Criterion Prediction #144: Cabaret, by Alexander Miller
Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson
Synopsis: While the Weimar Republic is ending, the Nazi party is rising but the decadent Kit Kat club is a world unto itself for cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Minelli), who is also juggling a complicated love life with her roommate Brian (York) and wealthy socialite Maximillian (Griem).
Critique: In my mind, there are three ways to see Berlin. There’s Fassbinder’s Berlin, Petzold’s Berlin, and Fosse’s Berlin. Each is unique; while they all share some similar strands of DNA, each director gives the city its own flavor and it’s impossible to argue which is the “best.” While Fassbinder, ever the deviated romantic, washes the city in hazy filters and flickering light, Christian Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix takes cues from Fassbinder while opting for a more sharp, angular presentation that is dourer than his predecessors. In the case of Cabaret, it’s the outsider point of view that makes the film so indelible. Bob Fosse lens’ the city with the unique imprint of a high tourist, with an equally calibrated eye for ribald escapism and historical precedence while retaining the enlivening sense of discovery that becomes a cathartic drive for the characters and a narrative construct.
Cabaret is a film that you can fall in love with. Minnelli is intoxicating as the winsome American Sally Bowles; the cherubic naiveté that Michael York naturally embodies is a formative contrast to her character; Helmut Griem looks and plays the part of a vain and wealthy baron. But, it’s the animated and enigmatic Joel Grey who plays the eponymous emcee of the Kit Kat Klub who delivers a slyly captivating performance that leaves a strong impression as his rallying of allegorical song numbers and performances become a cultural barometer for Berlin’s shifting socio-political alliances.
While Fosse would give in to more Fellini-esque self-indulgence (some of which works to great effect) with his self-reflexive All That Jazz, his comparatively restrained expression in Cabaret is decidedly poignant, measured and is edited by David Bretherton with a diamond cutter’s eye. The film’s most significant achievement is its structure and the revisionist approach to musical filmmaking. Cabaret is arguably the best diegetic musical, the dance and song numbers are elaborate, ornate but exist without the self-conscious need to justify their presence, Fosse, a veteran and masterful choreographer admiration for the precision and talent of singing and dancing he holds onto the musical numbers with a tactful sense of control. Fosse’s fearless trek into a narrative that frankly explores excess, homosexuality, and the Nazi party without winking, blinking, or preachy cultural glad-handing. Cabaret is a rare case of a film that’s varied moving parts function in perfect harmony, and the film is as relevant now as it ever was and continues to be a gold standard in cinema history.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: It’s Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. What other qualifiers could you possibly ask for? Well, the film would also make a great companion to the wonderful dual format release of All That Jazz, and Criterion has been able to acquire the rights to more mainstream classics in recent years, (Gilda, The Graduate, His Girl Friday) and Cabaret, which was distributed by Allied Artists a company who has a fair share of titles in The Criterion Collection, Shock Corridor, Riot in Cell Block 11, The Atomic Submarine, The Naked Kiss, all of which are still in print and go as far back as the spine #18 (The Naked Kiss) and as recent as #704 (Riot in Cell Block 11). Furthermore, Cabaret, as a function of pride month, is streaming on Filmstruck, not always an indication of a future release but a welcome presence nonetheless.