free stats

A new project has crossed my desk that compels me to watch a specific collection of movies: Cabaret, All That Jazz, The Cotton Club and Gone With the Wind. (And Schindler’s List, but I’ve watched that one recently.)

I remember Cabaret from my adolescence as being a daring, provocative, decadent, weird movie about the rise of Nazism in Weimar Berlin, as told through the eyes of a couple of young folks with complicated romantic lives. And it is still that, but what surprised me on this viewing is that it is, under all its decadence, a fairly conventional love story.

The structure of the conventional love story is: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Cabaret is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, but then, in the last few minutes of the movie, boy and girl both realize that they’re completely fooling themselves and go back to their previous lives — the boy goes back to his life as a homosexual academic, the girl goes back to her life as a dead-end entertainer. That’s really what the movie is about — the rise of Nazism in Weimar Berlin is really almost "local color" — the boy only becomes aware of it late in the narrative and the girl never really becomes aware of it at all. Nazism adds sociological weight to Cabaret, but the boy and girl of the romance don’t need Hitler to doom their relationship.

Boy and girl –Brian and Sally — "meet cute" in the traditional Hollywood way — he’s a shy, bookish lad fresh from the provinces and she’s a loud, reckless, streetwise flirt, and they are forced, through their poverty, to share a flat in a funky, off-beat boarding house. It’s practically a romantic comedy for the first few beats, if not for the scary, weird, deeply unsettling M.C. character who introduces the movie (and let me just say that Joel Grey remains riveting and astonishing in the role, lo these many decades later).

Besides being gay (a stumbling block for any boy-girl romance) Brian is at first put off by Sally’s brash promiscuity and grating shallowness. She’s his opposite: he’s bookish, prim and prissy. But soon enough he finds himself seduced by her vivacity and thirst for life and she temporarily "cures" him of his homosexuality.

So, a couple of crazy young people fall in love in a wacky nightclub in Berlin. So far, so good. Next, a subplot is introduced: Brian’s friend Fritz angles to bed wealthy Jewess Natalia. The Fritz-and-Natalia subplot foreshadows Brian’s and Sally’s romance, as Fritz intends to marry for money and ends up marrying for love instead, whereas Sally loves Brian for who he is but finds herself in Act II getting distracted by Max, a filthy-rich aristocrat. That is, just as Brian has found improbable love with Sally, he is reminded that, at her core, she is still an ambitious dilletante who’s looking for some well-connected man to pull her out of the gutter and make her a star.

And so, into the traditional love story, the traditional wrinkle is introduced — the romantic triangle. Sally loves Brian for himself but Max for his money. Whom will Sally choose — Sexually-Confused Weedy Aesthete or Smooth-Talking Rich Guy?

To make the choice more difficult, Max is an all right guy in his own right funny, charming, sophisticated. That is, of course, what makes him a good romantic foil for Brian. Cabaret stands the romantic triangle on its head by then having both Sally and Brian fall for Max — and that is what does them in. We don’t get the particulars on Brian and Max, but apparently they have an off-screen tryst that doesn’t go very well, and ends with Max high-tailing it to Argentina, much to everyone’s chagrin.

There’s a third-act crisis, which is that Sally is pregnant — with whose baby, we don’t know. And for a moment, this is seen as a good thing — the baby will force Sally to grow up, will force Brian into a life of heterosexuality, and force both of them to abandon their crazy life in weird, decadent Berlin. When Sally gets an abortion, it’s initially a shock and a disappointment, but ultimately it’s the first truly honest, self-effacing thing she’s done. By getting the abortion she’s admitting that she’s never going to leave showbiz, no matter how seedy and grotesque it is, and she’s saving Brian from having to pretend he’s someone else for the rest of his life.

The theme running through Cabaret is people falling in love with people they shouldn’t really and fooling themselves into thinking they’ll change the object of their affection. Sally thinks she’ll change Brian, Brian thinks he’ll change Sally, Fritz thinks he’ll change Natalia, both Sally and Brian think they’ll change Max. In the end, Max will move on to protect his interests, Brian will go back to being bookish and gay, and Sally will go back to her marginal showbiz career in her seedy nightclub. The sadness of Cabaret isn’t so much "the Nazis ruined everything" but rather "It was never going to work out anyway."

(I spent a long time tonight thinking about whether or not Sally "wins" by going back to show business.  She certainly seems to think she does, although Fosse, the director, indicates that she’s made a deal with the devil by givingthe ghoulish MC the last word and panning to the Nazis in the audience.  And yet, where do Fosse’s sympathies truly lie?  The message of Sally’s closing number, "life is short, give me music and song and dance and let me die young," points directly to the next movie on my list, All That Jazz.


26 Responses to “Cabaret”
  1. lolavavoom says:

    What kind of project would prompt such a list? Or better…who generated the list?

    • Todd says:

      Let me put it this way: I fully expect to win an Oscar for this screenplay.

      • lolavavoom says:

        They’re planning on opening up the nominating field, I hear.

        • Todd says:

          Then I expect to be nominated twice!

        • stormwyvern says:

          A topic which I thinks merits some discussion. I just heard about it on the radio this morning and I’m not really sure if it’s a good idea. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a Best Picture – Drama and Best Picture – Comedy category with five nominees each rather than just adding more nominee slots for what is still only one Best Picture prize?

    • djscman says:

      He’s adapting Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Smoke, or hey, maybe it’s Rick’s Café Américain, a reboot/sequel to Casablanca!

      Swing Kids or Mo’ Better Blues did not make his list, which may be significant.

  2. stormwyvern says:

    Oh good, you’re back. You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been shaking my monitor hoping that some intelligent insights on film would fall out.

    I’ve never seen Cabaret and am only marginally familiar with it, so I don’t have much to say. I am pretty curious what sort of project would require viewing that particular bunch of movies, but I’m guessing that isn’t something you can reveal.

    While you’ve been occupied elsewhere, I’ve been working on a film-related internet project of my own which I will proceed to shamelessly plug as soon as it gets off the ground.

    Again, good to see you posting.

    • Todd says:

      Never seen Cabaret? Oh, please do. Back in 1972, it won every Oscar it was nominated for, except Best Picture, which went to The Godfather. That kind of gives you an idea of the quality of the movie.

  3. Cabaret, All That Jazz, The Cotton Club and Gone With the Wind. (And Schindler’s List,

    Oh, god. They’ve finally coerced you into writing a script for Springtime for Hitler, haven’t they?

    • sorceror says:

      I want to see the final production. Will it be the 1960 version, or the later movie based on the Broadway musical based on the 1960’s version?

  4. gazblow says:

    Great to have you back, sir!!

  5. xnbach says:

    I love All That Jazz more than any sane person should.

  6. I saw Cabaret for the my first time just a couple months ago. I greatly enjoy the MC and his lovely voice. I liked it far more than I expected.

    Think there will be a cabaret in The Boy With The Striped Pajamas?

  7. Please stop cheating on us with that slut, Twitter.

  8. I mostly know Joel Grey from his work on The Muppet Show and Remo William: The Adventure Begins. He does musicals too?


  9. Anonymous says:

    What? No Rocky Horror Picture Show?

  10. It’s Showtime, folks!

    I imagine you’ll have an All That Jazz post soon enough, but since you brought it up, the film strikes me as suggesting that Fosse views the showbiz/hedonism/self-destruction lifestyle as less than admirable, yet still the only thing that certain people are capable of doing properly.

  11. greyaenigma says:

    I look forward to the analysis of Peter Sagal’s masterpiece, Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.

  12. teamwak says:

    Nice to have you back, Todd.

    This is one of my favourite films, so nice to see it get the Alcott treatment.

    Fosse’s style of choriography is unique and quite something to watch. The opening of the film with Wilkommen was something I watched all the time as a kid.

    And its not a happy movie at all contrary to popular belief. I think Liza has never been better, nor possibly Michael York (although Logans Run is close lol)

    I remember reading an interview with Alan Cummings who played the MC in a recent Broadway run saying how he almost had a breakdown playing such a dark character every night.

    Great film!

  13. the_stalwart says:

    I have no idea if this helps you at all, but the whole theme of “X thinks they can change Y if they woo them enough” is exactly the thing that ties the Nazis into the story. The Weimar Republic thought that if they gave Hitler the semi-potent role of Chancellor, they’d be able to change him into a responsible politician and the National Socialists into a responsible political party.

    We all know how that turned out.

    • Todd says:

      Aristocrat Max makes that point mid-way through the movie. But while the aristocrats thought they could change Hitler, the people seem to have had another idea — at least, as far as the narrative of Cabaret is concerned. The people seem lonely and angry and longing for Hitler, since he represents “order” to them, the opposite of poor disorganized, degenerate Sally Bowles.