Cabaret: How the X-rated musical became a hit

Yet despite this approach to complex material and difficult themes, the film was widely embraced by critics and audiences alike. Pauline Kael writes in The New Yorker: “A great musical comedy… In a prodigious balancing act, Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period – Berlin, 1931 – at a distance. We see decadence as screaming and sleazy; yet we also see animal energy in it.”

A sign of the times was that Cabaret was also burdened with the British Board of Film Classification’s dreaded X rating, which meant that no one under the age of 17 was allowed to see the film in the UK. When re-evaluating the film as 15, 40 Years Later, the BBFC said it contained “strong sexual, violence and drug references”. Following the initial rating, it was not a commercial success in Britain, but was adored by Bafta, where it won seven awards from 11 nominations. A growing moral outcry in Britain over sex and violence in cinema perhaps best explains the rating’s severity. Compare Cabaret’s level of explicitness to another X-rated film from 1972 – Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy – which features graphic nudity and brutal violence – and it’s very hard to understand how and why they got to that rating. Conversely, in the United States, which re-elected Archconservative Richard Nixon in 1972, the film was rated PG by the MPAA. As a result, Cabaret ended up being the sixth highest-grossing film of the year and winning eight Oscars (it was beaten for best picture gong by a little-known film called The Godfather). Against all expectations, the United States had adopted the queer and anti-fascist film set in a Berlin cabaret.

Fifty years after Fosse’s film, and Cabaret, the musical has been almost constant in the West End or on Broadway since the 1980s, attracting stars such as Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller as Sally. It seems that this dark story of fascism, ambivalence and catastrophic change is eternally relevant. Michael York, born in rural Buckinghamshire during World War II, is saddened by how contemporary the film can still feel 50 years later. “It’s scary,” he said. “It’s not just because it’s a great movie – you can relate it to today’s political situation.” Cabaret is not an overtly educational film – Fosse is certainly not Ken Loach – but its message still haunts.

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