My affection for Cabaret is a bit of an “on-again, off-again” story. I enjoyed it the first time I saw it. I was already pretty well versed at the time in the European art film from which many of the film’s greatest distinctions derive. So its comparatively innovative style was not all that new for me. Besides, the film’s popularity suggested there was no reason to expect that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (That it was a huge hit says a lot about how much times have changed.)
Over time, however, my initial good feelings have been tempered by a certain distaste for the contrived romance and Sally Bowles’s more tiresome antics. (I was never a big fan of Liza Minnelli either, which doesn’t help.) The fact that the story has been cobbled together from multiple sources is more apparent each time I watch it. With that awareness comes a recognition that the film’s editing style, which I have always admired, results at least as much from necessity as from intention.
Yet when it is integral to the conception, the editing is sensational. The cutting is never more brilliant than in the musical numbers, where it is central to Bob Fosse’s contorted choreography. The prismatic, abrupt cuts and the harsh, smoky, theatrical lighting and unusual angles complement the dancers’ tortured gyrations, extending their twisted, evocative movements into the form of the film itself. So, even if I tune out during the “romantic” bits, the musical performances offer not just sensational exhibitions of singing and dancing, but great film making too. My personal favorite is “Mein Herr,” with the music’s echoes of Brecht and Weill and the production design ably evoking Weimar-era artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. The opening “Wilkommen” is a close second, and of course “Money” not only “makes the world go ’round,” it stakes a claim as one of the wittiest bits of cynicism in the history of big budget film making.
That is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cabaret. It’s a damn smart movie that assumes an audience with a similar view of experience. The film is not profound, nor does it have a particularly perceptive view of social decay. It certainly contributes nothing of value to debates about the rise of Nazism. This is, after all, a musical. But it is a musical made by people who know more than how to sing and dance. They know how to combine talent and dedication to craft with just enough seriousness to surpass themselves. The atmosphere of Cabaret is something its cast and crew no doubt understand all too well. For that reason, they neither wallow in it nor condemn it. Through sheer dint of skill, imagination and determination, the film keeps its balance. As a result of their tightrope walk, Cabaret may be about decadence, but it certainly is not decadent.