Bob Fosse directed a stunningly beautiful, sexually-charged musical drama centering on three people living in Germany during the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism. The Cabaret were clubs where the repressed people can experience unfettered thrills as performers sing and dance for their enjoyment. We meet the Master of Ceremonies (played by Joel Grey) early on, and his performance seems utterly foreign as it is more than a little androgynous. The audience laughs and cheers between their libations as the scantily clad dancers prance about the stage. We are soon introduced to the star of the film, and one of the stars of the show, the boisterous Sally Bowles, who is played with smart energy by Liza Minnelli. She performs Mein Herr, a flashy, upbeat, hyperactive song and she immediately grabs your attention. Shortly after we meet the character that is Sally as she meets Michael York’s Brian. They hit it off almost immediately. Brian, who teaches English part time to earn money, is the polar opposite of Sally, and this becomes the source of much of their attraction and strife throughout the film.
Things are perfect until Sally meets a wealthy man named Maximilian (Helmut Griem), who Brian is immediately jealous of. Max and Sally become more than casual and a rift begins to be driven between the leads. After all three characters become involved in a web of illicit acts Sally becomes pregnant, unsure which man is the father, and is talked into keeping the child by Brian, even though she has expressed her desire to obtain and abortion. The story continues from here as Brian and Sally rekindle their romance and the voice and violence of the Nazi regime widens its scope.
One of the factors of Cabaret that makes it so spectacular is the contrast of the free-spirited stage shows and the repressed, angry and ever-changing face of Germany on the outside. Flashing scenes of the violent aftermath of Hitler’s minions’ actions are cut in and out of the musical numbers, taking us outside the darkness and safety of the Cabaret and into the bloody and hateful streets of the Third Reich’s night. One of the most disturbing and equally wonderful scenes that shows the contrast with perfection is of a young man who begins to sing at a gasthaus party. His voice is powerful and the song is beautiful, then the camera pans down to reveal the Swastika armband on the boys left upper arm and the cap under the other. The boy ends the song with a salute to Hitler and the reactions of the attendees are mixed; as mixed as the emotions this scene brings out of the film’s audience.
The imagery only takes a film like Cabaret so far, however. It comes down to the music. Cabaret is one of the most famous musicals of all time because of the unique and lively songs. Minnelli sings with inflection, wide-eyed and energetic. She moves across the stage with rapidity to the beat, bringing life every musical scene. The dancers’ routines are original and fun to watch, often filled with humor, and each performance is directed masterfully, giving us perfect vantage and often filmed from the perspective of an audience member, putting us right there in the club. Arguably the best musical number in the movie occurs near the end of the film when Sally performs the song “Cabaret.” Despite the challenges we see in her life offstage, a happy moment leaves her elated and we see her joy and energy at its absolute peak during this song.
Cabaret is not a musical in the traditional definition. The musical numbers are the most well-known aspect of the film, but they are actually only part of the story. There are a fair number of songs in the film spaced perfectly between the story elements that occur between Sally, Brian and Max. They never wear out their welcome or come in out of place. They always seem perfectly timed. This is difficult, especially when trying to maintain the coherence of the underlying story, but the episodic way in which each major plot point is divided makes Cabaret the perfect example of an editing challenge executed masterfully. Editing aside, there are few films that have the weight and charm of Cabaret’s plot and Liza Minnelli’s Sally is one of the most layered, lively and energetic characters ever portrayed on screen. Cabaret is an important addition to any film fan’s must-see list.