Cabaret is the greatest movie musical of all time. I’ll be more specific. Cabaret is the single greatest film adaptation of a stage musical.
I’ll start with what it has in common with the other great classics of the genre. There’s the music, of course. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs are more than just catchy night club tunes, but rather stealthily build an energy that practically vibrates against the surrounding sexual and political tension. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey give performances of grand charisma and ironic depth, inhabiting two of the best roles of the 1970s. And, alongside 1965’s The Sound of Music, this is another great musical with Nazis.
Yet Cabaret doesn’t come out on top through direct comparisons to the performances in West Side Story or the music of My Fair Lady. Rather, Bob Fosse’s work sticks out because of what it does that those other films do not even try to accomplish. The Sound of Music and West Side Story are extraordinary because they are wildly successful filmic transpositions of great stage work to the screen. Cabaret, on the other hand, understands adaptation as an art in and of itself.
Cabaret began as two short novels by Christopher Isherwood, originally published in 1935 and 1939. Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin are semi-autobiographical works, pulled together from the author’s experiences as a young Englishman living in the German capital during the tumultuous Weimar Republic. They are also nothing like the eventual musical. Rather, they are entertaining but naive books by a young Isherwood still finding his voice and struggling with the literary representation of his own homosexuality.
The novels were adapted into a play in 1951 by John Van Druten, called I Am a Camera. This was made into a film in 1955. Cabaret the stage musical opened in 1966. By the time Bob Fosse made the film in 1972, almost 40 years had passed since Isherwood’s time in Berlin and a great many things had changed. The film is, in many ways, more faithful to Isherwood’s experience than his own books. And that faith allowed Fosse to produce a much more dangerous, interesting work than any prior incarnation of the story.
At the insistence of Minnelli, the male lead was written as gay. While ostensibly a gesture of faith to the source material, this change also allows the film to make groundbreaking strides forward. The introduction of the Baron Maximilian von Heune, a dashing bisexual playboy who did not exist in the stage musical, further complicates the thematic tensions of Fascism and class while simultaneously pushing Hollywood’s sexual boundaries. The film is also more open about the brutality of early Nazism than Isherwood’s work, treating it with a bitterly ironic sense of social tragedy (personified in the Master of Ceremonies).
Fosse harbored no illusions about the intrinsic differences between theater and film, and directed the film accordingly. While the musicals of the 1960s and early 1970s usually followed their source material wherever it went, whether that meant shooting in the Alps or re-creating the Ascot race track, Cabaret is actually a condensed version of the stage musical.
Theater has a basic unity of place that film often does not. On a stage, the entire cast can sing the “Tonight Quintet” in West Side Story from different locations in the narrative and still stand right next to each other. In Robert Wise’s film, he keeps cutting between locations in order to show the whole cast. Fosse solves the location issues in Cabaret but getting rid of almost every song that isn’t performed within the Kit Kat Club. He then asked Kander and Ebb to add three more, molding the very foundation of the narrative and its music to fit the walls of the cabaret.
Cinematically, what does that do? Well, to start, it allows the film to fully inhabit the night club space. Fosse compresses Isherwood’s world into the space of the Kit Kat Club, creating a symbology for the film. The interior world is dark, sexual, ambiguous and free from the restrictions of class, ethnicity and gender. Men become women, poor hucksters like Fritz Wendel become playboys and enormous gorillas become commentaries on anti-Semitism. Outside these boundaries and restrictions on people are almost unbreakable, and begin to fall prey to the rising tide of Fascism.
The Kit Kat Club is also a place of fantasy. Sally’s heartfelt rendition of “Maybe This Time” is cross-cut with scenes of her hesitant entry into the ideas of family and marriage with Brian. “Two Ladies,” a sublimely ridiculous number, dances between absurd endorsement and playful cynicism of the unsustainable sexual game being played by Brian, Sally and Maximilian. Both of these sequences are meticulously edited to show not only the full character of the performance but also how it fits into the physical space of the Kit Kat Club, how the audience reacts, and how these themes relate to the crumbling world around them.
Yet the milieu of the Kit Kat Club is also under assault. Just as he uses the cinematic framework of the cabaret to comment on the social change of the time, Fosse also breaks it apart. Nazi brutality on the streets is posed like theatrical tableaux, hinting that Fascism is just as much of a show as the MC’s sometimes equally brutal entertainment. The flow of time is often obscured, leaving us unsure as to whether it is night or day outside of the club.
In the end, however, the broad daylight of Nazism comes crashing through the windows. A single musical number, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” throws everything into stark relief. It’s the only song to be performed outside the Kit Kat Club, on the harshest of bright sunny days. The setting is not a stage but rather an open-air restaurant, serving beers and sausages to the humble inhabitants of Germany’s countryside.
Yet it turns out that humility isn’t a virtue they currently aspire to, much to Baron Maximilian’s surprise. A blond boy in Nazi uniform begins to sing alone, proclaiming his love of country with none of the swing or the irony of the rest of the film’s soundtrack. Other young people join him, and soon the entire restaurant has risen to its feet. In this impromptu Fascist demonstration, Brian and Max could not be further out of place.
More importantly, we in the audience are terrified. In the stage musical this song is used to end the first act, sung by major characters, and inevitably receives applause. In Fosse’s film, there is nothing but uncomfortable silence. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” bursts into the carefree, ambiguous world of Cabaret with a vengeful and dreadful brightness. The rest of the film, from the breakup of the three-way relationship to Sally’s abortion and Brian’s departure from Berlin, is now colored by this intervention of the winds of change.
Cabaret’s last shot, finally, is one of the all-time greats. Sally performs one last number, the title song and a manifesto of sorts for her life and this world. Yet the last word is not hers. The Master of Ceremonies emerges, and bids us adieu. He leaves us adrift: “Auf wiedersehn. A bientôt....” Rather than a “good-bye,” Fosse leaves us with a lingering drumroll and a vision of the Kit Kat Club filtered through glass. Sprinkled with Swastikas on armbands, it’s a sign of the end. Neither with a bang nor a whimper, Cabaret closes as it opened – with charming ambivalence and sinister irony. Groundbreaking as a film, captivating as a musical and adapted with visionary skill, Fosse’s masterpiece is the best of its kind.