Divine Decadence: 'Cabaret' at 50

On the grimmest and most thrilling movie musical ever made

Warner Bros. Entertainment/YouTube
Adam Nayman
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“Being characteristically a pessimist and cynic, this and some of the other nice things that have happened to me [recently] may turn me into some sort of hopeful optimist,” said Bob Fosse, accepting the Best Director Academy Award for Cabaret in 1973. “And,” he added, “ruin my whole life.”

Winning an Oscar did not turn Fosse into a hopeful optimist, and he ruined his life just fine on his own. Sam Wasson’s exhaustive 2013 biography paints a portrait of the artist as a neurotic manipulator and self-loathing narcissist whose achievement of a success commensurate with his gargantuan talent — as a director, as a choreographer, and as a cartographer of his own very fragile human condition — brought him no satisfaction. “You spend your whole life trying to get known and then you spend the rest of it hiding in the toilet,” Fosse said the same year he copped an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony before checking himself into a psychiatric facility; he emerged just in time to have a heart attack on his next project.

Fosse’s legend is grotesquely elegant enough to serve equally as fodder for alt-comedy throwaways — like the bit in Oh Hello! that imagines him haunting the rafters of the Lyceum Theatre, “snorting Dexedrine and drinking Visine” — and the full-on prestige miniseries treatment. Many of Wasson’s harrowing, spectacularly unflattering anecdotes were strewn through 2019’s Fosse/Verdon, which tried to shape individual episodes to the aesthetic contours of its subject’s screen and stage creations. But while the show’s quick-cut homages duly mimicked Fosse’s cinematic style, they never quite captured his work’s startling harshness and modernity.

Cabaret turns 50 years old this month and remains astonishing both in its craftsmanship and its contradictions. It may be the grimmest and yet most thrilling movie musical ever made, a rude and vital gesture of weaponized showmanship, a joyous, cathartic wallow in pessimism and cynicism, an all-night party where hope and optimism go to die.

“Divine decadence,” purrs dark-coiffed song-and-dance-girl Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) as she flashes her manicure at the young man who’s come to rent a room in her Berlin boarding house. The phrase simultaneously describes the hothouse green of the American expatriate’s nail polish — a jealous shade to turn Nomi Malone emerald — and the vibe she’s trying to cultivate while living la vie boheme in between bookings at the skanky Kit Kat Klub. It’s the divinity — and hellishness — of decadence that attracted Fosse to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 stage musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar-era memoirs, which had described a thriving, only slightly surreptitious queer community open to artists, agitators, and outsiders of all kinds.

Cabaret turns 50 years old this month and remains astonishing both in its craftsmanship and its contradictions.

Sally, who enjoys the company of iconoclasts while striving to be one herself, is a wonderfully corruptible protagonist — loosely based on Isherwood’s friend and fellow Berlin scenester Jean Ross, a hardline communist and war correspondent who would live to resent her association with the character. Too pretty to truly be an Ugly American, and transparent as cellophane in her ambitions, Sally channels delusions of grandeur into a stage persona only made more electrifying by its low-rent context; her star wattage burns brighter in bad lighting. In plot terms, Cabaret chronicles Sally’s salad days and passionate, abortive romance with the aforementioned lodger, Brian (Michael York) — a veiled stand-in for Isherwood whose fluid sexuality complicates the pair’s friendship with a wealthy German playboy, as well as any potential for a conventional life together afterwards. What it’s actually about is the social and political transformation of Berlin around the characters, with the Kit Kat Klub and its nameless, irrepressible, quasi-demonic Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) serving as a sort of Greek Chorus.

“I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive,” writes Isherwood early in 1939’s Goodbye to Berlin, underlining his role as a mute, perceptive witness to the unfolding of history. Fosse’s camera is anything but passive, lurking through hallways, curling like smoke, and always leering through windows, doorways, or frames. Cabaret’s world is seen through glass, darkly, broken up into prismatic patterns and coated in a thin accretion of sleaze (you almost want to wipe down the screen). Fosse’s major innovation in revising the script was to remove all of the non-diegetic songs, creating a rupture not only with the original show — which had a larger and more complex set of storylines — but the utopian conventions of movie musicals, which permitted their characters free, leather-lunged bursts of ecstatic personal expression, reveries about hills alive with the sound of music or corn as high as the elephant’s eye. Here, reality rules, and the only ones who can carry a tune are the Emcee and his multilingual, polymorphously perverse ensemble. Shapely and shameless in leather and lace, the troupe models androgyny as a provocation, and the tinny, insidious little songs they’re singing — voracious earworms all, circular and recursive, in thrall to the threepenny operas of Kurt Weill — inventory lust, greed, pride and other deadly sins, all performed with a sort of virtuoso disgust.

The great theme of Fosse’s work always was the intoxicating, immolating nature of show business, literalized in the revised climax of his stage show Pippin, with its gormless young hero goaded by a theatrical troupe into (almost) setting himself on fire in front of a live audience (the revision was Fosse’s idea). Minnelli plays Sally superficially as a projection of silent-era vamp Louise Brooks (a starlet best known for opening Pandora’s Box) but the diva she evokes is her mother, Judy Garland, specifically in her doomed ingenue phase. In the stage version of Cabaret Sally’s talent is ambiguous, but here she’s a star waiting to be born, a gadfly drawn to the flashbulbs and colored lights, benignly hypnotized away from any awareness of what’s happening around her. Ignoring the partisan pamphlets and graffiti slogans marking her daily route to work, she literally fails to read the writing on the wall. During the one musical number that takes place beyond the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally is sleeping off an afternoon beer-garden bender while Brian and apolitical playboy Max (Helmut Griem) take in an outdoor concert that gradually turns into reactionary hymnal — a sing-along anthem of Aryan aspirations. “Somewhere a glory awaits unseen” trills a strapping Hitler youth, as blonde-haired and blue-eyed as a Midwich Cuckoo.

The tinny, insidious little songs they’re singing inventory lust, greed, pride and other deadly sins, all performed with a sort of virtuoso disgust.

The “Tomorrow Belongs to Me'' sequence is Cabaret’s mask-off moment, and stands at the apex of Fosse’s moviemaking art, marrying the rapturous propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg rally doc Triumph of the Will to slow-burning horror out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, conformism as a series of screen-filling close-ups. The near-subliminal cut, as the final chorus swells, to the heavily made-up Grey nodding knowingly in front of his vanity back in the city beats William Friedkins’ subliminal demon imagery in The Exorcist by a year, and it’s scarier than Pazazu, too.

If Minnelli’s indomitable yet oblivious Sally is Cabaret’s (broken) heart and soul — and, during her performance of the title song, its embodiment of the old koan that the show must go on — Grey is its mincing, insidious id. The actor was forced on a skeptical Fosse by his producers but ended up serving perfectly as a projection of his director’s masochistic ambivalence about his own showmanship. “In here, life is beautiful,” the Emcee insists, a trickster whispering half-truths and innuendo to power for bourgeois thrill seekers. The key to the devastating faux-romantic ballad “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” sung to a performer in a gorilla costume, isn’t the sardonic punchline that the object of his affections is Jewish, but that it’s a fine line between satire and acquiescence. At one point, the Emcee pantomimes himself a Hitler-ish mustache, as if auditioning to be a court jester; an ostensible site of ribald resistance is tinged by capitulation.

Circa 1972, the old-school Hollywood musical was mostly on life support, a victim of swelling budgets and shifting cultural tastes; Fosse’s 1969 debut Sweet Charity had been a costly flop despite its licentious, modern sensibility. A critical hit branded with the scarlet letter of an X-rating in the UK, Cabaret was a shot in the arm for an entire genre, not only bridging the historical gap backwards from the paranoid political zeitgeist of the early 1970s to the horrors of the Third Reich, but forwards towards exultantly sleazy rock operas like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose reigning Sweet Transvestite antihero was like spiritual sibling to Grey’s Emcee. Not only did Fosse’s evocation of a flamboyant-yet-secretive subculture throbbing at the margins resonate in a post-Stonewall context, the film’s vision of a catastrophic solipsism rolling out the red carpet for authoritarians was, and remains, a history lesson with present-tense applications — a movie for a moment when we are all cameras.

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.