Thursday, July 26, 2012

Willkommen, bievenue, welcome Cabaret: Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey soar!

Movie Review: Cabaret

Director: Bob Fosse

Reviewed: 26 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (highest possible rating)

"Life is a cabaret, old chum.  Come to the cabaret!" croons a divine Sally Bowles, the American expatriate living in pre-World War Two decadent Berlin, sleeping around and dancing onstage at the Kit-Kat club, played with great vulnerability and aplomb by Liza Minnelli.  Partnered with Joel Grey's astonishing turn as the Master of Ceremonies, the two shine in Bob Fosse's remarkable musical Cabaret, a film that foregrounds the messy, tumultuous relationships among Sally, her next door neighbor and lover, the very British Brian Roberts (Michael York), a charismatic German businessman Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) with his laissez faire political and sexual interests, and another couple, one Jewish, one not.  Ultimately, the film foretells the growing crucible of Berlin with its boots and swastikas, its fear and violence, by focusing on the lives of these men and women in a time of growing crisis.

Liza Minnelli carries the film with a performance of great humanity and grace.  Her expressive eyes do so much work in the many close-up shots that Fosse employs; her singing and choreography are both stunningly original and remarkably human.  She lives, breathes, performs like a performer, and despite the role's manic-pixie-dream-girl template, Minnelli plumbs the depths of Sally's misery and anxiousness: her anger at her absent father, her ardent desire for fame, her unflappable determination to be the life of the party.  A favorite scene involves Sally Bowles trying to contain herself while in the presence of another beautiful woman, and the gestures and frustration boil over in ways that are interesting and true.  Minelli's Sally Bowles is a sad character, one of intelligence and passion, and one that I fear for in the ramp-up to the Third Reich.  Perhaps, Sally's character lacks some of the naivete or hollowness that Fosse intends by casting her with the dynamic Liza Minnelli (In fact, I had a difficult time figuring out how anyone would not be captivated by Sally, not take her to Hollywood, not make her a star!).  Simply put, the film would not work without Minnelli's tour de force performance of singing, dancing, and embodying the weakness and the strength of Sally Bowles, the American who has lost her way in a darkening city.  

In addition to riveting dance numbers and filming everything with medium shots or close-ups which give great focus on the eyes, make-up, and lips of characters, director Bob Fosse stages tableau shots which give us snapshots of the time: the beaten Kit-Kat club owner, bloodied by Nazi boots; a Russian corpse, presumably communist, strewn across a busy street with people looking in horror; an older German man who remains sitting while everyone around him stands in a nationalistic fever singing the song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," in a moment of ominous foreshadowing.  Fosse inserts German radio in the background of multiple scenes at Sally and Brian's flat, with the chatter underlining the rise of Nazism and Hitler, along with an elderly German woman stating at one point, "I wish we could go back to the days of the Kaiser!"

Allegorically, Fosse is wrestling with culpability, responsibility, and decadence with the hedonistic American trying to make it while remaining dangerously unaware of the growing maelstrom, the stuffy Brit who seems drawn to the Berlin nightlife while exploring his growing unease with the rise of Nazism and his impotence to stop it, and, most interestingly, the Baron Maximilian, who eyes Hitler as an opportunist and one who can be controlled by "real Germany" but ends up abandoning his country in a crucial moment of the film.  A very political film in very subtle ways, Cabaret shows people who will be swallowed up by history; we know the effects of many decisions made by characters in the film even if they do not.  A train out of the country has perilous significance.  A declaration of Jewish identity has a price.  An appeal to mercy can be taken as great weakness or worse, treason.

And the emcee, Master of Ceremonies, and Greek chorus of Cabaret is the marvelous Joel Grey, an elfin performer with a haunting and childlike whimsy of a performance with wigs, make-up, various costume changes which go from milkmaid to goose stepping soldier, and a charismatic sense of play.  The emcee's role, it seems, is to welcome and usher us into the darkness and twisted mirrors of the Kit-Kat club, to entertain us with his commentary and routines, to comment on the chapters of the film itself through song and dance and comedy, as well as to provoke us into considering the role of art in a fascist state, the role of the artist who performs for those he or she may personally abhor.  Can you take a Nazi Party member's money as an artist?  Should you?  In a world where famous musical artists are taken to task for exorbitant birthday party performances such as Beyonce or Mariah Carey's recent events for the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the role of the artist when confronted with cruel power is still present with us today.  Grey's emcee playfully sings a dazzling array of songs with amazing choreography, and the film lights up every time he appears.  Fosse shows restraint and lets dance sequences play out in real-time or at least in long, unbroken takes compared to the frenetic editing of today's films, allowing us to drink in everything that is going on at once onstage, as well as giving the cramped, confined quarters of the Kit-Kat club stage with its mirrors, curtains, and band an intimate feel; the barrier between performer and audience is nearly nonexistent as Grey dips into the audience from time to time for jokes and laughter. Fosse uses shots of the Master's face as jump cuts at other important moments in the film, signifying the performer's role as always commenting on those men and women and their travails, always seeing everything around him in the city as it spirals and spirals.

It is an astonishing performance.

The Master of Ceremonies adds an elegiac air to the dwindling days of bustling, cosmopolitan Berlin.  By all accounts, it was one of the most wonderful cities in the world during this time.  The audience slowly changes over the course of the film until the devastating final shot.  His songs and dancing then take on the air of a survivalist, a clownish desperate attempt to curry favor and possible reprieve from what is to come.  Is there hope?  When the SS Storm Troopers come to the Kit-Kat club, and come they will, the Master of Ceremonies and his troupe will have no place in the Third Reich.  We know where the Nazis will place them.  

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