Since the beginning of commercial cinema, filmmakers have been adapting stories that were successful in other forms. There are a few different reasons for this. Sometimes it’s just because producers feel safer investing in a property that’s made money for somebody else. But it may also be that a writer or director sees the possibility of bringing something new to a story, a way to reimagine it in another medium. And this is really crucial. If all you want to do is create a faithful adaptation, what’s the point? Making a movie just to illustrate somebody else’s work is a waste of time. A novel is an experience in words, and you can’t recreate that on the screen. It has to become an experience in image and sound.
Of course some stories migrate through many different forms before they reach the screen. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin was published at the end of the thirties. It was an autobiographical novel based on his experiences living in Germany in the early thirties, when the country was falling apart and the Nazis were rising to power. Isherwood kept a journal during those years, and later used the material to create the novel. In it, he compares himself to a camera, passively recording what he sees, storing it for later, when he’ll have the time to develop and print the images. This is key to the way Isherwood approached his work. His novels are generally episodic, undramatic. Rather than trying to force life into a fictional framework, Isherwood was more interested in allowing life to unfold on its own.
This is an aspect of the author’s work that John Van Druten intended to highlight when he adapted Goodbye to Berlin for the stage and called it I Am a Camera. Actually, he focussed mainly on one part of the book, the chapter entitled Sally Bowles. Sally was a young English woman that Isherwood roomed with in Berlin. In most ways they were complete opposites, but for a while they became close friends. Sally was desperately searching for a rich man to marry while she halfheartedly pursued a career on the stage. In writing the play, Van Druten eliminated much of the book’s detail and gave it more structure, but he was faithful to the tone of the original. The passive young man at the center of the story is always slightly detached from whatever’s happening in front of him, always a little aloof from the hurly burly of life.
In the sixties, Harold Prince obtained the rights to both the book and the play with the idea of creating a Broadway musical. Joe Masteroff wrote a show that was loosely based on Van Druten’s play, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Cabaret opened in 1966, and was a solid success. It had even less to do with Isherwood’s book than Van Druten’s play did, but audiences loved it. A road show version toured the US, and in 1968 the musical opened in London.
It was only natural that Hollywood producers would take notice. And by the time Cabaret appeared on the screen it would be transformed again, moving even further from the book that Isherwood had written as a young man. Interestingly, the film version deleted some of the elements that made the show so successful on stage, and reached deeper into the characters. Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay fleshes out the relationships and spends a good deal of time exploring the decadence and violence that defined Berlin in the early thirties.
Looking at the film today, it seems like Bob Fosse is the only person who could have made it. At the time, the producers had other candidates in mind. Fosse had only directed one movie, Sweet Charity, which tanked at the box office, and he didn’t have much credibility in Hollywood. To their credit, the producers took a chance, and Fosse showed everybody how far he could go as a director. The film he made of Cabaret was a sharp break with tradition, and it had to be. The lavish song and dance spectaculars made by MGM in the forties and fifties had set the standard for the genre, but times had changed. Throughout the sixties the studios had been throwing money at bloated productions of Broadway musicals that sank at the box office. Somehow they didn’t understand that the audiences flocking to see M*A*S*H and Easy Rider didn’t care about Lerner and Loewe.
It wasn’t just Fosse’s skill that made him the right choice for the movie. The director was the son of a vaudeville entertainer, and grew up performing in burlesque. He’d made his way up the ladder, working in Hollywood musicals as a dancer and then as a choreographer. All his life, Fosse was immersed in show business, and show business was the lens he used to look at the world. Much of what makes Cabaret so thrilling is its unabashed theatricality. The numbers that take place at the Kit Kat Club grow out of what’s happening in the characters’ lives. In the novel and the play, we’re told that Sally sings in a cabaret, but we barely get a sense of who she is as a performer. In the musical and the film, her performances at the club become crucial, and, especially in the film, they comment on what’s happening in the world outside. This wasn’t a new idea, but in the past this device was almost always used to serve a romantic comedy plot. The people who brought Cabaret to Broadway used the songs as a mocking commentary on the corruption and the violence of the world outside, and Fosse pushed that even further.
The film Cabaret could have ended up being a brutally cynical spectacle that alienated audiences, who might easily have been offended by the way it turned musical conventions inside out. Instead, the film became a huge success, in large part because of its showbiz energy and its spectacular cast. Certainly Liza Minnelli was a big part of the equation. The role seems to have been written for her, and she plays it with a startling combination of vivaciousness and vulnerability. Offstage she has a capricious charm that wins us over. Onstage she has an energy and power that are overwhelming. Minnelli herself is a showbiz creature, and to a degree the role seemed an expression of who she was. While she’s been impressive in other films, Sally Bowles is still the part she’s most closely associated with.
As Brian, Michael York is at the opposite end of the spectrum, a mild-mannered young Brit who wants to write but for the time being supports himself teaching English. York’s low-key intelligence is the perfect foil to Sally’s over the top theatricality. And in spite of the chasm between them, the two actors make the relationship convincing. These two people are miles apart, but they still care about each other.
Joel Grey had played the role of the MC on Broadway to great acclaim, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the film. Strangely, Fosse resisted casting Grey and reluctantly agreed when the producers insisted. Grey’s performance isn’t just energetic, it’s ferocious. He gleefully throws himself into every number, unabashedly working the audience over, going as far as it takes to get a laugh or a round of applause. His intensity is scary, especially in the later part of the film as we see the threat of violence becoming a part of daily life in Berlin. The MC goes on grinning maniacally as the Nazis grow more bold, the brutality taking place on the streets slowly bleeding into the shows on the stage.
Fosse wasn’t the first director to pry movie musicals away from the traditional stagebound approach, but he uses cinematic devices in provocative new ways. He resorts to parallel editing a number of times, and each time with striking effect. Cross cutting from a knockabout stage show to a brutal beating on the streets makes the violence doubly frightening by underscoring the fact that the show just goes on even as innocent people are being assaulted. One of the most daring sequences is built around the song Maybe this Time. We see Sally alone on the stage under a spotlight, the accompaniment playing quietly in the background, and she begins to sing. But after the first line, Fosse cuts to a brief scene between her and Brian. Then back to Sally on stage, another line of the song, and then back to another short vignette. You’d think that interrupting the song would ruin the scene, but in fact Fosse’s approach heightens the tension and makes Minnelli’s performance even more powerful. Though you wouldn’t call Cabaret fast-paced, each scene flows seamlessly into the next. Editor David Bretherton shows a sharp sense of rhythm, and handles the complex dance sequences beautifully.
The film is visually dazzling, and no doubt a good deal of credit goes to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Throughout his career, one of Unsworth’s trademarks was his sophisticated handling of light. We see the cheap boarding houses and the dingy cabarets through a sensual, erotic haze. But even as we’re being seduced by this divine decadence, the film will shove us up against the ugly realities of pre-war Berlin. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it keeps pulling us in, and then, without warning, punches us in the face.
Cabaret is very different from the novel that Christopher Isherwood had written thirty years before. But it had to be. Fosse and his collaborators looked at the book and the play and the musical, and borrowed from all of them, but created something new. It may be a story about Berlin in the thirties, but it became a success because it resonated with audiences in the seventies. And even if you’ve seen it before, it’s well worth watching again, because it still reflects the world we live in today.