If you have read any of my other pieces you will begin to know that I am a huge fan of the musical genre, and certainly of the musical era. Cabaret, released in 1972 just managed to find a home for itself among some of the greatest musicals, most of which I believe were made a lot earlier during the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema. This classic era for musicals was during the 1940’s and 1950’s, with a few scraping in during the 1960’s. In the 70’s musicals were more politically motivated and were a lot darker and grimier. These films were of course set in real-time, whilst Cabaret takes place in Berlin in 1931. Nazi occupation is becoming commonplace and patriotism is at its zenith. The dark alleys and grimy streets evoke despair and impending doom.
However, for the performers in the Kit Kat Club, a risqué nightclub filled with cabaret, tobacco smoke, flowing drinks, rather odd-looking patrons wearing wigs and sporting handlebar moustaches, life is…well…a cabaret. The atmosphere is surreal and sublime and borders on macabre. The Master of Ceremonies could be the best thing about this musical masterpiece. Performed by Joel Grey, who was the only original cast member from the 1966 Broadway show to make it to the film version, he is every bit the bizarre and entertaining ‘narrator’ of this fine tale. My research led me to a word describing the technique used to narrate the story of Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and Brian Robinson (York). The word diegetic refers to a style of fiction storytelling that allows the narrator or in this case, cabaret performers, to recount or re-enact the story as opposed to actually showing it. For example every time something in particular is about to happen to the characters the members of the Kit Kat perform and interpret what will inevitably happen. I’ll elaborate on this a little later.
The story: Brian Robinson, an Englishman, has just arrived in Berlin and is looking for a place to stay. He settles on a boarding house mostly inhabited by old ladies and houseplants. It is here that he meets the bohemian dream that is Sally Bowles, an American living in Germany, and hoping to become an actress. For now though she works nights in the cabaret, and considers herself to be “an international woman of mystery”, smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy and prairie oysters (some weird concoction made of raw eggs and Tabasco sauce).
We watch Sally Bowles perform “Mein Herr” in suspenders, stockings, high-heels and a bowler hat. She is fabulous! Liza Minnelli is fabulous. Fun fact: Liza is the sensational Judy Garland’s daughter. She of The Wizard of Oz (1939), A Star is Born (1954) and Meet Me in St Louis (1944) fame. The actress who was considered amongst a very elite group of so-called ‘triple-threats’: acting, singing and dancing. Sally wants to shock Brian, whose only plan is to teach English for a little while and whose general demeanour is reserved, quiet and naïve to the ways of women.
They quickly become friends and whilst walking the streets one evening Sally convinces Brian to stand under a bridge and scream at the exact same time that a train passes over. She challenges him to “[stop] be[ing] so British”. The scene of them screaming under the tracks is paired with simultaneous scenes involving someone being beaten by a group of Nazis in an alley and a performance at the Kit Kat Club. Scenes of ugliness are hidden by scenes of debauchery and those in the cabaret seem oblivious to the horrors outside, but over time you realize that they know of the prejudices and the violence as it is revealed through song in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. In one particular performance with the Master Of Ceremonies, Joel Grey’s wildly over-the-top and made-up character is dancing on stage with a woman wearing a very feminine and old-fashioned dress and a gorilla mask. The song performed is called “If You Could See Her”, and ends with the Master of Ceremonies whispering to the crowd
“she wouldn’t look Jewish at all”.
At one point Sally tries to seduce Brian by lying provocatively in front of him and asks: “doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” When he doesn’t react as we suppose all men do, she assumes he might be homosexual. He struggles through his utter ‘Britishness’ to confess that no he is not gay (or not exclusively gay), but all his past attempts at sexual relations with women never really worked out. They agree to be friends.
A side plot is the relationship between two of Brian’s English students, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) and a self-proclaimed Jewish heiress, Natalia Landauer (Marissa Berenson). The relationship would be frowned upon, and the previous playboy-type Fritz feels inferior to the inexperienced and innocent Natalia. In one of Brian’s lessons with the two, Sally interrupts the lesson with words like “syphilis”, “screwing” and “fornication” simply to shock the timid Natalia.
Sally’s relationship with her ambassador father also appears to be some sort of motivation for her wild and promiscuous behaviour. Constantly missing their appointments to meet up for lunch; Sally is determined to prove him wrong. “I’ll show him! I’ll become a big film star!” she proclaims whilst breaking down in front of Brian. Not long after that they become lovers. This was inevitable. Who could resist Sally Bowles?
Sally’s relationship with Brian seems very real and very pure. In the diegetic technique she performs the romantic ballad “Maybe This Time” at the Kit Kat.
Natalia seeks out Sally’s advice on a sexual encounter she had with Fritz. She seems confused as to whether it was consensual or not, and she seems to be concerned that Fritz is a ‘fortune hunter’.
Then we are introduced to the fun-loving, charming, rich and self-proclaimed ‘playboy’ that is Maximillian Von Heune (Helmut Griem) whom Sally meets in a dry cleaners. Cue the performance of the song “Money, Money” by Sally and the Master of Ceremonies. This deliciously decadent performance tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between Sally and Max. Brian however is not impressed and gets more and more agitated as the days and weeks wear on. He showers her with gifts of fur coats and perfume, and even walks right into their bedroom one morning with glasses of champagne when they are still in bed. This level of intimacy begins to set the scene for the coming adventures they will have with Max. At the Kit Kat club the performance of “Two Ladies” seems to poke fun at the unlikely ‘threesome’.
The underlying Nazi situation breaks through their debauchery when they drive past a dead communist in the street, surrounded by police. A touch of reality doesn’t stop them from all three going to Max’s mansion for a weekend of drinking and partying. During that weekend Max reveals that he has a wife, and that they “have a special understanding”. When Brian passes out Sally and Max clearly go off to bed together. The next day they take a drive though the country in which he tries to convince the two of them to go to Africa with him on some sort of adventure. They stop at a roadside hotel for lunch and are serenaded by a group of young Nazis singing what would become a very controversial song in the film called “Tomorrow Belongs to us”. When the rest of the lunch patrons stand up to sing along that is when our three make their exit. It seems life in Germany is getting increasingly tenser.
Fritz and Natalia end their relationship, and in a dramatic scene back at the boarding house both Sally and Brian admit to ‘sleeping’ with Max. Not long after their fight Brian is beaten up by Nazis in the street, and they receive a letter from Max telling them both it was fun, and hey here’s some money for your trouble.
At the Kit Kat Club the performers continue to show their disdain for the Nazis in a few rather obvious performances. Natalia is harassed for being a Jew, and finds her pet dog dead on her doorstep one night. As the realities of life in Berlin begin to get darker and scarier, Sally discovers she is pregnant, and also unable to tell who the father is. Brian’s wish to marry her is in complete contrast to Sally’s decision to have an abortion. After making light of the situation Sally has the procedure without discussing it with Brian. When he realises what she has done he has a brief moment of anger, but Sally’s announcement that they would eventually start hating each other changes his views.
Fritz confesses to Brian that he is secretly Jewish and he and Natalia get married. Brian leaves Germany to live his life, and Sally Bowles remains behind at the Kit Kat Club performing the last song of the film, the fabulous “Life is a Cabaret” whilst Nazis clearly look on from the audience.
There is so much “divine decadence” (as Sally Bowles is fond of saying) in this musical. The horrors of the Nazi regime and the dreariness of war are counteracted by the heavy make-up and scantily clad women in the Kit Kat Club. Without shying away from controversy, Liza Minnelli puts it perfectly in the lines: “what good is it sitting all alone in your room? Come hear the music play! Life is a cabaret!”