persona in television clips, audio recordings, and local drag impersonations. Most notably, I had seen the 1993 filmed-for-television, Sam Mendes-directed adaptation of the same stage play several times before, as it had been singled out to me as the ultimate version of the source material available (mostly thanks to Alan Cumming’s definitive performance as the menacingly horny emcee). All this pre-exposure to Cabaret’s general milieu had prepared me to feel jaded & underwhelmed by Fosse’s Oscars-sweeping, Hollywoodized take on the material, but that wasn’t my experience at all. In the earliest sequences of the picture I was totally drunk on the pansexual bacchanal on display, and by the end I genuinely felt sick to my stomach, which I mean as a huge compliment. Fosse did not clean this property up for mass appeal. If anything, he found a way to make an already powerful substance even more dangerously potent by emphasizing the tools & tones of cinema to justify the act of adapting it in the first place. This is a great film in its own right, regardless of the virtues of any other form its story has taken since it was first published in the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, the Broadway play included.
Fosse’s fame as a dancer & a stage choreographer had me expecting a version of Cabaret somewhat close to the Mendes broadcast. Wide, static shots that value choreographed dance over camera movement & editing trickery are the norm for this kind of adaptation; at least, they were in an earlier era when Old Hollywood would regularly churn out big-budget crowd-pleasing musicals in an almost vaudevillian tradition. The 1972 Cabaret is much more aggressively cinematic than what that tradition prepares you for. Quick cuts of intricately arranged bodies captured in sweaty, leering closeups immediately excite the audience in the film’s earliest stage performances, completely blowing open the possibilities of what a stage musical can look like with the camera roaming around, under, and behind the dancers who’d normally only be viewed from a safe, fixed distance. Fosse directs the hell out of these performances, using harsh backlighting & grotesque closeups of audience reactions to completely disorient the audience into a shared drunkenness with the Berliners frequenting its central club. Gradually, though, the party sours and the cabaret performances become less energetic & less frequent as the lives of the performers and the politics of the world outside the club sink into fascism & despair. As much as this is the personal story of Sally Bowles and her latest drama-filled love affair, it’s in a larger sense the story of a sexually, morally liberal Berlin that’s lost over the course of the movie. It isn’t until we fully return to the immersive, camera-on-the-stage performances of the Kit Kat Klub in the film’s final moments that we realize just how much has changed over the course of the film and just how devastating that loss is. It’s a harsh blow to the gut, especially in how reminiscent that quiet decline into fascism is to the world outside our own pleasure-dome bubbles in the 2010s.
Cabaret builds much of its in-the-moment drama around two central romantic affairs – one in which Sally Bowles finds herself navigating a bisexual love triangle with her roommate & a financial benefactor who’s quietly bedding them both, and one in which a young Jewish couple perilously navigate the heavily policed class lines that divide them. There is some genuinely upsetting, heartfelt melodrama shared between these four friends, particularly in Bowles’s existential crisis as a freewheeling cabaret artist whose career is going nowhere. If nothing else, her self-lacerating breakdown in the line, “Maybe I’m not worth caring about, maybe I’m nothing,” is pure heartbreak. Still, the real substance of the movie is in how a larger, political drama plays out in the background, largely unnoticed by these self-absorbed libertine artists & intellectuals. Set in a 1930s Berlin, the film quietly tracks the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. At first, its members are treated as fringe lunatic bullies who aren’t welcome in the Kit Kat or any other club around Berlin, ostracized for their hateful hooliganism. By the end, the lewd, amoral performers of the Kit Kat are performing for an audience comprised entirely of Nazi scum. The war for who defines the spirit of Berlin was lost just under their noses as they minimized the Nazi threat as an ugly fad and continued about their personal dramas, unaware of the seriousness of the party’s rise to power. There’s a quiet menace to the way Swastikas become incrementally more ubiquitous as the film goes on, a gradual temperature change that Fosse expertly handles to the point where it doesn’t really hit you until you’re already boiling alive. Even being familiar with Mendes’s version of the play and knowing exactly where the movie was going, I still felt physically ill by the film’s final scenes. It’s effectively handled on a technical level but also just feels true to how Nazi ideology is currently on the rise in American politics as well. We may already be past the point where they’re just fringe hooligans who can be ignored as we go about our daily business, deliberately unaware.
This direct correlation with current events is not some unintended happenstance either. As much as the film carries a spiritual reverence for the sexual hedonism & defiant artistry of pre-War Berlin, it’s also very much a product of its own time. A few 70s-specific blouses & mirrored “disco” balls (which, admittedly, had been nightclub fixtures for decades) loudly barge their way into the production design, drawing attention to the way hippie counterculture had already been pulling aesthetic influence from the pre-War era. If the Kit Kat Klub performances were just a tad grimier (and far less artfully documented) you could almost pass them off as footage of San Francisco bohemian weirdos like The Cockettes or contemporary proto-punk glam acts like The New York Dolls or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sickening feeling I caught from Cabaret was likely just as potent in the early 70s, which had its own gradual rise in Conservative fascism to combat in the era’s anti-War, Free Love protests. In a best-case-scenario where our current bout with Nazi ideology is stomped out before it gains any more momentum, there will still likely be a quiet fascist contingent to keep at bay as the most vulnerable among us simply try to live fulfilling lives without having to constantly fight off oppressive bullies. In that way, the themes of this film are just as evergreen as the excitement of its stage musical cinematography, the drunkenness of its rapid-fire editing, and the sartorial pleasures of its sparkle-crotch tap costumes. That might not be good news for the world at large, but it speaks well to Cabaret’s value as a feature film adaptation, a work that’s apparently remarkably effective no matter how familiar you are with its source material or its real-world thematic substance.