Thursday, May 2, 2013

Classics: A Review of Cabaret by Lauren Ennis

Liza with a Z
“Wilkommen, bienvenue, and welcome!”, Joel Grey mischievously sang as he and the cast of Cabaret ushered in a new era in the American movie musical. Prior to the 1971 hit, movie musicals were generally light fare that provided viewers with a temporary escape through a series of smile filled numbers and paper-thin plots. Cabaret transformed the genre by taking the standard boy-meets-girl plus musical numbers formula that musicals had previously thrived on and turning it on its head. Through its combination of history, social commentary, and divinely decadent musical numbers Cabaret revitalized the musical genre and provided audiences with the intelligent entertainment that they craved.

The film begins at the Kit Kat Club, a sleazy nightclub in Berlin, circa 1931. Grey’s Master of Ceremonies beckons to the club’s clientele (as well as the audience) to “leave your troubles outside” and enjoy the decadent entertainment to come. The story then focuses in on two of its central characters, as English graduate student Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin. Brian has come to the city in hopes of completing his thesis and earning a small living teaching English lessons. Brian arrives in Berlin as a naïve tourist, but soon finds his entire world-view turned upside down when he meets his neighbor, Kit Kat dancer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli in her most iconic performance). Sally proceeds to introduce Brian to the Kit Kat Club and its bohemian clientele of drag queens, gigolos, and struggling artists. Over time, Sally and Brian form a relationship that seems to fill the void in both of their emotionally empty lives. Unfortunately, the innocence of their initial romance is quickly tainted by the corrupting influence of a local wealthy playboy (Helmut Griem) and the increasingly hostile political situation in Germany.

The escapism of Sally and Brian’s relationship is directly contrasted by the complications of the relationship between their friends Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson). Fritz is a gigolo who devotes himself to winning over Jewish heiress Natalia, only to find himself faced with the dilemma of falling in love with her. The differences in their social statuses and religions force Natalia to end the relationship in spite of her feelings for him. This in turn leads Fritz to give up the life of leisure that he’s been enjoying in Berlin and confess that he is Jewish as well, but has kept this hidden since moving to the city. While Sally and Brian find themselves embarking upon one pleasure after another without facing the consequences (at least initially), Fritz and Natalia find their relationship threatened as soon as it begins. The couples further contrast one another in the way that Brian and Sally spend the majority of the film attempting to ignore the growing influence of the Nazis as Fritz and Natalia cope with its effects upon their daily lives. By the end of the film, both couples arrive at a crossroads where they realize that they must choose sides, or face the inevitable consequences.

Nothing unusual to see here, keep walking.
At first glance, Sally seems to be yet another in Hollywood’s long line of cute and quirky heroines with her incessant tales of her ‘shocking’ personal life and care free attitude (the original novel form of Sally inspired Capote’s Holly Golightly). Upon closer observation, however, her manic persona is revealed to be a façade, which hides a lonely woman desperately in need of a place where she belongs. Sally’s duel persona is best highlighted by two of her musical numbers; “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time”. In Mein Herr, she sings a risque song about moving through life “man by man” while performing a playfully sexy dance reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s star-making turn in The Blue Angel. She bewitches the audience with the femme fatale image she presents, and receives a rousing applause. Her bravado is later revealed to be part of a well-constructed image when she performs “Maybe This Time” after breaking down in front of Brian when she is ‘stood-up’ by her father. She performs the song without any theatrics in a scene of raw emotion that serves as a confession of who Sally really is. In the song she laments spending most of her life as a ‘loser’, but expresses hope that “maybe this time I’ll win”. The lyrics demonstrate the necessity of maintaining her false persona as a coping mechanism against a harsh world and her overwhelming need to be loved. By revealing the various contradictory layers of its leading lady’s personality, the film demonstrates how ordinary people can be so consumed by their own demons that they fail to perceive the evils surrounding them.

Although the film primarily focuses upon the personal relationships of its characters, it also utilizes its setting to provide social commentary. In the early 1970’s, America was still engaged in the Vietnam War, and had yet to recover from the social upheaval of the 1960’s. After a decade of social and political turmoil, Americans retreated into their personal lives and embarked upon a new age of pop-culture that became known as the ‘me decade’. In many ways, this era was strikingly similar to the culture of early 1930’s Berlin that the film’s characters inhabit. Following the devastating defeat of World War I and the ensuing economic collapse of the 1920’s, Germany also found its citizens turning away from life’s disappointments. As a result, the efforts of Sally and her friends to live ‘in the moment’ directly mirror those of many Americans during the 1970’s. The fact that the film starts as the Nazis begin to take power also provides a powerful backdrop, which contrasts the frivolous antics of Sally and Brian. It is this same backdrop of a country on the edge that provides the film with its greater context as a warning against the dangers of self-absorption and hedonism on both an individual and national scale.

One of Cabaret’s greatest triumphs is its sense of authenticity. Rather than having the characters spontaneously burst into song, as previous musicals had done, director Bob Fosse chose to relegate the musical numbers to the stage of the Kit Kat Club (with one exception). This stylistic break adds a level of realism to the film, as there is a clear divide between the characters’ daily lives and the fantasy world that they escape to. The film also boasts excellent sets and costumes that perfectly capture the era. Minnelli’s cabaret costumes in particular showcase the garishness and glamour of Berlin nightlife.

Cabaret truly is a movie fan’s musical, as it goes beyond the previous restrictions of the genre to tell a poignant tale of desperate people living in even more desperate times. The film rightfully went on to win eight Oscars in 1972 including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli), and Best Supporting Actor (Grey). Through its combination of historical setting and satirical musical numbers, the film transports viewers to a dangerously decadent time and serves as a chillingly relevant warning to our own era. So, come to the cabaret, old chum, where the songs are beautiful, the stars are beautiful, and the decadence is truly divine.

Promise that you won't go all David Gest on me later.

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