Naughty sex, kinky undies and singing Nazis.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 17, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by Bob Fosse
Starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey
Warner Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1)
Extras: Two making-of documentaries, interviews with stars and creators, more

"Cabaret," an upsetting, almost revolutionary work in its time, is now regarded as a classic musical, which is another way of saying it has become semipermanent camp. Off-Broadway revivals come and go, but Bob Fosse's 1972 film version remains the one enshrined for posterity, the gospel against which all high school productions are measured.

This bland, denatured form of immortality makes it almost impossible for younger viewers to grasp the immense cultural impact John Kander and Fred Ebb's simultaneously cynical and stage-struck musical had on the budding avant-gardists of the '70s. "Cabaret" did not invent polymorphous perversity or art-damaged postmodern hipsterism any more than David Bowie and Lou Reed did, but like them it was crucial in disseminating the seed. If the critical reputation of Fosse's "Cabaret" is not what it might be, that's partly because we're supposed to have put that tradition of decadence and alienation behind us in this puritanical age. Personally, I kind of miss the relentlessly bleak vision of the future, not to mention the kinky undergarments; tomorrow belongs to us.

A prodigal, larger-than-life figure who divided critics and audiences, Fosse was often viewed in film circles as a stage director who had strayed off the reservation. Actually, "Cabaret" was the second of his five movies, and they're all worthwhile. (The others are "Sweet Charity," "Lenny," "All That Jazz" and "Star 80.") His camerawork here -- creeping through the crowd at the Kit Kat Klub; staring up at people from the floor, in the German expressionist tradition -- is often as voracious and exciting as his choreography. Fosse's influences seem to be Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, F.W. Murnau and Bernardo Bertolucci, rather than the opulent spectacles of Liza Minnelli's father.

Speaking of Minnelli, no director has ever gotten more of her not-quite-functional talent out of her than Fosse did. As Sally Bowles, the street-smart yet intensely vulnerable, pretentious but none too bright gamine who's stuck just above hooker status in Weimar Berlin, Minnelli launched a thousand hipster chicks. (Unanswerable question: How different is Sally from Minnelli's offstage personality?) If pretty-boy Michael York is a bit dull as Sally's maybe-gay lover, Joel Grey's androgynous master of ceremonies became an instant icon, embodying all the work's aesthetic, sexual and political contradictions in his sinister clown face.

The video transfer on this disc is fine (some of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth's compositions are purposefully murky), but the sound is a little brassy, which shouldn't interfere with your enjoyment of such immortal Kit Kat numbers as "Money," "Mein Herr," "Two Ladies" and of course "Life Is a Cabaret."

One of the two DVD documentaries is a brief on-location film made to accompany the original release, which mostly conveys the sense that Fosse's Munich set was at least as debauched as the Kit Kat itself. The newer documentary includes interviews with most of the film's surviving principals, including Minnelli, York, Grey, Kander, Ebb, screenwriter Jay Presson Allen and producer Cy Feuer. (Fosse died in 1987.) All agree that Fosse's controversial decision to shoot on location in Germany -- something that would likely be impossible today -- lent the film an air of menacing, desperate realism. The Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is sung by genuine Germans in a genuine beer hall. Is this brilliant? Mendacious? Demented? Manipulative? Well, yes. Life is a you-know-what, old chum.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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