When the old man I used to live with passed away, I thought I would never again see Cabaret (1972). It is not that I ever saw it in its entirety. Yet, in his endless channel surfing, when he would come across this film, he would stop it and watch it . . . for about three minutes before flipping to something else. His excuse was that he liked the music but disliked everything else in the movie. Since I am not a fan of musicals, I could not stand what I witnessed of either the score or the rest of the story. Not even the historical setting, 1931 Berlin, could entice me. Yet, the American Film Institute (AFI) decided to make it is sixty-third greatest American film of all time. Because I am working my way through that list, I finally decided to sit down and watch it all the way through, beginning to end. It is even worse than I could have imagined.
Before we get to the Cabaret in earnest, the Berlin location known as the Kit Kat Klub (an interesting use of letters, by the way), aside from the opening credit’s introduction, we meet Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York). He has come to the German capital to study the language in order to complete his doctorate from Cambridge University. Needing a place to stay, he finds a boarding house where one of the Kit Kat Klub’s performers, the American Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), also lives. Indeed, the room he ends up renting is across the hall from her. She has all the effervescence, while he has that formalness of British academia. Nonetheless, he comes to see her perform and is introduced to the, er, exoticness of the title culture. It is suggestive without being vulgar, and roughly gender neutral . . . I guess. Nobody seems to care about classifications there, so it makes it hard to describe. At any rate, Sally sees it as a vehicle to stardom, and Brian is enchanted by her. They settle into being friends, and she helps him get work teaching English and translating German in order to support himself while he is in Berlin. One of the clients she helps him get early on is Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), one of the many men that seem to be around Sally at all times. Fritz claims to be trying to establish himself as a business man, which is why knowing English would be helpful, but he also admits to be a penniless, self-styled gigolo. Despite Sally’s many suitors, she craves Brian’s attentions. Thus, when he brings in the beautiful and wealthy Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), she gets jealous. Because, for some reason, Brian is interested in maintaining their friendship, he placates Sally. She tries to sleep with him, but finds that he is unable to perform, leading to an assumption that he is gay. Yet, a few scenes later, after being snubbed by her father who is supposed to have visited from America, he comforts her and they end up doing the deed. Even though Brian has been delving into Sally’s Bohemian lifestyle, after they have sex he treats her like one would treat a girlfriend at pretty much any point in history. She goes along with it until she meets Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). He entices her by having all the money one might expect of somebody with that kind of title. Brian is understandably suspicious of the affections the Baron gives Sally, as well as the gifts, but seems powerless to stop her. Instead, he goes along with it, traveling to the Baron’s estate with Sally. The three of them spend a night together, and eventually it appears that the Baron and Brian have their own indiscretions. This is something Brian admits to when he returns to their boarding house to find her pining for the Baron. Brian finally confronts her about her feelings, and they both claim to have lain with the Baron. However, the Baron has given both the slip, sending them a letter saying that he has departed for Argentina and leaving them a sum of money for their, er, services. This note thaws relations between them for a time. They are eased further when she informs him that she is pregnant. He offers to marry her and take her back to England with him, and she accepts. Everything is finally going right, including for Fritz and Natalia, who have fallen in love. This is a running subplot, made harder by the growing anti-Semitism in Germany with the rise of the Nazis. It takes Fritz admitting that he, too, is a Jew for her to agree to marry him. Brian and Sally share in the joy of these nuptials, but their own is short-lived. She comes home late one morning. When pressed, she tells him that she has gotten an abortion. She claims that a life in the quaint English countryside would be a poor decision for her, and that it would only be a matter of time before she committed some kind of adultery. Brian is understandably hurt by this news, but eventually forgives her. At the same time, he decides that it is time to leave. This decision is made a little more pressing after he picks a fit with a pair of Nazis and gets beat up for his efforts. Sally walks Brian to the train station and their goodbye concludes the film.
Well, actually Cabaret ends with yet another song and dance number because it is, after all, a musical. This is why my synopsis was slightly shorter than usual because, like most examples of its ilk, the performances in the Kit Kat Klub are used to repeat, and repeat, events going on in the main story. I think this film gets a little more attention because its backdrop is the rise of Nazi Germany. If you know anything about the history of that brutal regime, it is expected that the days of the kinds of acts you see on the Kit Kat Klub’s stage are numbered. The Nazis are going to unleash a great deal of suffering upon Europe and the rest of the world, and here you are seeing the early stages of it. As a practicing Catholic, I may not agree with the lifestyles seen in the movie, but the solution is the exact opposite of the Nazi one. The Church and National Socialism (look it up) disagreed on a number of issues, a key one being abortion. Abortion is a form of birth control, and was widely used by Hitler’s followers as a way of purifying the so-called Aryan race. At the same time, some of the biggest proponents of abortion and birth control in this country were highly respected by the Nazis, including Margaret Sanger. Still, without going too far down a political rabbit hole, look at the suffering abortion brings to Brian and Sally. The pro-choice argument for her actions would be that she, after a fashion, chose her career over motherhood. I will grant that it did not seem like she would make the best mother. Yet, she had a willing father, and the child growing in her womb deserved the chance. Thus, in addition to being a musical in which, generally speaking, I have no interest, it also contains subject matter that contravenes my Faith.
As I said in the previous paragraph, the answer to what you see in Cabaret is not how the Nazis handled it. Their jackbooted thuggery has left such a stain on history that I doubt humanity will ever forget it, nor should it. Instead, we must love those questioning their gender or sexuality, or deciding as to whether to have an abortion. Not doing so alienates people, and this is not a way to win hearts and minds.