****/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A
starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Marisa Berenson, Joel Grey
screenplay Jay Allen, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
directed by Bob Fosse
by Walter Chaw Bob Fosse's Cabaret is an astonishment. It's a milestone for musical adaptations, a scabrous mission statement early on for the best period in American film (in film anywhere, really), and, taken with her turn in The Sterile Cuckoo (and arguably as Lucille 2 on "Arrested Development"), everything you need to know about Liza Minnelli as a very down, very particular American icon. Daughter of one Judy Garland, whose 1969 death from an abuse of drugs and alcohol was no longer considered spectacular in the shadow of poor, martyred Marilyn Monroe, she represents the broken legacy of Old Hollywood. Ray Bolger said at Garland's funeral that she had just worn out. Poignant. Poignant especially because it happens the same year her daughter has a breakdown from a broken heart in The Sterile Cuckoo, and just three years before Minnelli's Sally Bowles composes herself a split second before the curtains part and she, snap, justlikethat, puts on a happy face for a Weimar audience fiddling as the Republic burns. As endings go, it's as horrifying as the editing error at the close of John Frankenheimer's 1966 Seconds--the film that, for my money, is the real beginning of the New American Cinema, appearing less than a year before the "official" starting gun of Bonnie & Clyde. Cabaret is a quintessential '70s picture, a devastating experience and an exhilarating one, too.
A cabaret singer in a Berlin on the brink, Sally Bowles (Minnelli) spends her days seducing her new border, wide-eyed academic Brian (Michael York), and spends her nights performing at the sleazy Kit Kat Club. She soon falls into a love triangle when she and Brian meet Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem); she loses Brian once she asserts her independence; and, one night, her hopes for a future dashed, she walks through the curtains and becomes something for everyone else, even as she's nothing to herself. Sally was played on Broadway during a lauded 1998 revival by the late Natasha Richardson, in a Tony-winning performance; for me, Sally Bowles is eternally steeped in extra-textual melancholia--a haunted character in a movie about endings that was excruciatingly current in 1972 America, and remains pregnant in 2013. It's as ageless as the sexless, strange Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), as pointed as the example of poor Fritz (Fritz Wepper), a German Jew trying to pass who reveals himself while wooing Natalia (Marisa Berenson), another Jew at a time in Germany when being Jewish was risky. Their choice of each other at all costs stands in contrast to Sally's choice to be free of any hint of accountability. At the end, it's clear that every choice ends in tears.
The title song's lyrics begin with the exhortation "What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play"--words that have an ironic counterpoint provided in a beer-garden sequence in which an angelic Nazi Youth Brownshirt sings a Nazi anthem. All stand and salute. It's out of fear, we understand, but one old guy refuses to participate, stolid against the rising tide. The dread of this scene underscores the dread of the entire piece: his opposition is impotent--this little moment of defiance will do nothing to save his country or his countrymen. Taken in a broader sense, Cabaret is Fosse's existential statement about the uselessness of swimming against the current. It takes one of cinema's defining heroines and punishes her for her independence and strength until, at the end, the expression of her resilience is made pyrrhic, even pathetic. She is Joseph K. before the Trial: guilty of unspoken crimes; condemned by the temerity of existing. Cabaret is nihilism writ large. Its genius is due in no small part to its ability--to Fosse's ability--to tie its nihilism to the act of not just entertaining, but also being entertained. Our spectatorship is akin to Sally's rejection of real connection, real consequence--and no matter, since real connection and consequence happen anyway.
But the moment of devastation is after Sally has had an abortion and decided against traveling with her lover to domesticity and a semi-knowable future. She's broken, it's obvious--and it's Minnelli as she never will be again, in a performance so pure and direct that it's difficult to gaze directly at the screen. She looks most like her mother at this moment in time--most like Garland as she was in A Star is Born, without any buffer between the screen persona and the personal demons. We hear the introduction, the band strike up, the applause start...and then the spotlight hits her, and she's instantly different. Minnelli at this point was still in the first of her four marriages but addicted to barbiturates and herself on the verge of the tightrope calamity of the next three decades of her life. Her Sally reflects that blend of Romantic naivety already in the throes of corruption. Fosse, too, the perfectionist choreographer, was on the brink: as detailed in All That Jazz, he would follow Cabaret with amphetamine abuse and womanizing and open-heart surgery. Fosse conceived the film as a literalization of an Otto Dix painting, and in its closing image--of an audience, dispassionate, frozen, reflected against a pounded surface along with the swastika--he achieves Dix's nightmarish vision of a neue sachlichkeit. In removing the "book" from the stage musical, he created in Cabaret its own hermetic reality--the mirror darkly, if you will, that functions simultaneously as the picture's bookmarks and its hallmark. It's an all-time masterpiece, mercurial and timeless. I am changed every time I see it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner finally ushers Cabaret to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation that feels filmic and faithful. The smoky darkness of the club sequences are filthy in a pleasing way, reminding of nothing less than Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti westerns, which were purposefully marred by storms and dust. There's not a hint of either edge-enhancement or noise-reduction to tamper with Geoffrey Unsworth's customarily diffuse cinematography, and the colours are satisfyingly lurid. The aforementioned beer-garden sequence is representative of this transfer's realized potential: brilliant and detailed, it captures that sachlichkeit contrast Fosse and Unsworth were going for. I've seen Cabaret close to two dozen times but, without hyperbole, never like this. Though the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track preserves the modesty of the original mix (the surrounds barely light up, except for reverb), it reproduces the showtunes with gratifying warmth and fullness.
Scholar and author Stephen Tropiano records a scholarly, authorial commentary that, although uneven and forever threatening to fall into the prosaic, is packed to the gills with useful, scene-specific information. Most of the disc's supplements first appeared on DVD, with the exception of this yakker and the freshly-minted "Cabaret: The Musical that Changed Musicals" (29 mins., HD), an invaluable retrospective featuring interviews with Minnelli, York (showing his mileage, sadly), Grey, and other surviving cast and crew, including composer John Kander. Among its many delights, the piece reveals that Minnelli had auditioned a few times for Fosse on Broadway without much success. I was already a fan of hers; now I'm a devotee--especially after the anecdote that Minnelli's dad, Vincente, screamed in her ear when it was announced that she'd won the Best Actress Oscar for the film.
"Cabaret: A Legend in the Making" (17 mins., SD) is a documentary from 1997 that is likewise indispensable, if suffused with less of the sense of loss and completion that an additional fifteen years affords. "The Recreation of an Era" (6 mins., SD) is a vintage B-roll assemblage that offers not much of value save context-free glimpses of Fosse at work. The curious "Kit Kat Klub Memory Gallery" is a series of brief outtakes from the new making-of. They run about twenty minutes in total and are well worth a visit. Cabaret's theatrical trailer (SD) rounds out the extras, while the DigiBook insert contains an unattributed overview plus cast biographies.