For many reasons and in many ways, 'Cabaret' is a perfect fit at the Senator

June 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The best entertainment bargain in Baltimore, at least through Thursday, is the 5:15 show at the Senator, where a relatively few bucks will get you two hours of the great 1972 film "Cabaret" on the big screen, in that lustrous, satiny Technicolor.

Wherefore "Cabaret"? Is it because the owner of the theater saw the subtle subtextual connection between "Cabaret" and "Schindler's List," which is playing at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., and thought that here was an extremely rich opportunity to explore a single phenomenon from the vantage point of two great films made 21 years apart in different modes?

Er, probably, at least a little. But it also had to do with the fact that "Schindler's" three hours-plus running time left an odd block of time between the afternoon and evening shows, but not enough for a third showing of itself.

Ergo, "Cabaret," winner of eight Academy Awards, wondrously "opened up" and delivered to the movie screen in a way that most musicals never can be.

The secret, of course, is that "Cabaret" is able to bridge the gap between the artifice of the theater and the naturalism of the film. It quite easily accommodates both modes, juxtaposing the cheesy, ironic onstage musical numbers at the Club Kit Kat in the Berlin of 1931 with the twisted, tangled webs woven by a subset of young people who frequented the club, even as Nazism was taking control of Germany.

As an ironic counterpoint to "Schindler's List," the movie has its uses, particularly the brilliant scene at a rural beer garden where Michael York looks up to see a pale-faced, angelic-voiced young choir boy begin to sing a sweet song, like an evening vesper.

But the camera draws back and we see that the choir he belongs to is the choir of the twisted cross and the song ("Tomorrow Belongs to Me"), particularly as it's taken up madly by all the otherwise banal customers, is a chilling documentation of the process that began there and ended at Auschwitz.

The "plot" is perhaps less ironically controlled, associating "decadence" with the weakness that made the coming of Nazism inevitable, and building to the then shocking but by now blase revelation that Michael York, the sympathetic Brit writer rusticating in Berlin, is bisexual. (He is of course the autobiographical analog to Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the original stories on which the musical was later based.)

Liza Minnelli tries to reconcile Sally Bowles' vulnerability with her greed and somewhat shaky moral compass and doesn't have much luck.

Another problem: To eyes in the 1990s, Helmut Griem and Fritz Wepper, playing a baron and a gigolo, simply look so much alike you can hardly tell them apart.

What remains, what endures, are the vivid, unbearably bitter musical numbers, choreographed by Bob Fosse (who also directed), photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth to the brilliant lyrics and music of Fred Ebb and John Kander, as performed by Joel Grey and Minnelli and a wonderful blowsy chorus line of Kit Kat dancers.

Brilliant stuff, perfect for Fosse, who invented a new anti-sentimentality for this show that changed the face of the American musical. Far from seeing show business as an exalted calling demanding talent and dedication, Fosse loved and reveled in the sense of squalor and seedy pathos of it. He loved the Kit Kat Club, with its audience of deviates, rich scum and weirdos. But most of all, he loved the performers and gloried in the artifice of their lives: cheap wigs, caked-on makeup, badly fitting costumes, lots of alcohol and cigarettes.

And under it all, of course, under the camouflage of their fleshy lassitude and dispirit, they are absolutely the best show dancers you ever saw. They manage the toughest trick of all: to dance badly brilliantly, then weirdly shifting into the high zone so that you understand you are seeing professionalism at its finest. Great work by all concerned.

"CABARET" (1972)

Starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York

Directed by Bob Fosse

Released by Allied Artists

Rated PG

****

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