No ordinary musical, "Cabaret," like Visconti's "The Damned," suggests that the rise of Germany's Nazism matched a rise in bisexuality, homosexuality, and sadomasochism. That's an oversimplification, but Nazism's dark recesses and icons -- boots, leather, sculpted muscles, racial superiority, outdoor rallies, and Aryan brotherhood -- offer powerless people an addictive dose of machismo. Set in a 1930s Berlin cabaret in which decadence and sexual ambiguity - e.g., women mud-wrestlers between acts - "Cabaret" has a naughty ambience, and avoids the cliché that musicals should make us happy. Director Fosse never lightens the movie's despair; his bleak version won the Academy Award's "Best Director."((The main character is an interesting literary invention, Sally Bowles, who first came to life in Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," then appeared in the play and movie "I Am a Camera," before returning to the stage in this musical, then in its movie version. Brought magnificently to the screen by Minnelli, she accepts what the cabaret offers -- that the point is to laugh, sing, and live forever in the moment, to refuse to take things seriously -- even Nazism -- and to relate to other people only up to a point. She has warmth and emotion, but much of it is theatrical; when the chips are down, she's as perverse as her "divinely decadent" dark fingernail polish.((Liza Minnelli as Bowles performs her musical numbers, including the stunning finale, "Cabaret", proving she's a great musical performer, although the heartlessness and nihilism of the character remain, even while we're highly entertained. Sally gets involved in a triangular relationship with a young English language teacher (Michael York), and a young baron (Helmut Griem), and if that particular triangle didn't exist in the stage version, it doesn't matter, but helps define the movie's whole feel of moral anarchy, and it is underlined by the sheer desperation in the cabaret itself.((The master of ceremonies (Joel Grey) is determined to keep the merriment going, at whatever psychic cost, and with poignant compulsiveness. When the song "Cabaret" comes at the end, you realize it's not a song of happiness, but of despair. The context makes the difference. In the same way, seeing Germany on the eve of the Nazi ascent to power makes the entire musical into an unforgettable cry of despair.
Bob Fosse, based on the stage musical by Isherwood
Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Michael York
1930s' Berlin; cabaret; Nazism; alternate lifestyles
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