A sentence one would prefer not to write is that “Recent changes in the world have made Cabaret once again relevant”, but there it is. After a couple of years of the rise of xenophobia, racism, and nationalist/populist parties around the world, Cabaret once again serves as an object lesson and a warning.
But we are here not to fear Cabaret, but to praise it: for its witty songs, its flashy and engaging dances, and its iconic performances. There’s the theatrical, Joel Grey as emcee; the star persona, saucer-eyed Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles; and the naturalistic: Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, and a surprisingly touching Marisa Berenson.
At forty-six years old, the film scarcely betrays its age. It was only the second film of Bob Fosse’s, after a career dancing and choreographing on Broadway and in Hollywood. Fosse’s brilliant alteration from the 1966 Broadway show was to stage all of Cabaret’s musical numbers – save one – onstage in the Kit Kat Klub. The exception is the chilling Tomorrow Belongs to Me, sung in bright sunlight in a pastoral setting by a golden youth, presaging the rise of the Nazis.
In the artificially-lit nightclub, a playground for the boundary-pushing culture of the progressive Weimar republic, Joel Grey’s red lips gradually bleed into color from a distorted black-and-white reflection. The poison green of the sharp nails Sally Bowles flutters frequently – “Divine decadence!” – and her intense eye shadows – blue, lavender, mauve – are startling, but less sinister than the symbolic red, seen in the silk ceiling looming over the Kit Kat Klub stage, Communist hammer-and-sickles, crimson armbands bearing black-and-white swastikas – and, increasingly, blood spilling in the streets.
With its eight Academy Awards (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Cinematography for Geoffrey Unsworth), Cabaret remains the film that received the most Oscars without winning Best Picture (which went to The Godfather).