From the opening number, that nearly stops the show before it starts, Cabaret lets you know what it's all about. The devilish Master of Ceremonies prances and preens and welcomes the audience to the performance with a sinister, almost knowing grin among the ribald revelry over which he provides. Here is your escape; here is your distraction, but what you are running from is never truly gone. The show, literally and figuratively, features a reflection of its audience, and as broad and exaggerated and whimsical as that reflection grows, there's still a palpable strain of darkness running through, that may be pushed off to the side, but never truly avoided.
Such is the journey of Sally and Brian, who stumble into each other's life, each escaping into the joys of hedonism, of la vie boheme, to escape a certain brokenness at their core, an attempt to outrun the little thoughts gnawing away at them, to fill the holes in their lives with liquor and sex, or invented fathers and dreams of stardom. There's a sadness at the heart of Sally Bowles, belied by her free-spirited whimsy and the breezy air with which she carries herself. And Brian too, though more of a Cipher, finds himself wrestling with his own feelings about his sexuality, with a guilt at what he deems to be deviance in a culture where a group utterly intolerant of his lifestyle, and his friends, are growing in power and influence. Each can only run for so long, can take refuge in one another for so long, before realizing that as wonderful as it can be, it's a temporary escape, a fantasy, that they would not be able to sustain in the long run, and losing that dream is as sad and sweet as it is necessary.
It's easy to see the influence Cabaret has had in the nearly fifty years after the film version's release. Rent invokes its intoxicating and yet very fraught depiction of the bohemian life, of individuals on the outskirts of society finding each other, finding patrons who wish to dabble in that life without plunging too deep, and the dizzying highs and crestfallen lows that come with it. Chicago borrows its brilliantly deployed conceit of contrasting the personal dramas between Sally, Brian, and their cohort, with cuts to numbers and routines on the cabaret stage that give shading to these events.
That stage, and the way the film preserves the theatrical nature of its source material, is a key to what makes Cabaret so enthralling. Director Bob Fosse's camera is intimate in Brian and Sally's scene, where it lingers with the pair or sits still and watches the two of them just breathe and be together. But there's an amazing energy in the cinematography during those stage performances, with swift cuts and zooming shots that dart around the stage to give the viewer multiple vantage points of the amazing phantasmagoria the Master of Ceremonies has constructed.
And that Emcee, who guides the audience on screen and on the other side of it through this gaping glimpse at Berlin in the 1930s, ties the film together. Joel Grey oozes an almost sinister charm, and shines in every moment he's on the stage. In particular, his rendition of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" achieves so much, and conveys so many layers in a production that could easily have come off as farce. There's a ridiculousness to a man singing a love song to an erstwhile ape, but the subtext of it, made text in Grey's last whispered line communicates both the genuine melancholy that underlies the phenomenon he's signing about it, a sense that he's playing the audience, stoking their expectations and feeding them the chops their licking their lips for, but doing so purposefully, in a manner so playful and subversive that the meaning goes over their heads. It's a captivating, devastating number.
And those two adjectives capture the whole of Cabaret as well. Those performances, from Liza Minnelli's extraordinary voice, to Fosse's crisp yet fluid choreography, to the use of light and color renders it stunning in the moment, with a twinge that comes after when the rush of the performance ends and its embedded barbs linger. That's the sense of Sally and Brian's story as well, a pair of individuals who take each other to different places, who find peace and solace and even joy for a time, but who feel the lingering scars, and see the pain on the horizon.
Sally and Brian are Berlin in the movie, enjoying the present and trying to look away from what the future holds. As the film ends, and that slanted reflection shows more and more Nazi armbands in the audience, in the society that needs a cabaret to forget about what's coming, that current of horror that lurks beneath the joy and happiness and bombast on the stage makes it all the more salient, as much now as it did when the haunting spectre of World War II was only a generation ago. Cabaret is a feast for the eyes and ears, that harbors a looming sense of dread for both a country and couple, even as it revels in their excitement and affection as they stand, with their hearts full, drinking in life and love.
For anyone thinking about watching this, I was most likely in your shoes. Assuming this was just a musical (it kind of is - and although I knew the setting and some other little bits) however it is so much better and more than just that. The plot and darkness to it was rather moving at times; knowing that this wonderful city of Berlin would be brought so low. Hearing characters try to live in this darkening cityscape made me stop and really watch. I thought those elements would be very much background however it really is woven through the foreground of the film.
Give it a go. And this is coming from someone who really doesn't like musicals.