“What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, hear the music play…Life is a cabaret, old chum…”
Let’s take a trip back to 1931 Berlin. Liza Minnelli stars in Cabaret (1972) as Sally Bowles, an American chanteuse who dreams of fame but performs in a small-time (but lively) nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. The film opens with a literal ‘welcome’ from the club’s Master of Ceremonies (portrayed by Joel Grey, known today for his notable work in Broadway shows like Anything Goes). In this opening, we get a general sense of the film’s tone. It’s unconventional, daring, and wonderfully bizarre. It also deals with the rise of the Nazi party and the Antisemitism that comes with it in both direct and indirect sequences throughout the film.
If anyone reading this write-up has not seen this movie entirely, be warned: There are some spoilers.
During the opening song “Willkommen”, we see an intertwined part of the narrative, which is something that also happens throughout the film. The Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) is kind of the glue that holds the fabric of the film together. A pattern begins with the opening number. Each time one of the cabaret acts happens, a corresponding event is taking place in “the real world”.
During the song, we see cuts to “the real world” outside of the Kit Kat Klub. The film itself welcomes a young Englishman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who has taken a train to live in Berlin while he finishes his work to earn a PhD. He is a student at Cambridge University and, seeing as he has little money to live on, he begins his stay in Berlin by offering English lessons to anyone who is interested.
Brian moves into an apartment building which Sally Bowles lives in. Just as he comes in to rent a room, he runs into Sally and the two become fast friends. She sort of shows him the ins-and-outs of their living quarters (and what “Divine Decadence” nail polish looks like).
He accompanies her to the Kit Kat Klub shortly after moving in and meets one of her closest friends and a native of Germany, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), who’s working tirelessly at becoming a gigolo. Brian soon begins giving English lessons to Fritz.
Sally is a free-spirited bohemian girl who is not shy about talking about her regular (and random) sexual encounters – although not much is explicitly said (on camera, at least). She and Brian give each other a nice balance. He’s reserved while she’s totally flamboyant and outgoing. But there’s a deep level of vulnerability hidden inside of her. Brian becomes successful with his English lessons and Sally continues to dream of fame and perform at the club, masking her self-esteem issues from the world.
The song “Maybe This Time”, which Sally sings at the club, really echoes her real-life situation. For anyone who has ever had trouble with confidence, the song hits hard. It’s wonderful.
“Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me”
As you can see in glimpses during the song, Sally and Brian develop romantic feelings for each other and become lovers. Let me note that Liza Minnelli and Michael York had great chemistry. And a second note: York’s voice. Holy golly. Anyway, Sally wants to make sure not to fall in love with the young scholar because she’s bound and determined to marry a rich man. Enter Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), a rich and handsome playboy who entices Sally from the get-go. Oh, did I mention that’s he’s also a baron?
As Sally is getting her laundry done she meets Maximilian. After a little bit of flirting, Max offers Sally a ride in his limousine and after that, they begin seeing each other. Max begins to pamper Sally by doing things like buying her frivolous things, like a nice fur coat.
In the midst of this love triangle, another love story is brewing. Fritz, who I mentioned earlier, meets a wealthy young Jewish heiress named Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) and at first falls for her fortune. It doesn’t take long for him to fall for her, regardless of her big bucks. This is the first time he’s fallen in love with someone
for non-gigolo reasons. He starts seeking advice from his friends. Once Natalia falls in love with Fritz, she seeks advice from Sally. Sally also -indirectly – advises Fritz to “pounce”. And boy, does he pounce, to the shock and – later -excitement of Natalia. Things become serious, although Natalia refuses multiple marriage proposals. Fritz concealed the fact that he was a Jew until he discovered that marriage between Natalia and him would not work because she believed that he was a Christian and she was a Jew. He decides that he has to step up and do the right thing. Although he’s a bit rough around the edges to begin with, I love seeing Fritz’s transformation into a man who no longer cares about money above everything else. I think their romantic subplot is really sweet.
Amidst the love triangle between Sally, Max, and Brian, things become even more complicated. Brian, at first hostile with Max, is eventually attracted to Max. So we get this strange mix of Sally, Brian, and Max all feeling feelings for each other. On top of this, Sally and Brian discover that Max isn’t just some hot bachelor; he’s married. He and his wife live completely separate lives, but do not seek divorce because of the strain that would put on their spending habits. Charming. An all-out argument between Sally and Brian ensues not long after an evening out with Max. It’s a quite revealing argument, where a bombshell of sorts is dropped. How does it all end? Well, if you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to see it for yourself.
Among the other accolades it received, Cabaret nabbed a total of eight Oscar wins, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, and Best Director for Bob Fosse. When it was released in 1972, the film received a positive welcome from its worldwide audience. The film had earned a total of $4.5 million by May 1973 in North America, and it earned another $3.5 in other countries. It received a profit of $2,452.000.
But let’s not just look at the numbers to determine the success and legacy of the film. Cabaret is quite a unique piece of art. When I watch an old musical (which happens often), it’s typically one of the colorful, romantic ones. Although there are fun and carefree moments in Cabaret, they are the exception to the otherwise dark and gritty scenes. When I first watched it on TCM, I didn’t really think that I would like it. How wrong I was.
At the beginning, the Master of Ceremonies invites – even pleads -people to, “Leave your troubles outside! Life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even zee orchestra is beautiful.”
At the end, Sally sings the titular song “Cabaret” to the audience after a bittersweet event in her own life. The lyrics themselves beg the audience in the Kit Kat Klub to go out and enjoy life: “What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, here the music play…” just as it says at the top of this post – a great life lesson. I love that Sally is nowhere near perfect and by the end of the movie she’s made choices that some people would majorly argue against. But you know what? She’s a human being. And, even with her shortcomings, she rocks so hard. And you have to give it to the girl: Despite it all, she makes some decisions that are totally selfless and by God, she goes out there on stage and gives it her all. I’d argue that she is one of the most interesting characters in film history.
Cabaret is available for purchase. You can find a copy of it on Amazon (at least on DVD) for around $10. It airs on TCM every so often, so if you get that channel, you can probably catch it in the near future.
This movie is magical. Please enjoy it as I did.