Less a traditional musical than a drama featuring musical numbers, Cabaret is a beautiful, disturbing evocation of life in Germany during Hitler's rise to power. Using the Kit Kat Club's expertly choreographed routines to reflect the changes in German society, director Bob Fosse effectively shows us a glittering, illusory world, whose insular decadence starkly contrasts with the encroaching horror of reality. Sally Bowles exists at the heart of the turmoil, a conductor for the unrestrained, buoyant energy that both electrifies the club and stands to be threatened by what is going on in the world outside of it. Brash, shamelessly sexual, and bearing a self-assurance of enviable proportions, she is a perfectly flawed heroine, one of the most fully realized women incarnated on the page, stage, and screen. Liza Minnelli portrays her with the energy and blissful abandon that the character requires, turning in one of the best performances of her career. The sight of her performing in the Kit Kat Club, clad in a bowler, boots, and little else and making novel use of a chair, remains one of the screen's most iconic images. The focus on the relationships of the film's main characters, most notably that of Sally and Brian (played with gentle, almost poetic befuddlement by Michael York), perfectly juxtaposes the turbulence of private lives and public events. Sally's promiscuity, Brian's bisexuality, Maximilian's casual use of both characters, and the eventual acceptance of platonic friendship mirror the fortunes of a time and mentality whose mantra of pleasure would soon be forced to give way to one of pain. The best and most terrifying evocation of past debauchery and present "progression" towards a new, fascist ideal, is of course the Emcee. As played by an unforgettable Joel Grey, he occupies an existence somewhere between human and phantom, a cunning apparition who serves as a reminder of carnal delight and ideological oppression. Like the Emcee, Cabaret shows us both delight and oppression, providing a nuanced portrait of an era where the former was rapidly being eclipsed by the latter.
by Rebecca Flint Marx review