Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite musical, Cabaret is always right up there at the top of the pile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love lighter stuff like Singing in the Rain and Calamity Jane, but there’s something about this film that transcends the limitations of the genre. While it boasts a whole bunch of solid gold songs, courtesy of Kander and Ebb, the film deals with much weightier issues than your average singalong. Set in Berlin in the early thirties, it documents the decadent nightclub entertainment of the era, set against the rising prominence of Hitler and the Nazi party. I’ve seen it a few times since its UK release in 1972, but only on small screens – this Vintage Sunday screening at The Cameo Cinema gives me the opportunity to properly reasses it. I’m happy to say it hasn’t aged one bit – indeed, given recent political developments, it feels eerily prescient.
Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin where he intends to write fiction, whilst financing himself by giving English lessons. He books in at a once-genteel boarding house and finds himself rooming nextdoor to entertainer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), currently wowing audiences at the seedy Kit Kat Club, presided over by the creepy and salacious MC (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally become close friends and, as time goes on, lovers – but their relationship is developed through turbulent and changing times. The Nazi party members who hand out leaflets at the club are at first derided and openly laughed at by the customers but, gradually, they come to prominence until they are calling the shots – a situation perfectly captured in the scene at a biergarten, where an angelic-faced member of the Hitler youth croons a stirring rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me and the bar’s customers, one by one, begin to sing along with him.
There’s so much to enjoy here it’s hard to know quite where to begin. First of all, there’s Minnelli, positively incandescent, the sheer talent seeming to blaze off her as she sings and dances with absolute authority. Joel Grey too is deliciously dissolute, clearly relishing the role he was born to play. But it’s director/choreographer Bob Fosse who is the real revelation, his mercurial visual style unleashing a whole blitzkrieg of unforgettable scenes. As in all the best musicals, the songs comment on and add to the action and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is forever cutting away to Grey’s leering, winking countenance as he slips us a knowing smile. ‘Look what’s happening here,’ he seems to be saying. ‘And you’re doing nothing to stop it.’
The tragedy, of course, is that none of the major players here ever achieved anything of comparable excellence in their lifetimes. Minnelli’s subsequent screen career is distinctly underwhelming, Grey’s likewise and Bob Fosse directed only another three features before his untimely death in 1987. But Cabaret stands as a dazzling example of the screen musical, a film that never mocks the flamboyant characters it depicts, never goes for the cheap shot and, most important of all, never shies away from asking profoundly unsettling questions.
If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, grab it; if not, see it anyway, in whatever way you can. Few films have such an immense reputation and even fewer actually deserve the acclaim they receive.
Cabaret is, quite simply, a musical masterpiece.