• Title: Cabaret
  • Director: Bob Fosse
  • Date: 1972
  • Studio: Allied Artists (DVD released by Warner Bros.)
  • Genre: Musical, Drama
  • Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey
  • Format: Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“You can’t stand Maximilian because he’s everything you’re not! He doesn’t have to give English lessons for three Marks an hour, he’s rich! And he knows about life, he doesn’t read about it in books. He’s suave and he’s divinely sexy. And he really appreciates a woman!” — Sally
“Oh screw Maximilian!” — Brian
“I do.” — Sally
“So do I.” — Brian

“It’s also an established fact, Herr Ludwig, there’s also another well-organised group of which you’re obviously a member; the International Conspiracy of horses asses!”  — Brian

Cabaret as a film reminds me of a quote from Bax Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge: It’s the story of a time, it’s the story of a place, [and] it’s a story of love. However, the love stories in Cabaret are more complicated and end less happily than the story in Moulin Rouge. Set in 1931 in Berlin, Cabaret is the story of the people that meet, come together, and leave, at the Kit Kat Klub – a wild cabaret. The main story is about Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American Cabaret singer who wants to be an actress, Brian (Michael York), a British student who comes to Berlin with no money and teaches English to survive, Maximilian, a married, bisexual German Baron looking to find anyone to fill his bed, Fritz a friend of Brian’s who’s hiding a few major secrets, and Natalia a rich Jewish woman who falls for Fritz. At the club, the all-knowing EmCee (Grey) rules.

The film draws you in slowly to its story of these diverse characters. Sally, especially, is a fascinating young woman. The daughter of an ambassador, she claims, she may have grown-up with wealth and privilege, but she finds herself with a two-room apartment in a boarding house, working all day and singing at the Cabaret all night. Sally drinks, smokes, and fools around. In some ways, she’s the female counterpart of Joe Gideon in Fosse’s other classic, All That Jazz.  And Sally has no problems letting everyone know just how willing she is to sleep with men to get whatever she can. Quite by chance, she meets Brian, and the two become friends then lovers.

However, before long the two meet Maximilian. Sally immediately begins sleeping with him, simply because he showers her with gifts and money. Brian, who had explained to Sally that he had slept with three women before and all were disasters and has now fallen for Sally, is also taken under Maximilian’s spell, especially when the three of them spend a “dirty weekend” together at Maximilian’s country house.

Brian also meets and befriends Fritz, a shy German, who comes to him to learn English. Fritz falls for Natalia, another of Brian’s students but it’s Sally who gives Fritz advice about how to get Natalia interested in him since she keeps turning him down flat. Eventually, Natalia calls Sally to her house and confesses she is also in love with Fritz but the relationship is impossible.

Throughout the film, the action is intercut with the entertainment at the Kit Kat Club, all introduced by the mysterious EmCee, including Sally’s musical numbers. The Club will put anything on the stage — female dancers and singers; female mud wrestlers; a parody of German folk singers; a duet between the EmCee and a guy in a Gorilla suit dressed as a ballerina. Nothing is sacred and everything goes at the Cabaret. However, when the film does cut to the Cabaret, often whatever’s on stage parallels the dramatic storyline. This intercutting is Fosse’s true genius.

When Sally discovers she’s pregnant, she tells Brian, also telling him she will have to sell the fur coat Maximilian gave her to pay for an abortion. When Brian asks who the father is – Sally insists she doesn’t know. And considering she’s been sleeping with Brian, Maximilian, and other men she’s picked up at the club, she honestly does not. Brian proposes, and insists that he doesn’t care — he’ll help her raise the baby no matter what. They can return to Cambridge, and he will get his teaching Fellowship. At first, Sally agrees.

Meanwhile, Fritz and Natalia’s relationship is at a standstill, and Natalia insists it can’t continue. But Fritz admits to Brian that he’s secretly Jewish. When he came to Berlin, on the papers he filed, he had listed his religion as Protestant, but he isn’t. Brian convinces him to tell Natalia. Fritz does that, and Sally and Brian witness the wedding.

However, despite Brian’s wishes, Sally is full of doubt. She spends a night at the Cabaret, having an unheard conversation with the EmCee. When she returns to Brian that night, she’s without her fur coat. Brian badgers her until she admits she did have an abortion. Brian is livid – and decides to leave her. Before long, he’s returning to Cambridge. Sally goes back to the Cabaret, and that night belts out a triumphant version of the film’s title tune, “Cabaret”. We finally see just how much Sally loves the stage, as she comes to life on stage, more glowingly alive than at any part previously in the film — and this for an independently spirited woman who is the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. However, Sally’s pure happiness on the stage will be short-lived, the film ends with reflections seen through the glass side divider of the Cabaret stage of the Nazis in the audience. Soon the lives of everyone in the film will be in danger; and most of them, even Sally will probably be dead. It’s a haunting ending.

There is also a chilling scene earlier in the picture, on the way back from their dirty weekend, Maximilian, Brian, and Sally are at some sort of outdoor German festival. There, a Hitler youth stands and sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, a patriotic German song. At first alone, soon others stand and join in. By the end of the song, nearly all the young people in the audience are standing and singing. Most of the older people remain sitting, however. It’s a frightening visual and auditory illustration of exactly what is happening in Germany. Brian, seeing the display, gathers Sally and Maximilian and leaves.

In another scene, Brian gets in an argument with his German co-boarders at Sally’s boarding house. He goes out in the street and a Nazi party member tries to foist a Nazi paper on him. Brian refuses it, yells at the Nazi, then knocks over the flag. He’s beaten senseless for his trouble.

The owner of the Kit Kat Club had also kicked some Nazis out of the club — he’s also beaten senseless for his actions.

But the brilliance of Cabaret is in its use of intercutting — the songs that Sally or the EmCee or both sing at the club are often intercut with and reflect the dramatic plot; but they don’t illustrate the plot. This isn’t a musical where plot points are sung – it’s almost as if the music at the club is the background to the storyline. And the club is a wild place, a place of the underworld, and a place of ships passing in the night. Also, throughout all the club numbers and performances – the audience sees figures walking between the camera and the Cabaret stage, almost as if we are in a club and people are moving around. There is also the sound of talking, clinking glasses, clapping, laughing, etc. The people moving between the camera and the stage also provides a wipe point for editing.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • Mien Herr – Liza Minnelli
  • Everybody Loves a Winner – Liza Minnelli
  • The Money Song (Money Makes the World Go ’round) – Minnelli and Grey
  • Two Ladies – Grey
  • Tomorrow Belongs to Me – Hitler Youth (and it’s terrifying)
  • Cabaret – Liza Minnelli
Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 4 Stars
Next Film: Royal Wedding