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Cabaret Pt 3: 'From cradle to tomb...'

Occasionally Team Experience will take a classic movie and pass it around for a deep dive. This week Cabaret (1972) which is currently streaming on Filmstruck. But if you're in NYC don't miss your chance to see it in an actual movie theater at the newly renovated gorgeous Quad Cinema.

In Part One, Nathaniel investigated the way the musical's major players are introduced at the cliff end of the Weimar Era in Germany.

In Part Two, Dancin' Dan watched as two couples (Brian & Sally, Fritz & Natalia) fell in love and lust and into "money!". It makes the world go round. When we left off, Brian and Sally's new lover, a rich baron, has taken Brian out to lunch when a song interrupts their not-so-innocent idyll. - Editor

Part 3 by Chris Feil

1:18:16 - Out of nowhere, we hear a tenor breaking into the nationalist anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. We pan from his angelic face to see his Nazi uniform, realizing we've fallen into a musical number that is about to be a harsh reality in more ways than one.

It matters that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a very different kind of song than what we have been given thus far, and the only number outside of the cabaret. Entirely without nuance, a straight-shooting melody that purposefully tries to pull you into its grip as we watch in horror while its grim subtext shows itself...

It remains entirely nauseating that the song has been overtaken by contemporary neo-Nazis in earnest, to the point that Kander and Ebb have been accused of antisemitism in the writing of it.

The faces in the crowd, falling into the violent tide of the song, speak volumes. Initially passive, they become enraptured at the first opportunity. The sole man still seated, his face piecing together what’s to come, is doomed.

1:20:12 - The subtle visual parallel to the Kit Kat Klub here stiffens the spine. In a few seconds, the impish nodding grin of the Emcee invades as if Beetlejuiced by any delightful crowd. And this devilishly affirming expression is bracingly unexpected. Perhaps the perversions and delights of the cabaret have been nothing but an illusion. Or a cog in the wheel of fascism.

1:20:47 - “You still think you can control them?” Watching Cabaret in our climate is taxing, y’all.

1:21:40 - Broken hearts in fabulous hats. The Natalia and Fritz storyline is the most frustrating in the film’s drastic changes to the stage version. Theirs is an adopted love story from the stage’s Fraulein Schneider, Sally’s landlady who finds late-in-life love with a kind Jewish man Herr Schultz. Natalia and Fritz is a much more convoluted riff on the same themes, the sacrifice and risk of love between Jews and gentiles during the rise of Nazi-ism. But scenes like this break-up feel as if they’re from some other movie entirely, never matching the complexity of Fraulein Schneider’s tragic submission to the times.

1:23:14 - Sally Bowles, beekeeper. Underscoring the scene is one of Herr Schultz’s cut numbers, “It Couldn’t Please Me More”.

Brian returns to Sally and things quickly devolve into an argument around the love triangle between them and Maximilian. Sally compares Brian negatively o Maximilian’s wealth and good looks, savoring the bite in “... and he really appreciates a woman.” She doesn’t say the word, but we understand the coded language.

“Screw Maximilian!”
“I do.”
“...So do I.”

Pauline Kael stated that Cabaret was made “miraculously without compromises”. But even decades on it still surprises how it sometimes immediately follows evasiveness with frankness. One minute it refuses to say the thing, only to be direct after we think it chickened out.

Sally is bruised by the infidelity, to which Brian is outraged at her ignorance. He bolts.

1:27:25 - Brian confronts an officer passing out propaganda in the street...

1:27:43 - ... and is beaten to a pulp. But just like that, Sally and Brian are reconciled. Is it the letter she reads to him telling that Maximilian has gone off to Brazil, freeing up the tension between them, that spurned her care for Brian or is Sally pleased to take care of someone else for a change?

1:29:45 - We’re back in the Kit Kat Klub, which provides an uneasy relief. But wait, who’s this new chorus girl?

1:30:25 - “Emcee. The judges and I did Na-zi you at first, but your reveal was so wrong it was reich. You’re safe.”

This sequence is intercut with antisemites vandalizing Natalia’s home and killing her dog, justifying our sense that we shouldn’t so easily submit to the cabaret’s raucous distraction. As the number then devolves into an earnest military march, it’s clear that the time for escaping the world outside of the club is coming to a fatal end. The crowd cheers.

1:32:32 - Sally greets a studying Brian in the library and cracks the silence in half: “GODDAMMIT I’M GONNA HAVE A BABY!!” Leave it to the ever deluded Sally to break the film’s tension with the grace of a battering ram.

Sally may not be sure who the father is, but her next steps are clear. Again without saying the word, she tells Brian she’s gotten the whole expensive procedure planned out. “There goes my fur coat.”

1:34:07 - At Brian’s proposition of marriage we cut to the lovers in candlelit bliss, back on their hot/cold bullshit and prepared to keep the baby. Another Schneider/Schultz cut song is heard over the radio: “Married”. They’ve already got the whole thing sorted out, dismissing Sally’s acting dreams, Brian caring for the child no matter its true parentage.

1:36:46 - Your Spider-Man could never.

No really, he couldn’t. Spider-Man would definitely choose fighting Nazis over making out with too many burning candles lying around.

1:38:20 - Or I spoke too soon. While reconnecting with Fritz, Brian pipes up at two antisemites in a lobby, with a particularly tasty retort to claims of nefarious secret Jewish  organizations: “It’s also an established fact... there exists another well-organized group of which you’re obviously a member - The International Conspiracy of Horses Asses.” He may be too prim to be Spider-Man, but he is a hero with words. Read, queen!

1:39:07 - Fritz confesses to Brian the big secret that knots him most about losing Natalia. Fritz is Jewish and has been using the anonymity of Berlin to pass. Falling in love with a fellow Jew was not part of the plan.


1:41:19 - Back in the Kit Kat Klub: SATIRE!

“If You Could See Her” is an intentionally innocuous vaudeville melody that is maybe the number in Cabaret most adaptable to directorial vision and just what the Kit Kat Klub ideologically embodies in the production. Here Fosse turns it into another trap, distracting us with showmanship before it attacks. It ultimately mocks Natalia and Fritz rather than condemning those that would keep their union apart, its simple romantic pining and urging for tolerance turned into mocking freakshow.

And here is a lesson in the difference between propaganda used against a marginalized group or satire against those that oppress that group, and also one for Cabaret’s potential of reinterpretation from one production to another. The jester bite behind the Emcee’s final post-refrain revealing line here “... she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” is FOR the biased audience instead of snapped AT them.

1:45:12 - The rollicking tune continues over Fritz’s distraught face as he returns to Natalia, indifferent to (maybe even mocking) his suffering. He confesses his true identity. We cut to the quiet peace of their wedding ceremony, never to see them again.

1:46:47 - “Married” is heard again, this time during a tranquil picnic in the woods for our fairweather couple Sally and Brian. Unable to stand his quiet, Sally reaches for the only showmanship she can snatch and fakes a four leaf clover. She thinks all their problems solved by the impending baby, but the stunted conversation foretells another split on the horizon.

With no response from Brian, the music of the Kit Kat Klub returns to her, a more instinctive pull than the one she’s been mimicking in motherhood.

1:49:00 - As the glory of the limelight comes flooding into her brain, the Emcee reaches from behind to grope her back to the cabaret’s sexual affection, like a Charon calling her back to Hell. The suggestion here is dominance over Sally and her submission. It’s not just a summoning back to the stage, but into her own habitual disconnection from the real world. As Sally cryptically regards a boy in her stairwell, the cabaret shrieks in with a sudden gasp of freakish glee.

1:50:49 - From the sight of her, Brian knows already. “You did it, didn’t you?... The abortion.” Again, the returning trope of sudden frankness to what was initially treated coyly and this time with the biggest emotional consequences. Brian is most upset at her suggestion: “One of my whims?” Sally, always confusing spontaneity for being bent on self-destruction, for once doesn’t want to talk.

Brian pressures her to explain herself and she paints herself and their fantasy scenario as doomed in oh so many words. What’s most tragic is that it’s taken her this long to acknowledge reality, with Liza letting all of Sally’s deeply repressed despair lay plain over her tear-strewn face. She speaks of future ruin, but there’s something in her eyes that begs the world to make it not so. Her eyes are the only part of her body that hasn’t given up.

1:54:24 - As Brian turns to go she halts him, her desperation so intense it knocks the lensing out of focus. “I really do love you.” Brian affirms and leaves her to sleep. The emotion Minnelli delivers here is real, reader. You can’t act a hiccup cry.

1:55:30 - Sally sends Brian off outside the train station, adopting her performative free spirit persona for him to remember her by. “Married” once again plays, as distant as the vision they once had for themselves.

1:56:37 - And she’s gone.

1:56:57 - Thus begins the title number, her manifesto, her death knell. I’ve seen a dozen or so Sally Bowles over the years, each with their own vastly different take on what the story of this number is. What’s going through Sally’s head, or not. What she’s pushing away and what she’s letting in. I’ve seen vacant Sally’s parking and barking, a Sally feeling the physical aftereffects of her abortion, a Sally who probably left the stage and ended it all. A good performance or not so much, this number never fails to fascinate.

Liza Minnelli’s “Cabaret” favors conscious disillusionment. When she beckons you to the cabaret, she’s inviting you to disconnect from society and reality. Not for respite, and not for survival, but because the world can only make sense if it’s the one you’ve made up in your head. Hers is a wise, layered understanding of the character and it’s so immersively rendered as to hide itself in plain sight. Her abandon is both convincing and particularly corrosive given Cabaret’s setting, a warning for those who want to live in our current times with their blinders on.

Fosse captures Sally with the walls of darkness closing in around her, visually fading into the void like a ghost. With the audience out of frame, you have to question for a moment if this performance is even real or just the fantasy in her mind. But in the loving, hazy glow of the spotlight, is there any difference any more? Most obvious among Sally’s myopias: the fact that in eulogizing her departed friend Elsie, she pays no mind that she is purposefully chasing the trajectory of a dead person. She’s saying “Kill me, for I am already dead. And it’s gonna be fun.”

But don’t feel conflicted applauding this suicide note of an anthem, because you’re cheering on one of the highest scaling high wire acts of bravura acting of all time. Liza leaves it all on the floor, landing a wallop of intellectually and emotionally vigorous insight. Nearly 50 years on and it kills every time.

2:00:36 - “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! I told you so...” The Emcee is right, we have lost ourselves to this narrative and its citizens, its opulence and its destruction. But he is also a demon, knowing he is sending us out to deal with the parts of ourselves we’ve seen presented to us, our fractious society and our own methods of avoidance. Forgetting our troubles was just another trap.

After a queasy barrage of the club’s offerings, the Emcee bids a final farewell, leaving behind a drum roll that denies us the catharsis of happier musicals and sunnier times. We’re left with Cabaret’s distorted mirror (literal and figurative), reflecting the Nazi’s among us, but also the many more that are complacent with them in our midst.

Auf wiedersehen. À bientôt.


previous tag team retrospectives
Rebecca (1940), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Thelma & Louise (1991), A League of Their Own (1992)

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Reader Comments (17)

I found the "Tomorrow Belongs to me" segment extremely strong. A haunting melody...

August 3, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

There’s another Polish Cabaret poster that’s even more beautifully deranged than the one up top. You have to see it to believe it, but it’s basically a swastika made of legs w/ the Emcee’s face dead-center. I don’t know what the Poles were smoking, but I wish I had some right now. Great work, guys! These retrospectives really shine a light on movies I thought I knew well.

August 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEli

congratulations to all three of you on your fine writing and illuminating insight. CABARET is a goddamn masterpiece, flat out, and one of the very best films ever made.

August 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

There's a bit of choreography in "Cabaret" (the song) that never fails to get me, when Sally is reaching forward like she's trying to escape but also beckoning "come to the cabaret" with the same hand, her feet planted like they're stuck. It's such a beautiful bit of storytelling in such a small gesture.

August 3, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradam807

Very much enjoyed these. Completely terrifying given our current state.

August 3, 2018 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I have to say, this site always gets me excited about older films. I end up researching so much about everything posted on this site - which led me to find out that Cabaret was playing in NYC this next week. I bought my tickets and can't wait to see it on the big screen, the way movies should be seen in my opinion.

I just wanted to thank TFE, Nathaniel, and co. for their enthusiasm and creating such interesting content. I've been reading this site since the mid-2000s when I was a teenager (remember the Blogspot site??), and it's probably the most visited website for me in my entire life. This is certainly one of the most interesting and entertaining film websites for me and I hope it continues in perpetuity :)

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterArlo

Again, it's been great reliving this masterpiece with these wonderfully detailed deep dives. Thanks, all!

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDanny


“Emcee. The judges and I did Na-zi you at first, but your reveal was so wrong it was reich. You’re safe.”
You've outdone yourself. So so funny.

And also this whole piece is amazing. I'm jealous that I didn't write it!

August 4, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Bravo to all three of you (Nat, Dan, Chris) - you've made me itch to see this again. Although you are right that it's probably very difficult to watch in these times. I sometimes wonder if too many of us are trapped in our own cabaret.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

The sequence when Sally first has thoughts of and then actually goes to get an abortion gets me every time. The music that plays here is generally used as the Finale (and is even titled as such on the soundtrack), but it's just as effective here. That joyous tune over the moments when personal disillusionment and tragedy are coming to head, as it's pretty obvious that anyone not a Nazi in that club is about to be in grave danger. That moment when the Emcee feels her up is amazingly creepy and perfect.

I love how a number as big as "Cabaret" just sorta ends. She doesn't turn it on until the lights come up, and when the song is done, she's right back down. She seems to turn around and the curtain starts to close before the music is even over. It's a gorgeous exit to grand star turn.

Thanks for the series. That Oscar record comes up fairly often, but not necessarily it's overall place/reputation in the cinematic universe outside of discussions specifically about musicals. This was a great chance to talk about some of things that make it so wonderful and deserving of being called an all time great.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVal

What a wonderful series for one of my all-time favorite films.

That last shot always puts a pit in my stomach. It's friggin' harrowing.

And yes, I can't think of too many performances that top Joel Grey's "impish" Emcee. He disturbs (and attracts) me every time I watch the film.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKBJr.

What elevates Cabaret for me is the storyline. After all, the film/musical is based on Christopher Isherwood' Eye of the Camera, focusing on his time spent in prewar Berlin (no pun intended). Take away the music, and there's still a compelling story. Remove the music from most musicals, and what's left is basically ... not much.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Cliff returns to Sally and things quickly devolve into an argument around the love triangle between them and Maximilian.

1:50:49 - From the sight of her, Cliff knows already.

You can take a geek out of the theater, but you can't take the theater out of the geek ;)

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Let me echo Craig and say that Cabaret deserves to be rated as a great movie, not just a great musical. At the time it opened, musicals couldn't have seemed more out of touch with the zeitgeist -- the infamous Hello Dolly! flop was just over two years earlier -- and younger audiences were hugely averse to the genre. I can't tell you the number of people I sent to the film, having to persuade them it didn't really feel like a musical -- it was closer to a drama with musical elements (albeit important elements).

Happily, many of these people adored the movie, thanked me for convincing them to go, and became proselytizers themselves.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Q

This was a great set of pieces about such a fascinating film. Thanks all of you for your wonderful writing.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Carmen - WHOOPS. My subconscious was rebelling against all the plot changes that frustrate me ;)

August 4, 2018 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

My dream roles have always been the M.C. from Cabaret and Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Lion in Winter.

August 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

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