Despite the many visual treats Bob Fosse’s Cabaret has to offer, the most memorable shot is only lingered on for a few seconds and is only thematically connected to the narrative. It shows a ventriloquist and a dummy-the ventriloquist out of focus and in the background, an uncomfortable dazed look on his face, while the dummy is out front, lively and perceptive, in perfect focus. The medium of entertainment has usurped and overshadowed its supposed master.
In the classic musicals, the musical sequence is almost invariably used to grant characters a more vibrant interiority than strict realism would allow for. The singer’s body is then a portal into their mind. Fosse rejects this notion except in two of the musical numbers, the rest of the dances serving to provide commentary on the narrative, framing both its political and interpersonal events. Montage is constantly employed, cutting rhythmically between acts of violence and their more playful counterparts on the stage. This repetition pushes the viewer through several interpretations of the significance of this strategy, and the relationship between the two iconographies evolves from one of contrast to one of conflation-the Nazi violence and the supposedly apolitical art of the cabaret hall work in confluence. The entertainment provides the softening of perception necessary for Nazism to seem laughable; it imaginatively pulls the punches of political upheaval. When the master of ceremonies closes his final number with an anti-semitic remark, his audience peppered with brownshirts, there’s something positively sinister in the cheerfulness of the stage.
However, Fosse doesn’t collapse the Nazis and the music hall into being the same thing, contrasting them in the one number given to the Nazi presence, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. The crowd is overcome with swellings of feeling, and join in the very simple music, and the very simple choreography. It’s oft-stated that the reason national anthems are such awful pieces of music is because it’s impossible to get 30,000 half-sober baseball fans to sing opera in unison. There is no separate identity in Fosse’s choreography for “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”-the camera, in framing each face, disembodies each singer. Where the music hall allowed for sexuality and a certain slinkiness, the Nazi dance is a denial of any sort of physical looseness. Nuance cannot exist in the thrall of crowds.
Cabaret, like much popular American cinema of the 1970s, is distinctly uncomfortable with heroic figures, while simultaneously enamored with the protagonist as a means of ordering the narrative. Brian (Michael York) is a heroic figure in some ways; he is careful and studious, politically involved, and sensitive to the finer points of his decisions. Yet when he makes a physical resistance to the rise of the Nazi party, its treated as a nice gesture and little else-there is no chance of anyone changing the course of things. For all the elipticality of the sequence, it might as well be a three panel Nancy comic strip. Man sees Nazis. Man offends Nazis. Man sits in hospital bed. Brian exists more as a foil to Sally (Liza Minnelli) than as a beacon of hope for mankind.
Sally is also admired by the camera for her brashness and spontaneity. Yet with this child-like openness to her surroundings comes an underdeveloped sense of propriety and principles. While Brian has a moment of reflection and discomfort before being bought as a plaything by Maxmilian, Sally is simply dazzled by the display of wealth and power, willing to objectify herself for a certain price. She’s kind and charming, but breezy and altogether too weak to stem the tides of history. Afraid of any sort of commitment, she aborts hers and Brian’s baby, citing an imagined future of domestic misery. Sally’s cop out takes on an added shade of tragedy in light of what likely happened to her in Germany after Brian left for Britain. She’s no Zarah Leander, after all.
Looking at each character as an embodiment of national character would seem a route to further insight, as the piece is shaped distinctly to encourage such interpretations. Brian is the reserved Englishman, Sally the brash naivete of the United States, ambitious with a weakness for shiny things, so on and so forth. Yet, as each mental sketch in this sequence is committed to text, cliche rears its ugly head. Oh well, not everyone gets to be Henry James…
More interesting is a counterpoint suggested perhaps subconsciously; closeted Jew Fritz, with his pork-pie hat and flirtations in broken English evokes a young Maurice Chevalier, around the time he made The Smiling Lieutenant with Ernst Lubitsch. The film, viewed holistically as a lament for the Germany lost in the war, then evokes another Ernst Lubitsch picture: The Shop Around the Corner. In the differences between these two pictures can be seen the differences in how each generation perceived the war. Lubitsch, freshly separated from Europe, sees prewar Europe in much warmer more humanistic terms. The film is a conjuring of the world he left behind. Fosse, who never lived in Weimar Germany, can’t help but look at the past in fairly abstract, diagnostic terms. Fosse is a director of symbols. People can’t ever be just people or else…well…what’s the point?
This tendency is what keeps Cabaret from entering the higher echelons of the cinema. The cook has fussed over his meal too much, putting in too many accents. While certain scenes have a delightfully subtle and whimsical tone, they’re inevitably brought down by later underlining. When Brian tells Sally that he too has bedded Maximilian, the mild revelation is delivered with the sort of glee one child has showing another child a dirty limerick. Is the existence of homosexuality really so shocking? The Jewish characters also seem very loosely sketched, and tangential to the main narrative (though one supposes a movie with just Nazis would be like a cartoon with only Tom or Jerry.) Just as the film doesn’t need to show that homosexuality exists as a revelation in and of itself, so it also manifests the unfortunate tendency to trot out Jewish supporting characters to make sure the audience knows that Jews are people just like them.