Thursday, 7 April 2011

Cabaret (1972)

On the surface, the title suggests simple pleasures and delicious vice in fishnet tights and glamorous (or otherwise) performers in a hot, steamy setting. In the 1970's this was very much the image that was cultivated in publicity - that, and Liza Minnelli in a bowler hat.

But dig deeper. There is a reason why this "divine decadence" is so compelling. I track back to 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall. The history of that city had long held a fascination for me, and it was shortly afterwards that I started reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, so the whole atmosphere of that period in Berlin had long intrigued me. The tyranny of the Nazi era was infamous and inhumane, but what preceded it is a poignant and compelling illustration of the decadent calm before the storm.

I first became connected with Cabaret (based on Christopher Isherwood's atmospheric semi-memoir I am a Camera) in 1993, when the East Anglian Daily Times featured an article advertising a new theatre group in Walton-on-Naze asking for actors and performers. I had only a vague awareness of Bob Fosse's classic film version, but the reminder that it was set in 1930's Berlin set ears a-twinkling with interest - it's not just about Liza Minnelli, I realise, it's also about the rise of the Nazis.

Weimar Germany was a prime example of what happens when the people get too much of a good thing. Almost by accident or by default, the old ways of the Kaiser were set aside in the course of Germany's severest economic depression, and out of it came an outpouring of artistic frankness - a similar sense to the expression of free love in the 1960s - which is one reason why this subject appealed to the America of that decade, and still has resonances today.

It led however, in almost tragic operatic fashion, to the sweeping rise of Nazism which trounced it - the perfect subject for a Berthold Brecht/Kurt Weill-style opera on the subject. John Kander and Fred Ebb tapped into this rich field, and fashioned the first version of the musical as a grand vehicle not only for the seediness of 1930's Berlin, but also as a partial vehicle for Kurt Weil's widow Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider (as also played by Jean Murphie in 1994, right), the tragic elderly landlady of Christopher Isherwood, in a fictionalised romance with a Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz.

To get onto the Broadway stage, it had to overcome many obstacles, not the least of which was the Jewish sensibilities towards the many anti-Semitic overtones, including the sight of a gorilla - Jewish by implication - dancing romantically with the Kit Kat Club's Master of Ceremonies (the unforgettable Joel Grey), and many other satirical moments, which were a true picture of Berlin society and the cabarets and nightspots (many of them Jewish owned) that painted the picture of the attitudes and social mores of the time.

In the local production, I played Ernst Ludwig, the charismatic smuggler of illicit goods into Germany from abroad - who it later turns out, is using these ill-gotten gains to fund the Nazi cause. I based the character on Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a confidant of Hitler in the early 30's but also a reveller in the sleazy nightlife of Berlin which Hitler was later to exterminate. It was my first realisation that the evil of Nazism had a face. Any demonisation of them would distort the historical context and render them one-dimensional fantasy figures.

(That same year saw the release of Schindler's List in British cinemas, which saw another vicious Nazi, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) portrayed in a semi-sympathetic light in order to try and get into the head of the man, or perhaps more importantly for Steven Spielberg, to understand the reason for such evil.)

The production was a great fun, provocative, entertaining and thoughtful experience, in the process of which I had resisted the urge to watch the 1972 film until afterwards in the spring of 1994.

The film digests some of the operatic theatricality of the musical; it transposes and, where necessary, edits and amends it, back into the real world, bringing Isherwood's Berlin to life. Whilst some of these phases are sluggish, the general atmosphere of underlining decadent sleaziness, mostly in the setting of the Kit-Kat Klub, where most of the original songs from the musical are retained, makes for a brilliant juxtaposition with the growing political and sociological upheval.

And then, to play the starring role, Kander & Ebb found the ideal choice that they'd had in mind from the first: Liza Minnelli, who embodies not only the unflappable spirit of Sally Bowles (American style) but also brings on board the spirit of her mother Judy Garland - particularly in the moving solo "Maybe This Time", one of many extra songs written for the film.

In truth, the stage version captures the political implications much better than the film, but one unforgettable scene (transposed from the stage) still remains: at a seemingly innocent, idyllic outdoor beerkeller, the merriment is interrupted (and embellished) by the sound of an Aryan boy singing a beautiful solo, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" - which in seconds becomes a rousing Nazi anthem, supported by nearly all of the crowd in one giant statement of ominous national fervour. Fosse brilliantly intercuts this with the image of one older gentleman, sitting unmoved at his table whilst all the others are singing - and the MC cuts in just at the end, with a sly, silent grin on his face.

Visually, Fosse's vibrant direction and Minnelli and Grey's performing dominate, but Michael York is also an excellent version of Christopher Isherwood, "Brian Roberts" (although Isherwood himself was mildly offended at the notion of his character being bisexual, when it seems he rarely had any physical attraction towards Sally Bowles.)

Most aficionados of Cabaret will come to it out of their appreciation of Liza Minnelli and then learn about the political context. I came to it from the opposite angle: Liza Minnelli was the finishing touch.

A landmark stage musical became an even more notable film. Both are classics of their medium.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films