AFI Top 100 Discussion: Cabaret

poster_cabaretBack in January 2014, my buddy Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey and I started a series of posts discussing the films of AFI’s top 100 list (the tenth anniversary edition). We’ve been slacking on it, so after only two posts back in the beginning of 2014, we’re bringing it back. So far, we’ve only covered the fifty-sixth ranked film, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and the fourth ranked film, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Today we’re back with the sixty-third ranked film, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, a movie musical very loosely adapted from the stage play about the life and loves of entertainer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) set against a backdrop of rising Nazism in 1930s Germany.  I saw it a long time ago and loved it, while Jon is completely new to it. Here are our thoughts.

Hunter: There a lot of interesting aspects to Cabaret, but I think I’d like to start with the most obvious in regard to genre; it’s a very different kind of musical. For one thing, it’s probably one of the most bleak and hopeless musicals out there. With WWII closing in and the Nazis gaining power, Sally and everyone at the Kit Kat Klub are determined to have a good time but it just seems impossible. For another, almost all of the music numbers are completely diegetic; they are really taking place inside the Kit Kat Klub in the story, rather than being spontaneous expressions of emotion like in most other musicals. I think this is a very interesting way to construct a musical film and appreciate the musical numbers themselves and how they comment on either the personal lives of the characters or the political climate of Germany (or both), but I’m not sure whether or not this technique makes it a better film. More grounded and realistic perhaps, to fit in with the depressing setting? What’s your take on how the musical numbers were presented?

money_cabaretJon: Surprisingly, I love how the musical numbers were presented; now that I fully comprehend its importance on the film’s presentation. During the first portion of the film I wasn’t too keen on the musical aspects of the film, so I was unaware that it actually served a larger purpose reflecting the lives of the characters and Berlin. I had a misconception that all musicals just found a way to integrate some sort of singing in order to be considered a “musical”.

This technique definitely makes this a better film, because it grants the ability to tell a story in a way different from all other movies, all while being able to keep the viewer entertained with the antics on stage. Two standouts that I took particular interest in; the sequence at the Kit Kat Klub (interesting that it’s KKK) were they were throwing punches and stomps that matched up with another sequence where Nazi’s were beating up a man. The second standout and most impactful would have to be when the “Master of Ceremonies” or for better words the lead man on stage, danced with a femininely dressed up ape that he claimed was beautiful and when he looks at her, he doesn’t see a Jewish women, which matches up with the characters Fritz and Natalia. This way of structuring it is essentially how filmmakers end up making films that reflect what’s going on in the world at the time, and that’s what the Kit Kat Klub is doing on a visual level of seeing it. What is your take on the film’s story itself? I felt the story asked for far too much patience from the viewer. It takes about almost an hour before you see deeper into the love triangle and the connection between the rise of Nazism & Fritz/Natalia’s relationships. How did you feel about this?

meinherr_cabaretHunter: The musical numbers in the club are most definitely there to comment on and reflect what’s going on politically and socially in Berlin at the time. It sort of gives the film a forced happiness that ultimately comes up short. Watching the last number, it seems like Liza’s performance of “Life is a Cabaret” is determined to ignore the problems going on in the world and have a good time regardless. Knowing in hindsight (which is just as obvious in ‘72 as it is today), the devastation that WWII is going to cause, sort of seems to me that the film is arguing that nightclub music as a distraction is just not going to work. At the same time, the musical numbers (I suppose the ones performed by the Master of Ceremonies more so than Sally) seem incredibly aware and determined not to shy away from the horrors of the holocaust and WWII, even if they were mostly satirical. The film seems to be arguing that music or musical performance can work in different ways at different times; it can either be escapism (“Life is a Cabaret”) or more socially conscious art (“If You Could See Her”). I don’t know if can think of any other musicals that have as conflicted of a view on music as Cabaret seems to!

It is kind of uncomfortable that the Kit Kat Klub is initialized as KKK, I noticed that when I was writing it out as well. I don’t know that it has a major significance, but the racism connection between the Nazis and the KKK is obvious for sure.

Musicals are not really known for having great stories, and Cabaret’s is fairly typical if you take away the environment and how the musical numbers are incorporated. It’s just about a bunch of people falling in and out of love, classic musical stuff. I suppose it was somewhat daring to include bisexuality in ‘72, but today it doesn’t make that much of an impact. I do see what you’re saying about how long they take in the setup between Fritz and Natalia and the conflict there, but I can’t really say it bothered me. I will say that that was probably the more compelling relationship as opposed to the love triangle between Sally/Max/Brian because of the sad irony of how it did tie into the rise of Nazism. What I appreciate about this movie is the more the musical numbers and what they are doing, as well as the overall hopeless yet determinedly happy atmosphere the film creates. Did this atmosphere have any impact on you at all? Because I definitely don’t think I felt it this acutely the first time I watched it like 5 years ago (or maybe I just couldn’t articulate it correctly).

sallymaxbrian_cabaretJon: Yeah, there definitely was a great balance between escapism and socially conscious art. It allowed for the viewer to enjoy the musical numbers but feel gutted knowing what’s to come (WWII). I enjoyed the the set up to Fritz and Natalia’s relationship, it felt natural but having to watch the love triangle take place in-between those encounters between Fritz and Natalia is what made this film such a hard watch. It’s not even the fact that it wasn’t written well or anything but more so it felt like there was nothing special about it, to the point where I feel bad for the hundreds of feet of film used on it.. Okay, not that serious but you can catch my drift on that haha. Could you imagine if Sally and Brian had the same backgrounds but Max also had a thing with Brian and it became a messy love triangle? or if Brian attempted to sabotage Max’s car in order to eliminate him from the picture? or if we could have just got some of that good ole Hitchcock thriller into this love story.

Well I may be on the same boat you were 5 years ago; I wasn’t too affected by the atmosphere. The musical numbers did have an impact for the reasons we mentioned above, but asides from that only two scenes come to mind. When Sally was talking about the letters from her father, that was pretty effective, as well as the intimacy between the love triangle when they were dancing at Max’s house, which brings me back to the thought of the “messy love triangle” I was waiting for them to all three kiss each other at the same time, but I guess that’s because I woke up to them dancing and I missed the fact he was previously drinking (which I saw when I rewound the film).

I thought I’ve been dying to know and which may be a spoiler? but what was the relationship between the Master of Ceremonies and Sally, because there was just a weird moment between the two towards the end, after the mentioning of the baby.

englishlesson_cabaretHunter: So basically, Sally and Brian were just way too chill about the love triangle thing? I can totally see that complaint. There’s little to no conflict there aside from some early jealousy but then Max leaves the picture and it doesn’t even matter anymore. It didn’t bother me personally but I 100% see where you are coming from on that one. And if they had went with your car sabotage scenario it would have been a lot like The Godfather, also from 1972 (lol)!

I think Sally’s character in general really fits with the atmosphere of the film I was trying to describe. Throughout the whole film, she just seems to ignore her problems and pretend everything is okay. She seems kind of delusional actually! Towards the end of the film she ignores how sad she is about what she’s done, and goes on stage to perform “Life is a Cabaret” anyway. She keeps thinking she will get her big break in show business, but that seems entirely unlikely. It’s the same sort of thing (in the filmmaking) when the violence first is introduced. It’s shot and edited into the film very quickly, and the characters aren’t aware of it- it’s not continuous action. The violence in the street seems to be forcing its way into the film unbeknownst to the characters. It’s an interesting parallel with how historically WWII actually came about; in hindsight it’s super obvious but at the time nobody realized how serious it was.

So yeah, to answer your question I’m sort of getting into spoiler territory (just for this paragraph). That sequence seems to be showing flashbacks or maybe things that Sally is imagining after talking about the baby with Brian, but also seems to be representative of plot details that Fosse doesn’t want to explicitly show. At first it’s flashes of Brian and Max, but we also see The Master of Ceremonies look at Sally in the Kit Kat Klub. We see her dancing onstage, then there’re the shots of the child with the ball, and another shot of The Master of Ceremonies. In a way, The Master of Ceremonies does seem to fit in with Max and Brian so I see where your thought of his being the father comes from, though I didn’t get that when I watched the film the first time. However, he fits more into the milieu of the Kit Kat Klub which seems to be filling in her present thoughts on the matter (the kid with the ball) and what she does about it (the dancers emerging from backstage). So I can’t definitively say one way or the other. In the next scene she returns home to Brian and it becomes clear she’s had an abortion, so the montage shows that that happened, what led to it, and why she decided to do it (the contrast between the men she’s been with and the dancing is presented, and it’s obvious that she’d rather continue to perform than end up tied to any of them.)

We should probably start wrapping things up so there are two thoughts I want to end with. One, I found this super interesting on a rewatch because I was able to see how Fosse would go from Cabaret to All About Jazz. I think All About Jazz is the stronger film because you can see more of his directorial style coming through, but I still really like Cabaret and it’s great to see his style develop over the course of the two films. Second, I want to introduce a part into these discussions where we actually go over the AFI Top 100 list itself. Cabaret is at number sixty-three on this list, surrounded by American Graffiti and Network (both of which I have yet to see). I feel like I already know what your answer to this question is going to be, but do you think Cabaret deserves its place here?

denial_cabaret Jon: Ahhh okay, I see what you mean there when your referenced it with The Godfather, the better film of 1972. I like the way you described Sally’s character, I wasn’t able to recognize that because I was too busy looking at the issues that bothered me. She gave an outstanding performance on making you feel like everything was okay and no problems can stop ya, which in return she received an Oscar! I halfway understand what you explained but then I was always thinking she ended up having the abortion because she knew secretly it was The Master of Ceremonies’ child, and not Brian’s. It seems like I must have completely read the details wrong, and I’m wondering if anybody else saw it that way. Lastly I’m very interested in seeing All About Jazz if that’s the case.

I mean I honestly don’t think it deserves to be anywhere close to sixty-three on this list. I have seen American Graffiti, which is a cool film, but I don’t really think that deserves to be that high either, but I don’t know much about its historical purpose. Some food for thought, they are ranking Cabaret above Saving Private Ryan, 12 Angry Men, Pulp Fiction, Do The Right Thing, and Blade Runner.

masterofceremonies_cabaretHunter: I like it being on this list because I like the film, but honestly I like All that Jazz out of the two better, and I think it’s a better film as well. So if there has to be a Fosse film on the list (which I support!), I would pick that one. However, I still like Cabaret and it’s is more iconic than All that Jazz so I see why AFI picked it. So, personally, it might not make my list, but that’s only because there are so many other great films out there! I don’t really have anything against Cabaret, I think it’s wonderful. Pulp Fiction’s definitely better though.

So that wraps up mine and Jon’s thoughts on Cabaret. I liked it better than he did, though we both would probably take it off the list if we had our way. We don’t though, so next time we’ll still be discussing a film that made it on the list, Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window. That will be coming sometime soon, so keep your eyes out for that! In the meantime, let us know what you think of Cabaret.

lifeisacabaret_cabaret“Life is a cabaret ol’ chum so come to the Cabaret….”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars (My rating, because it’s my blog 🙂

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
The New York Times review

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