We may have descended from apes, but obviously, there’s multiple things that set us apart from our Primate brothers.
Our heightened consciousness. Our souls. The fact this planet speaks over 7000 languages. Our ability to walk, run and dance and ice skate on our two legs. Play sports. Sustain deep, life-long interpersonal relationships. Perform heart surgery. Engineer bridges, boats and buildings that somehow don’t fall down. Craft delicious food. Raise families. Write books. Fly planes and rockets. Study anatomy and figure out that contrary to early 19th century beliefs, antibiotics do save lives. Discover chocolate, cheese and wine. Straighten crooked teeth. We could go on and on and on. But we digress.
Sure, we’re technically animals, but of course there’s lots of things that makes us (literally) stand head and shoulders above the rest of the Animal Kingdom. And one of the most important differences to note? Our ability to create things.
From designing clothes, to making art, to writing plays, to composing music, our propensity to create is certainly curious. Look, you don’t see a band of gorillas creating their own banging tunes. Well, there is a band called Gorillaz, but that one’s thanks to Damon Albarn. Alexa, play Feel Good Inc.
But where does this come from? Why are we so inclined to do such things? We’d say humanity’s need to be creative is as innate as the need to breathe. But that’s just an educated guess. All in all, it’s an intriguing philosophy to ponder. But you know what’s also fascinating? How we respond to other people’s art. Namely, how it makes us feel.
How is it possible that listening to a song transports you back in time? You close your eyes, and suddenly you’re a child again, running around your mum’s back yard to Bowie’s Sound and Vision. How can fashion, the sewing together of materials, help people feel confident to express their true selves? How can a painting depict human emotion so flawlessly? How can a West-End play completely hold a theatre’s attention in a distracted world of mindless scrolling and 7 second videos? Beats us.
But we must say, one of our most impressive, emotive forms of art is the medium of film.
Films make us laugh. And cry (look – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Mufasa fell off the cliff in The Lion King). Films make us believe in love. And make us scared. Or make us care about the wellbeing of fictional characters. They make us aware of important historical events. Shed light on difficult topics like grief, divorce and addiction. And if only for a few hours, they take us completely out of our own heads. And into an immersive fictional world. So much so, that when you’re watching it, feels oh so real.
It’s astonishing. From The Godfather, to The Breakfast Club, to Pulp Fiction to Parasite, we humans have made some truly amazing films in our time. But there’s one movie that sticks out as one of the greatest movies of all time (move over, Avatar!). That perfectly encapsulates complex human emotions. That transcends genre. That comments upon key historical events. That has a cult fandom. That stands the test of time. Which movie are we talking about? We’re on about the all-singing, all-dancing, romantic, historical musical that is…Cabaret.
We’re kidding (kind of). Well, it sounds like you’ve been in a pop culture coma since the 1970’s. But that’s what we’re here for. We at Proud Group will give you the low down about the hit film Cabaret, and why Cabaret remains one of the greatest movies of all time. Stuck on what to watch on the telly? Look no further, folks. Because as a wise girl called Sally once said: “life is a Cabaret, old chum.”
Before we deep-dive into the plot of Cabaret, we must give you a bit of context because believe it or not, the cinematic wonder that is Cabaret did not start with the movie.
Far from it. We wouldn’t even have the privilege to utter the word Cabaret without Christopher Isherwood. “Who is this?”, you ask? Christopher Isherwood (born 26th August 1904) was a playwright, novelist, screenwriter and autobiographer of English and American descent. And even if you haven’t heard of him, Hollywood is no stranger to the work of Christopher Isherwood. Fun fact: his famous book, A Single Man, was adapted for the screen back in 1964, and again by designer Tom Ford in 2009.
Anyway, a young Christopher Isherwood visited Berlin for the first time during his post-grad studies in 1929. Stay with us, here. This is important. The city put a spell on him, because a few months later, Isherwood uprooted his life and moved there. And after falling in love with a handsome German boy, Isherwood found bliss and self-acceptance.
Not only that, Isherwood became connected to the loving tribe of Weimar-era Berlin’s LGBTQIA+ community.
He could live openly as a young gay man, and thus, felt like he’d finally found a home. Isherwood immersed himself in Berlin’s libertine nightlife scene and kept a tight circle of other like-minded expatriate friends. Again, stay with us here.
All of this is important. It inspired Isherwood to pen tales about his vibrant life in Berlin’s Weimar republic. This turned into what we know today as Goodbye to Berlin (1939), an autobiographical novel documenting the rise and fall of the Weimar republic. The novel starts by covering Isherwood’s sojourn as a hedonist seeking pleasure, and ends with Adolf Hitler’s steady ascension into power.
Well, Goodbye to Berlin contains a little story by the name of Sally Bowles.
Sally Bowles was a novella based upon Isherwood’s real-life room mate and Jean Ross, a British cabaret singer. And as it goes, Sally Bowles turned out to be Isherwood’s most famous character. The year is 1951, and play write John Van Druten was first to adapt Isherwood’s work. He turned it into the play I Am A Camera. From there, the work John Van Druten inspired a Broadway production guru by the name of John Kander. Fast-forward to the year 1966. John Kander stepped in and adapted I Am A Camera into the musical adaptation that we know today as Cabaret.
Fun fact: the Broadway extraordinaire and his writing partner Fred Ebb have produced and scored many a successful Broadway production, including A Family Affair, Chicago and Woman of the Year. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway revival of Cabaret was met with vast critical acclaim. The production went on to receive the 1967 Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Original Score. But the Broadway Revival wasn’t a patch on the film version…
So whats cabaret about? Fast-forward again. Six years later. February 13th, 1972, to be exact. Why is this day important? Because it marked the release date of the film version of Cabaret, directed by filmmaker extraordinaire Bob Fosse. Now, here’s the 411 on all things Cabaret. If Cabaret was a rollercoaster, there’d be a strict height restriction. Buckle your seats belts, because you’re in for a wild ride!
The place? A city called Berlin. The plot follows the life of Sally Bowles, the main character in Cabaret. A young, wild American girl, who is played by none other than Liza Minnelli.
Look: if the daughter of the late great Judy Garland (a daughter who’s just as talented as her mother) is the lead in the Cabaret film version, it’s bound to be a hit. Not to mention that the cast includes acclaimed actors like Joel Grey, Marisa Berenson, Michael York, Helmut Griem and Fritz Wepper.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Sally Bowles moonlights as cabaret singer at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, a debauched nightclub infamous for throwing scandalous, sexually inhibited parties. The cabaret ensemble includes a posse of cabaret performers, the eccentric Master of Ceremonies, played by iconic American actor Joel Grey. Sally Bowles is living in a boarding house whilst she works at the Kit Kat club to make ends meet. Where are we going with this?
Sally Bowles gets introduced to British academic Brian Roberts. A shy and introverted character, Brian Roberts (played by the iconic Michael York) arrives in Berlin to teach English whilst he completes his doctorate degree on the side. Despite his slightly timid nature (and being the total opposite of our loud protagonist), something about him takes Sally Bowles’ fancy. So the promiscuous cabaret singer sets her sights on Brian Roberts, and decides to seduce him.
But unfortunately for Sally, this does not pan out how the cabaret singer would’ve hoped. After Sally makes a move, Brian Roberts rejects her advances. At first, Sally is very dismayed. But Brian explains that he himself is the “problem”. Brian lets slip that he has tried to start sexual relations with women on 3 separate occasions, and each time they’ve gone horribly wrong. It alludes to Brian’s confusion about his sexuality, a touchy subject in early 20th century Europe.
After a teeny tiny bit of embarrassment, Sally quickly gets over it, and her and Brian start an intimate friendship instead.
Shortly after becoming fast friends, Sally introduces Brian to the weird and wonderful kit kat klub, and the hedonistic lifestyle that’s synonymous with Berlin’s Weiner Republic. Brian is fascinated by the kit kat club and Sally’s bohemian lifestyle. And wonders if he’ll ever have the guts to live as unapologetically as the young, wild cabaret singer does.
Sally’s Father, an affluent American businessman, is coming to Berlin to meet with her. Sally’s father has let her down a lot in the past, so she only gets her hopes up slightly, praying he won’t hit her with a last minute cancellation (like always). But when her Father cancels their meeting yet again, Sally is devastated. And as a good friend should, Brian Roberts gives her a shoulder to cry on. But unexpectedly, the pair share a tentative kiss instead (gasp!). Quickly after their surprise kiss, (and to each other’s great shock) the pair become lovers.
This pairing is going swimmingly. Until Maximilian Von Heune (played by the talented Helmut Griem) arrives on the scene.
He is handsome, charming and charismatic. A wealthy baron and certified playboy (despite being a married man), Maximilian Von Heune decides to befriend cabaret singer Sally almost immediately. And good old Sally Bowles happily obliges. Maximilian Von Heune invites Sally to join him at his opulent country estate outside of Berlin. Sally requests that she bring Brian Roberts along. So the pair head off to the countryside, completely unaware of the drama that lies ahead.
Whilst the three of them relax at the humungous countryside mansion, Maximilian Von Heune begins courting (and spoiling) Brian and Sally.
And the audience see a love triangle plays out between the 3 people. Both get carried away by his intense displays of affection, and quickly fall under his spell. But let’s face it. When a handsome, successful, magnetic Baron decides to shower you with attention, it’s almost impossible not to get carried away. But as any good movie does, the plot thickens.
It seems everything is going well. Until, something happens between Max and Brian. After sharing a tender, enigmatic moment together, Max emotionally retreats. And almost as quickly as he went after them, Max the Baron drops the pursuit of Sally and Brian completely. It seems like a shock.
Usually in situations like this, we see and feel the red flags of love-bombing. But for whatever reason, we ignore them, telling ourselves we’re overthinking it. Plus early 20th society didn’t even have a word for this. But sadly, in a tale as old as time, this love triangle plays out as so. And the story’s two main characters have indeed, been played.
The pair are left flabbergasted. And their respective frustrations spark a heated discussion. Sally and Brian start to argue. During the argument, Sally informs Brian that she has been having sexual relations with Maximilian Von Heune. And surprisingly, Brian reveals that he has been sleeping with him, too. Thankfully, it does not take long for our two favourite characters to reconcile, and Sally and Brian make up. Sally then reveals that Max the Baron left them 300 marks for their time – which is around the amount a customer would give a prostitute. Is that rude or is that rude?!
But as she was having relations with both men, she is unsure who fathered the child. In a bid to make her feel better, Brian offers to marry Sally and take her back to the UK and join him in Cambridge whilst he completes his University degree. At first, Sally gladly accepts. And the pair become excited at the possibility of a new life together. A life away from hedonistic, declining Berlin and the seedy kit kat klub. The start to celebrate. But this excitement quickly fades out when the pair have a picnic.
During their picnic lunch, Brian acts cold and distant towards Sally. Sally starts to visualise a her life as a bored housewife, becomes dispirited at their plans to move, and starts to rethink her decision. She doesn’t want to be a lonely faculty wife – she wants to sing. And be wild and free in Berlin’s Weimar republic. So Sally makes a tough decision. And chooses to get an abortion without Brian’s knowledge. Sally has no money for the illegal operation, and instead pawns her iconic fur coat as payment.
When Brian confronts her later on, Sally shares her secret. And the pair ultimately reach and understanding. Brian decides to return to the UK alone. And Sally? She stays in Berlin, submerging herself completely at the Kit kat klub.
And like the plot of any good film, there’s an interesting sub-plot that steers the undercurrent of the film’s historical context. The sub-plot follows Fritz Wendel (played by Fritz Wepper), a German of Jewish descent that has been “passing” as a Protestant. Fritz Wendel is in love with a rich Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer (played by Marisa Berenson). But she holds Fritz Wendel in contempt, so he loves her from afar.
He is unsure of how to win Natalia over, and seeks Sally’s advice. Sally encourages Fritz to be more assertive. This eventually pays off, Natalia starts to takes Fritz seriously, and the pair fall in love. Even so, Fritz must divulge his ethnicity in order to get Natalia’s parents to consent to their marriage. Fritz confesses that he is in fact Jewish, and Natalia’s parents give their consent. Finally Marisa Berenson and Fritz Wepper’s characters get married by a Rabbi (hooray!).
Whilst the ballad of Sally, Brian and Max plays out, the film’s historical context remains an omnipresent theme within Cabaret. Fascism makes a slow (and scarily steady) rise in the Broadway revival, the progress of which is documented throughout the film. At the start of Cabaret, a Nazi is discovered inside the seedy Kit Kat club and gets subsequently thrown out. However, as Cabaret stars to draw to a close, the Kit kat club sees a Nazi party dominating the audience. And no one so much as bats and eye. In one of the final shots, a young blonde boy sings the iconic song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” to the audience, a track that celebrates the beauty of youth and nature. Then it is revealed the boy is dressed in a Hitler Youth uniform. Suddenly “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” turns into an aggressive Nazi anthem. And one by one, audience members of all ages rise and join in with the singing.
So there you have it – a detailed breakdown of the storyline of Cabaret. With important historical context, exploration of pre-war Berlin, assortment of various complex emotions, (and of course a good old fashioned love triangle), the Bob Fosse masterpiece has all the ingredients to set Cabaret as one of the greatest films of all time. Sally may not know much, but she was right about one thing. Life is a cabaret, old chum.