Pleasures of the Text
Chris Wisniewski on Cabaret
Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is one of those movies—there are too many—that I wish I could see again for the first time. While a first encounter with a film can be powerful, elemental, even transcendent, the moment is ephemeral—and each subsequent viewing seems to take us further and further from that moment of authenticity, from the purity of our original response. Before the fall of 1997, when I first saw Cabaret, I’d never had a profound emotional reaction to a musical, but as I watched a borrowed VHS of the film on the 19-inch television set in my freshman year college dormroom, I was overwhelmed. It felt more substantial than the other musicals I’d seen, more like a movie than a “movie-musical.” I can even remember the decisive moment, the image that both wrecked me and left me completely under the film's spell. It came in an idyllic scene set at an outdoor beer garden, somewhere in the German countryside in the middle of 1931. An impromptu Nazi rally erupts when a Hitler youth brings the crowd to its feet by singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The song begins sweetly, a tender melody performed beautifully for a hushed, adoring audience, with the towheaded, adolescent singer in close-up. Then the tempo builds. Fosse's camera tilts down to reveal the swastika adorning the boy's sleeve, and the crowd rises and joins in the anthem. What was once lovely and beautiful is transformed into something aggressive and militaristic. All the while, in the briefest of cutaways, an old man sits with his beer and scowls. When I saw it, that old man's face immediately became emblematic, for me, of an elusive sense of moral rectitude in the midst of ethical chaos, his scowl constituting a somehow comprehensible cinematic expression of political incomprehensibility. Those fleeting images catapulted Cabaret beyond song and dance to a dark and terrifying place. To encounter the scene—and the film—in all its ambiguity and immediacy for the first time was devastating.
Over the next year, Cabaret continued to enthrall and seduce me. I watched it more times than I could possibly count, and passed my newly purchased VHS copy on to others, practically forcing it into their hands like a missionary spreading the good news. And while I was still haunted by the cutaways to the old man, my obsession with those moments waned, at least comparatively, as I enthusiastically swooned, time and again, over the drunken, three-way embrace and erotically charged eye contact of the film’s three principal characters, American chanteuse Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), British graduate student and sometimes English instructor Brian Roberts (Michael York), and the playboy German baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), loaded as it is with palpable bisexual desire. To my still-adolescent gay eyes, that whiff of queer sexuality—from a '70s Hollywood film, no less—was intoxicating, titillating in a way I could never have expected of a mainstream movie from that era (or even, honestly, from a mainstream movie made today).
Since then, I’ve continued to watch Cabaret from start to finish on at least an annual basis. I’ll also pop the DVD in every once in awhile to enjoy a number or a scene, just for the delirious pleasure I get from seeing Liza stop the show with her climactic title number or to bask in the exhilarating energy of “Money, Money,” which now—ten years since that first viewing—earns the distinction of being my favorite scene. I’ve broken the film down into little pieces and reconstituted it time and again as it suited my fancy, all for the pure joy of seeing this and now that, hearing that song, looking at that image, pondering that cut. My experience of Cabaret is, simply, rapturous.
My autobiography notwithstanding, what should we make of how my reaction to Cabaret has changed over the years? In one sense, my descent from lofty aesthetics to base pleasures, from unsettling ambiguity to simple rapture, and from intellectual engagement to visceral thrill, flies in the face of expectation: Don’t we respond more powerfully and more deeply to works of art upon repeated exposure to them? Once the initial high of a film’s newness fades, doesn’t that free up our minds to engage more profoundly, to ponder open ends, to grapple with the complexities of the text?
This is why we keep coming back to films that we consider to be art rather than those that strike us as mere diversions; it's why we continually revisit Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane and Breathless and Vertigo, not The Money Pit or Terminator 2 or Another Gay Movie. And yet: for evidence to the contrary, just scan the titles other writers have taken on for this symposium. It’s not that we don’t return to those genuinely challenging masterworks time and again—we do, of course, and it’s endlessly rewarding. But there’s something to be said for the need we have to cry again, laugh again, get worked up again, or get off again, dependably and without intellectual exertion, that brings us back to movies we’d otherwise dismiss or, more likely, forget after one viewing. Indeed, I’ve seen Waiting for Guffman at least twice as many times as I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and though I think the latter may be the greatest achievement in the history of the cinema, no matter how many times I see the former, I laugh every time I even think about Parker Posey making a “healthy… low fat or non-fat…healthy…blizzard.”
We can hold our noses high above the rank stench of the vast wasteland of disposable cinema, but there's a certain kind of pleasure we all seek now and then from the movies we watch—something immediate and visceral—that is often independent of, though not necessarily at odds with, considerations of art. I certainly don't need to make any excuses for Cabaret. Directed by legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Cabaret is nothing if not a respectable object of obsessive repeat viewings. Jay Presson Allen's screenplay, adapted from the writings of Christopher Isherwood, sets the ill-fated love affair between Sally Bowles, a naive but charismatic singer and aspiring actress, and Brian, a bisexual British PhD student, against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi party in the closing moments of the Weimar Republic.
Fosse reimagines the Tony-winning musical by integrating the numbers fully into the backstage narrative, presenting most of them in a series of heavily edited sequences comprising mostly low-angle shots taken from the perspective of the audience. His bold and distinctive approach to montage, atypical for a choreographer-turned-film-director, defines Fosse's sensibility as an auteur. And Fosse is most certainly a towering American auteur, though his stature and legacy are a bit underestimated in contemporary critical circles. He only directed five films, but at least three of them, Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz, are masterpieces (Cabaret earned him the Oscar for directing, an award he won over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, and a few years later, he tied Akira Kurosowa for the Palme d'Or with All That Jazz); his films are among the most challenging and provocative movies to come out of Hollywood in the past four decades. With that in mind, it is perhaps disingenuous of me to talk of low pleasures and base instincts while trying to explain the peculiarly strong appeal of Cabaret.
Yet Cabaret satisfies almost in spite of its legitimacy, precisely on the terms of pure entertainment and uncomplicated pleasure. While Fosse integrates the music completely into the rich political and moral tapestry of the film, the music is so good that it can't help liberating itself from its own context, transcending the limits the film otherwise demarcates. The score and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb—immediately catchy, kinetic, jazzy, and beautifully sad—are among the finest ever produced for a Broadway musical, while the numbers they wrote for the movie (“Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr,” “Money, Money”) have themselves become American standards. In the 40 years since the show made its Broadway debut, the music from Cabaret has been performed and recorded by an impressive array of American legends, from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli’s musical performances set the standard against which almost any other Cabaret recording is judged. So no matter how much Fosse tries to contain the music within the film, who could resist pulling these moments out, remembering and rewatching them for the pure joy of the music, independent of the film's trenchant and sobering narrative? The same goes for Fosse’s choreography, which has proven just as influential and definitive as the work done by Minnelli and Grey (in the late nineties, when Rob Marshall choreographed Sam Mendes’s acclaimed revival of the show, he would draw heavily on Fosse's work). As a filmmaker, Fosse thinks like a choreographer, and he makes physical movement, musical rhythm, and montage flow in perfect synchronicity—as they do in the dazzling performance of “Mein Herr,” with Fosse’s dancers perched over, under, and around the chairs they use as props.
These qualities make Cabaret the perfect candidate for repeated, truncated, distorted, and otherwise fractured viewing experiences. It's a peculiar effect made possible by VHS and DVD and undoubtedly abetted by the emergence of the music video: now that we may skip forward and backward with ease, and now that we're so used to seeing music videos as self-contained mini-narratives, a good number from a film musical can function as a stand-alone unit, an easily digested bit of pop entertainment, completely satisfying on its own terms without elaboration. When I watch “Money, Money” or “Maybe This Time” or “Cabaret” in this way, I'm not necessarily thinking about Weimar Germany, nor am I thinking of the desperate sadness of Sally Bowles. Instead, I'm enjoying the virtuosity of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey as performers, the greatness of Kander and Ebb as songwriters, and the showmanship of Fosse as a choreographer and director.
Even as I pluck out these moments of pleasure, the tension Cabaret sets up between entertainment and critique—between base instincts and edification—is built into the film itself. Cabaret locates the rise of Nazi Germany within the hedonism of the Weimar Republic. The decadence and insularity of the club at which Sally performs, the Kit Kat Club, presided over by a malevolent Master of Ceremonies (Grey), functions as a metaphor for Germany itself and a mirror to the characters' selfishness and ethical confusion, an impression literalized in the images that bookend the film, a distorted reflection of the Kit-Kat audience seen on the surface of a kaleidoscopic stage wall. This political and moral commentary does not come packaged in a sweeping condemnation, though. The Kit Kat Club and the performers within it are simultaneously alluring and revolting, sexy and disturbing. Fosse seduces us with the glamour and the fun of it all, as violence, fascism, and anti-Semitism creep quite literally into the frame. He lures us in with the pleasures of music and movement, cinematography and performance, only to implicate us in the spiritual decay of a community, a culture, and a nation.
We can take these pleasures piecemeal and remove them from the context of Fosse's art, but only to a point. Indeed, of all the arguments I could make for this film's greatness, perhaps this is the most compelling: whenever I watch Cabaret from start to finish, still, after all these years and repeated viewings, despite the irrepressible smile it brings to my face for nearly an hour-and-a-half of its running time, after the Master of Ceremonies bids his farewell and takes his final curtain call, I am still left just as I was the first time I watched the film—speechless, terrified, and devastated as the closing credits silently roll.