The perfect film is a thing I discuss ever so occasionally her on my blog, affording it a status to so few films. Were I to be approached as little as six months ago and told that I would definitively label Cabaret as such a work, I would have scoffed off such as suggestion thinking that the elements of Bob Fosse and Liza Minnelli would be too off-putting to enjoy. Sure I appreciate the choreography of Fosse and cannot deny the brilliance of Minnelli in the masterful ensemble that is Arrested Development, I just assumed it would be a film with a very honed in and specific audience, one that I could only tangentially appreciation. Cabaret, however, is a stroke of cinematic perfection that manages to do so while also pushing and prodding cinematic language in a very real way. Indeed, it uses the musical genre in a very clever manner, wherein the emotional escape of music blocks out the reality in a fantastical manner. Cabaret begins in such a carnivalesque manner, only to have the reality become the thing in which music is appropriated while the very characters attempt to exist in states of wild delusion. Delusional and feverish is the universe within which Cabaret orbits, finding its centrifuge within the dynamic and absolutely revelatory performance by Liza Minnelli. Seriously, it is by far one of the best performances I have ever seen committed to screen. I know she won the best actress nod for her turn in the film, but were they to do a centennial look back on the best film performances of the past century, it would be quite feasible to count this is the best of and perhaps even give it the award. Between delivering lines with absolute humor only to follow with lines of devastation, Minnelli is also doing amazing work as a dancer and a singer. The wild thing is that all of these are points of formalist consideration and I have yet to even scrape the surface on how absolutely profound the film is as a consideration of border/boundary crossing, not to mention the ways in which it works as a text on transgendered identity. Cabaret is an absolutely perfect film in its willingness to navigate the perverse and problematic in a pointed--albeit surreal--manner.
Situated in Berlin circa 1931, the film focuses on one such cabaret that prides itself in having beautiful everything right down to its orchestra, which is comprised of buxom women, much to the elation of the aristocrats and diplomats that occupy the space. Of course, not all is as appears on the surface, as some of the cabaret dancers, including the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) appear to be a bit less normative in their gender performances. These transgendered identities aside the major point of pride within the particular cabaret is the singing and dancing of Sallly Bowles (Liza Minnelli) whose desire to make it as a film actress factors second only to her ability to belt out comedic and woeful songs at the drop of a hat. Indeed, her performing abilities cause her to become a point of curious affection for traveling academic and Cambridge student Brian Roberts (Michael York) whose own sexual uncertainty becomes affirmed when he and Sally become lovers whilst sharing two flats in a local hotel. Yet, their love is challenged by a variety of factors, whether it be Brian's constant desires to please his pupils of English, most notably Natalia Landauer a wealthy tailor company heiress (Marisa Berenson) and Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) a young Jewish man whose own identity becomes a point of conflict within Berlin as an increasing occupation of Nazi figures emerge adding yet another layer of woe to the relationship between Brian and Sally. When Sally sees the possibility for advancement by engaging in a relationship with Baron Maximillian von Heune (Helmut Griem) things become considerably more complex as it is rather apparent that he favors the move away from socialism and towards fascism within the country, ignorant, if not outright flippant, of the racial and class issues at play in the particular ideology. Furthermore, it is somewhat unclear as to whether or not Maximillian also possesses desire for Brian, whom he lingers on when hugging or forcing him to dance in a trio with himself and Sally. Eventually, Sally becomes pregnant and the father of the child is rather uncertain. Although, Brian agrees to be the father, Sally dreads the idea of living life as a wife in England and decides to procure and abortion. The action leads to a parting between the two that is both deeply loving, but stifled by formality. Brian leaves for Cambridge and Sally returns to her cabaret performances, although as the closing moments of the film affirm, the crowd for such transgressive shows is dissipating quite quickly.
The amount of transgression going on in this film would make one think that it works in line with something like a Kenneth Anger film. While it is not quite as abrasive and heavily ironic as a work by the experimental filmmaker, it does take on the layers of narrative winding and viewer to subject relationships of looking and desiring. Wherein, something like Scorpio Rising makes a viewer reconsider the nature of the male body on display, particularly one that is perfected and chiseled, Cabaret asks viewers to completely reconsider their understanding of gender performance. I would almost think that this film would serve as the perfect example of performing gender in the sense that Judith Butler discusses in Gender Trouble. Even the femininity on display is to a point of absurdity, Sally's eye make up cause here eyes to pop out in a near comedic way, her claiming it to be part of her desire to be a screen starlet, which is in its own way a hyper problematic performance of femininity to begin with. However, it is also masculinity that is consider as a thing to be performed here, perhaps most blatantly through the Master of Ceremonies, although the figure of Brian helps to consider the moral implications of not performing the social functions of masculinity, particularly the notion that sexual prowess be a reality and only so with women. This is only one element of performance within the film though, as it also looks and considers how one performs something like Jewishness, particularly Fritz who actively passes as not-Jewish for his own safety, whereas Natalia is able to side step such concerns by possessing a high degree of wealth and a desire to be English in presence. Indeed, the Nazism throughout this film is also called upon for its performative qualities, the camera often lingering on the swastika armbands worn by the various members of the party, asking viewers to navigate how much of the intimidation and hesitance comes from the signifier alone, a consideration that works in a post-World War II setting. The singing of the Nazi Youth song adds a layer of trouble to this as it notes the troubled navigation between ideology and performance, showing that in some cases the two can clash in incredibly troubling ways.
Key Scene: The money song, is the turning point in this film. In all its humor, it still manages to be the moment where the music traipses between escapism and pointed social critique, something that had likely not occurred since "We're in the Money" from The Golddiggers of 1933.
This film is more than worth your time. It actually demands your time.