For two young lovers on the cusp of the unimaginable, life is a cabaret until it cannot be.
From the opening number, the one that nearly stops the show before it starts, Cabaret lets you know what it’s all about. The devilish Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) prances and preens. He welcomes his audience to the performance with a sinister, knowing grin, surrounded by the ribald revelers over whom he holds court. Here is your escape. Here is your distraction. And yet, even fifty years later, what you’re looking away from is never truly gone.
The Emcee’s spectacle reflects its audience. As broad and exaggerated and whimsical as the reflection becomes, a palpable strain of darkness still runs through it. Grim reality may be pushed off to the side, held at bay for an hour at a time, but it’s waiting—always waiting—when the show lets out.
So go the times of Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York), two young lovers who retreat into the bliss of hedonism, of la vie Boheme, in the hopes of escaping their wounds. Their escapades are intoxicating. And they are an attempt to outrun all the tiny thoughts that gnaw away at them, to wash away all the darkness with liquor and sex, or with invented fathers and dreams of stardom.
There’s a sadness in Sally, one belied by her free-spirited whimsy and the breezy air with which she carries herself. An undercurrent of loss runs through each playful moment of delight she provides. The same holds for Brian, who wrestles with discomfiting feelings about his sexuality and other sore subjects. He wrongly guilts himself over what he believes to be deviance. It’s easy to harbor this sort of self-hatred when empty men who detest the very existence of him and his friends, are growing in power and influence.
The young couple can only run for so long, take refuge in one another for so long, before realizing that all their fun is a temporary escape at best—a fantasy. Losing that dream is as sad and sweet as it is inevitable. Half a century later, the melancholy of this epiphany still pierces.
That stage, and the way the film preserves its source material’s theatricality while departing from it in substance, are the keys to what makes Cabaret so enthralling. Legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse‘s camera locks onto Brian and Sally. It lingers with the pair in quiet moments and evokes stillness when the two of them stop and catch their breaths.
This stillness is counterbalanced by the cinematography’s pure energy during Cabaret’s imaginative stage performances. Fosse, editor David Bretherton, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth deploy swift cuts and zooming shots that dart around the stage, offering multiple vantage points on the phantasmagoria the Master of Ceremonies provides.
It’s the Master of Ceremonies, who guides the audience—both those in the Kit Kat club and those watching Cabaret—through 1930s Berlin, who ties the film together. Joel Grey oozes subtly sinister charm and shines in every moment he’s on the stage. His virtuoso rendition of “If You Could See Her” expertly walks a tightrope, weaving layers into a number that could otherwise easily go full farce.
There is, after all, an inherent absurdity to a man singing a love song to a gorilla. But with his last whispered line, Grey makes the piece’s subtext text and exposes the wicked heart being the want. The Emcee plays his audience, stokes their expectations, and feeds them what they desire. He does so purposefully, but so playfully and subversively that the meaning goes over their heads. It’s a captivating, devastating number.
“Captivating” and “devastating” are two words that capture the whole of Cabaret. The craft on display, from Minnelli’s extraordinary voice to Fosse’s crisp yet fluid choreography, to the incredible use of light and color, render it stunning in every moment. And it’s a spectacle with barbs. Barbs that linger.
There’s a sad resonance in the distance between Sally and Brian’s temporary delights and the grim truth of things to come. All the welcome distractions, all the easy means to look away from the world and ourselves, they all make funhouse mirrors to hold up to the world. Recent events have taken so much from so many. Hope remains, but with it comes a similar sense of foreboding about what may yet be in store, like the kind harbored by Sally and Brian.
The two young lovers are Berlin in the film, enjoying the present and trying to look away from what the future holds. As the film ends, the slanted reflection of the Emcee’s stage shows more and more Nazi armbands in the audience, in a society that needs a cabaret to forget about what’s coming. That current of horror, which lurks beneath the joy and happiness and bombast on stage, makes it as salient now as it was then.
Cabaret remains a feast for the eyes and ears. And with that feast comes a looming sense of dread for both a couple and a country, even as the film revels in their thrills and affections. It is for both these reasons that fifty years on, it’s impossible to look away from Cabaret.