Willkommen to CABARET, Our Pick of the Week

by Sharon Mineo

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you to a Fosse-fied musical about bisexuality, abortion, and the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. That’s right, my Pick of the Week is none other than 1972’s Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. Don’t abandon me yet — if light, bubbly musicals aren’t your thing, perhaps you’ll enjoy a depressing one. And for those of a younger generation who only know Liza from Arrested Development, here’s your opportunity to learn exactly how she became a thing.

If you’re still on the fence, it’s worth noting that Cabaret that beat out The Godfather for multiple Academy Awards. Bob Fosse bested Francis Ford Coppola in the Best Director category, and Joel Grey beat James Caan, Robert Duvall, AND Al Pacino for his work as the Emcee, a role he originated on Broadway that also won him a Tony. Liza Minnelli won Best Actress, and the film earned 5 additional non-acting awards, for eight wins out of 10 total nominations. It maintains a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, if you care about that sort of thing, and consistently ranks high on various “Top 100” lists.

OK, Sharon, you may be saying, I’m sold on the credentials. But what the hell is it about? I know this will shock you, but a cabaret features prominently. Bright-eyed English doctoral student Brian Roberts (York) has made the trek to early 1930s Berlin to give English lessons for vaguely-defined reasons associated with his studies. At his boardinghouse he meets Sally Bowles, an American ex-pat who sings at the Kit Kat Klub, helmed by Grey’s Emcee. Flamboyant Sally isn’t about to let Brian’s inherent Britishness prevent them from becoming friends, and she introduces him to the decadent depravity of the club and her friends, including eternal gigolo Fritz Wepper (Fritz Wendel). Sally’s interested in more, but Brian may or may not be down with the ladies, so they stick to remaning friends for the time being. Laughs are had by all, and Brian even lands beautiful Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) as an English student, much to Fritz’s delight.

But all is not as it seems. Eager Brian and the too fabulous Sally are soon revealed to be lost souls wandering in the wilderness of the city, and the city itself isn’t as idyllic as it seems, with the rising dark tide of Nazism creeping into everyone’s daily lives before they even realize what’s happening. Sally’s bubbly demeanor and patter about her amazing “practically an ambassador” father conceal a deep hurt caused by a father who doesn’t actually love her. It’s during an emotional breakdown after being abandoned by her father yet again that Brian and Sally finally become a couple, when Brian’s comforting embrace becomes something more.

It’s here that the musical narrative becomes apparent. “Willkommen” as the opener might have been an understandable one-off, but as scenes of post-coital Brian and Sally are interspersed with Sally hopefully belting out “Maybe This Time” at the club, you know you’re getting a film where the musical numbers both reflect and advance the storyline. There are no coincidences here; “Money, Money” heralds the arrival of rich playboy Max (Helmut Griem), and there’s no question where things are going with the trio of Max, Brian, and Sally when the Emcee performs his ode to threesomes, “Two Ladies” (as if you couldn’t guess it from the chemistry between Michael York and Helmut Griem).

Throughout this all, the beautiful decadence turns dark. Nazi-imposed violence is on the rise, something of which Brian learns firsthand; Sally and Brian are abandoned by Max, with Sally pregnant and unsure of the father; and Fritz, who is Jewish but has been passing as a Christian, finds himself truly in love with the Natasha and forced to risk exposure of his heritage or lose the woman he wants to marry. With direction by famed choreographer Bob Fosse, and with a kind of austere pomposity only found in the 70s, Cabaret is unsettling. This is no breezy Betty Grable feel-good flick; even the earworms, like “Money, Money,” are jarring if you think about them.

So even if you’re not a fan of musicals, I challenge you the give Cabaret a try. You might just find something unexpected.

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