It's 1931, and Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin to make some money as an English language teacher for adults. At his rooming house he meets the flamboyant and talkative Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a performer at the Kit Kat Klub, a hot nightspot presided over by a Machiavellian master of ceremonies (Joel Grey). Sally owns little other than dreams of becoming a famous actress, and she has no hesitation to use her sexuality to get what she thinks she wants from men. She helps find clients for Brian, and they become friends.
Brian's students soon include struggling businessman Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and beautiful rich heiress Natalia (Marisa Berenson), a member of a prominent Jewish family. Fritz starts a hot pursuit of Natalia, but her religion as well as the wealth gulf are a hindrance. Meanwhile Sally meets the very rich and attractive Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), and he puts a wrinkle in the burgeoning relationship between Sally and Brian. With the Nazis gaining in dangerous influence on the streets of Berlin, the performances at the Kit Kat Klub echo the changing political landscape and prevailing economic struggles.
Directed by Bob Fosse, Cabaret is a masterpiece musical, and a classic piece of subversive cinema. The adaptation and amalgamation of several previous books and stage productions weaves politics, liberated sexuality, depravity, and economic desperation into one story propelled by cabaret music performances, and it all works brilliantly. The musical numbers are satirically sharp, the struggles of Sally and Brian depressingly real, and the creeping menace of extremism morphing into the mainstream takes place with the insidious slitheriness of a snake.
More astute but equally misguided is Maximilian, who assures Brian that the Nazis are useful thugs who will rid Germany of communists but can themselves be easily controlled. Meanwhile Fritz and Natalia represents the breadth of German society from poor businessman to wealthy heiress. That she is Jewish already represents a problem. As a potential couple, their future under the gathering dark clouds of intolerance is beyond bleak.
Except for one, all the musical numbers take place on the Kit Kat Klub stage, and provide a running commentary on the unfolding personal and public dramas. Money Money reflects the obsession with scraping a living; Two Ladies celebrates threesomes; If You Could See Her announces the full-fledged arrival of anti-semitism at its most hideous. Maybe This Time is the one Sally Bowles personal performance and is delivered to an empty club: her forlorn hope for personal happiness doesn't draw an audience.
In a chequered movie career, Sally Bowles was the one perfect role for Liza Minnelli. Larger than life, loud, seductive and operating on the fumes of borrowed cigarettes, bad alcohol and a life wasting away on a small stage, Minnelli is unforgettable. Her boundless energy drives the film forward at the club and away from it, with a few rare but key introspective interludes where she admits that all is not well. Joel Grey as the nameless master of ceremonies is the other memorable presence. With no lines of dialogue but plenty to say, he is a clownish presence with a dark interior, the late night host of his era, providing commentary that serves as both sophisticated entertainment and unfettered warning.
Cabaret was rewarded with eight Academy Awards including statues for Fosse, Minnelli, Grey (Supporting Actor), and Geoffrey Unsworth (Cinematography). It's the most decorated film that wasn't also crowned Best Picture (it was also the year of The Godfather).
Cabaret ends as it starts with an image in a warped mirror. But while the opening finds the master of ceremonies about to reflect back a devious view of society onto his stage, the ending is much more ominous. The danger has moved from the outside to the inside, and now occupies a prime seat at the table. The fun and games at the Kit Kat Klub are about to be replaced by a descent into the worst kind of evil, dragging the world into the abyss.
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