The first act of Cabaret is about introducing British guy Michael York to Weimar-era Berlin and to the life and times of his neighbor Liza Minnelli. Minnelli’s an American ex-pat; she’s landed in a cabaret and is trying to sing, dance, and sleep her way into movies. York’s there to teach English and get some experience before he becomes a boring Cambridge professor.
The second act is about the rise of Nazism in the early thirties and how much effect it can have on ex-pats. Or it would be if York and Minnelli were paying attention; instead, they’re letting rich German guy Helmut Griem play with them. Griem is in need of affordable diversions, and York and Minnelli are broke.
The third act is about the tragedy of York and Minnelli and how the problems of little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy world. Director Fosse’s got an inspired narrative distance to York and Minnelli—he has it throughout the film, but in the third act, it’s even better because first, it pays off. Everyone shows their hand, both the characters and then Fosse revealing how the film’s actually been working, and the third act works through the repercussions. It’s sort of like the third act is an extended epilogue to the epical arc the film only barely spotlights.
Because while York and Minnelli are drinking champagne and playing with Griem, their friends Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson are experiencing the realities of Nazism. Wepper’s a wannabe gigolo; Berenson is the perfect mark. She’s rich and beautiful but Jewish. It’s not a problem for Wepper; it’s a problem for Berenson. Over the course of their courtship, in addition to Wepper falling hard for her, the local brownshirts start targeting her family.
Cabaret’s most salient arc is for Wepper and Berenson, who occasionally visit York and Minnelli to fill them in on the main plot. But the film’s not really about its arcs; it’s about the disquieting nightmare world everyone finds themselves in, the world of the cabaret.
Joel Grey plays the emcee at the club where Minnelli dances, but Fosse uses him throughout, an almost devil overseeing tragedies big and small. There are only a couple scenes where Grey and Minnelli interact—they have a remarkable musical number together, but Cabaret’s musical numbers are integrated into the narrative and compartmentalized from it—the scenes where Grey and Minnelli engage each other, however, are profoundly disturbing. Just like Fosse uses Grey to imply the macro changes to Germany, Grey’s also there to make some implications about Minnelli’s personal changes. Cabaret is about dreams never coming true while the nightmares instead do. Grey’s the master of ceremonies and nightmares.
Fosse shoots much of the film in close-ups, especially when York and Minnelli are becoming friends. The focus is on the characters, not their setting. Fosse zooms out for some other sequences, the ones contextualizing the characters in the changing Germany. The changing Germans then get the close-ups, Fosse emphasizing the humanity of their inhumanity. There’s a devastating beer garden Nazi youth singing sequence (the master race has such bad teeth and skin) where Fosse malevolently reveals the extent of Nazism among the populace. York’s ostensibly the one watching the revelation unfold, but it’s the viewer. York’s going to get to put his head in the sand while the audience presumably knows what’s coming.
It’s unclear how much the growing Nazi movement impacts York and Minnelli’s arc. It definitely has some effect, but a lot is going on; the film never reveals anywhere near all of it. Actually, the film doesn’t even show most of it. The audience is not privy to York and Minnelli’s thoughts or secrets, just what they’re going to share with the world or one another. And if they’re keeping secrets from each other, it passes over to the audience.
Minnelli and York are tragic characters without being tragic figures. Fosse always finds a way to show the character through the caricature, which is quite the trick given the importance of caricature in the cabaret performances—the most terrifying implication, of course, is Grey’s emcee isn’t a horrifying sight gag but is an active participant. It’s never more impressive than with Minnelli, however. It’s a sensational part, with Fosse and Minnelli able to do all sorts of minor character developments and reveals along the way. York’s got the epical arc—young English man abroad—and Minnelli gets the character study. Even with the film presenting Minnelli almost entirely through York’s observation in the second act. When Minnelli does a musical number, and York’s not there, it takes a second to remember it’s her movie. Well, it’s the cabaret’s movie, and she’s in the cabaret.
Fosse leans heavily into making the Life is a Cabaret song metaphor work for the whole picture. Fosse and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth don’t exactly soft-focus the non-cabaret scenes, but there’s always more reality to the musical numbers. The camera captures the performers waiting and watching from backstage, for example. Or whatever magic Unsworth does to make the stage’s lights visually sear without changing the lighting mood. Cabaret is one hell of a gorgeous film. As impressive as Unsworth’s photography gets, David Bretherton’s editing is even better. He and Fosse cut the musical numbers precisely, seemingly on the actors’ rhythm, but the rest is just as well-edited. Every cut in Cabaret is divine.
Great costumes from Charlotte Fleming, production design from Rolf Zehetbauer, and sound from David Hildyard. The music—Ralph Burns arranging—is excellent. Ditto Jay Presson Allen’s script. Obviously, Fosse is the superstar, but he’s got a great crew and cast.
Minnelli and Grey give the best performances, then York. York never gets to be flashy—he is British, after all—and does an excellent job radiating nervous energy. Wepper and Berenson are outstanding. Griem’s fine. He’s just a shallow blue blood, de facto glamorous, and Cabaret’s about what’s behind the glamour. Both real and imagined.
It’s a devastating and devastatingly good motion picture.