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Directed by Bob Fosse with Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, Helmut Griem and Marisa Benenson, color, minutes, 1972

Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles

Liza Minelli performing at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin

By Carter B. Horsley

Cabaret won 8 Oscars in 1973 including the awards for best director, best actress and best supporting actor while The Godfather only won 3  including best picture.

It is about a performer at the Kit Kat Club around 1931 in Berlin, which was then noted for decadence and Expressionism.  The performer was Sally Bowles who was featured in Chrisopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" that was adapted for the 1955 movie, "I Am A Camera" and the 1966 Broadway musical, "Cabaret," which starred Jill Haworth and Joel Grey.

In this movie version several songs from the Broadway production were dropped and a couple added and Mr. Grey was retained for his role as the Master of Ceremonies at the nightclub.  Haworth's role was given to Liza Minnelli, the daughter of Judy Garland and movie director Vincent Minnelli. 


Lisa and her angels in heaven

Liza and her angels in heaven

The only 38 of the movie's 111 minutes are musical but they are tremendously wonderful and superb.

The movie zeitgeist is tawdry and a forerunner of New York's Studio 54 loud decadence, but swarmy club-owner Steve Rubell cannot hold a candle to the incandescent Joel Grey who outshines the pathos of Minnelli, who is brilliant.

Grey is fireworks incarnate.

Minnelli is the perfect pixie and gamen who outsings her legendary mother.

In his January 1, 1972 review, Roger Ebert provides the following commentary:

"This is no ordinary musical. Part of its success comes because it doesn't fall for the old cliché that musicals have to make you happy. Instead of cheapening the movie version by lightening its load of despair, director Bob Fosse has gone right to the bleak heart of the material and stayed there well enough to win an Academy Award for Best Director....

"Sally is brought magnificently to the screen in an Oscar-winning performance by Liza Minnelli, who plays her as a girl who's bought what the cabaret is selling. To her, the point is to laugh and sing and live forever in the moment; to refuse to take things seriously - even Nazism - and to relate with people only up to a certain point. She is capable of warmth and emotion, but a lot of it is theatrical, and when the chips are down she's as decadent as the 'divinely decadent' dark fingernail polish she flaunts....

"Liza Minnelli...demonstrates unmistakably that she's one of the great musical performers of our time....

Michael York

Michael York

Helmut Griem

Helmut Griem

"Sally gets involved in a triangular relationship with a young English language teacher (Michael York) and a young baron (Helmut Griem), and if this particular triangle didn't exist in the stage version, that doesn't matter. It helps define the movie's whole feel of moral anarchy, and it is underlined by the sheer desperation in the cabaret itself....

"...The context of Germany on the eve of the Nazi ascent to power makes the entire musical into an unforgettable cry of despair."

In his excellent review at the American Film Instiute, Tim Dirks provides the following commentary:

"Cabaret (1972) is director/choreographer Bob Fosse's defining, decadent, award-winning musical which popularized the phrase: 'Life is a Cabaret.' It was only Fosse's second film, but won numerous accolades (and was a financial and artistic hit), and has been viewed in retrospect as the only truly great musical of the 1970s.

"The boundary-pushing film, with themes of corruption, sexual ambiguity and false dreams, was adapted from the grim 1966 Tony-winning Broadway stage production, which was in turn inspired by gay author Christopher Isherwood's 1945 Berlin Stories (including 1939's short story Goodbye to Berlin) and John Van Druten's 1951 play and movie I Am a Camera (1955, UK). (The 1955 film starred Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey and Shelley Winters.)...

"...Fosse's film was an update of the Kurt Weill-Brecht world of The Threepenny Opera, Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), and Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1970, It.)...The sexually-charged, semi-controversial, kinky musical was the first one ever to be given an X rating (although later re-rated) with its numerous sexual flings and hedonistic club life. There was considerable sexual innuendo, profanity, casual sex talk (homosexual and heterosexual), some evidence of anti-Semitism, and even an abortion in the film....

"The superb songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb contributed a string of 12 memorable songs or tunes (comprising about 38 minutes of the two-hour running film time) - all effusive, stylishly-choreographed, beautifully-costumed song-sequences....

Cabaret placed # 5 on AFI's 25 Greatest Movie Musicals list, and the title song "Cabaret" was # 18 on AFI's 100 Top Movie Songs of All Time.

"...It won the most Oscars of any film that also did not win Best Picture. Gravity (2012) holds second place with seven Oscar wins, while A Place in the Sun (1951) and Star Wars (1977) hold third place with six Oscar wins while failing to win Best Picture. In 1973, Fosse not only won the Best Director Oscar for Cabaret but also a Primetime Emmy (Outstanding Directorial Achievement) for Minnelli's TV special "Liza with a Z" and a Tony (Best Direction of a Musical) for the original Broadway production of Pippin. He became the only person to have won all three Best Director awards in a single year. Some interpreted Liza Minnelli's win as 'compensation' for the many Oscar losses that her mother, Judy Garland, experienced. With her win, she became the first and only person to win an Oscar whose parents (Judy Garland, a Juvenile Oscar winner, and Vincente Minnelli) had both won Academy Awards."

In his February 14, 1972 review at The New York Times, Roger Greenspan provides the following commentary:

"Fosse makes mistakes, partly because his camera is a more potent instrument than he realizes, but he also makes discoveries — and “Cabaret” is one of those immensely gratifying imperfect works in which from beginning to end you can literally feel a movie coming to life.

"Everybody in “Cabaret” is very fine, and meticulously chosen for type, down to the last weary transvestite and to the least of the bland, blond openfaced Nazis in the background. As for Miss Minnelli, she is sometimes wrong in the details of her role, but so magnificently right for the film as a whole that I should prefer not to imagine it without her.

"With her expressive face and her wonderful (and wonderfully costumed) body she moves and sings with a strength, warmth, intelligence, and sensitivity to nuance that virtually transfixes the screen."

Minnelli and Grey give magnificent and very memorable performances while York, Griem and Berenson are attractive.

The girls

The girls

The band

The band

Not to be overlooked are the wonderfully sleasey chorus girls and the female band.

In his January 25. 2013 review at, Michael Reuben provides the following commentary: 

"No one in Cabaret bursts into song to express themselves. The five songs from the stage show that served such a function (the so-called 'book' songs) were dropped. With one exception, the only songs that were retained were those sung by performers from the stage of the Kit Kat Klub, the seedy Berlin dive where one of the main characters, Sally Bowles, earned her meager living....Fosse and his editor, David Bretherton (another of the film's Oscar winners), used abrupt transitions, unexpected rhythms and jarring, rapid-fire cuts to keep the audience off balance.

"At every level, Cabaret is a technical marvel, but Fosse's perfectionism wasn't a matter of craftsmanship for its own sake. At the end of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's Rick famously tells Ilse that their problems don't amount to 'a hill of beans' in light of the Nazi threat. Cabaret's characters can't see (or don't want to) beyond their hill of beans, even as that very threat masses ominously around them. Fosse draws you deeply into the world of those characters, but then he keeps breaking away to remind you of what they're ignoring. Ultimately, Cabaret's aim is to give the viewer an experience that answers the question that still puzzles so many: How could an entire nation have remained complacent while such dangerous people took over?

"Three main threads wind through Cabaret, criss-crossing and looping over each other. The first is the friendship, and then love affair, between Sally Bowles..., the would-be actress with the oversize personality that disguises a perpetually broken heart, and Brian Roberts (Michael York), the repressed Englishman who arrives in 1931 Berlin to continue his studies and support himself by teaching English to Germans. Inquiring about a vacancy in the boarding house where Sally lives, Brian is greeted by Sally at the door and is instantly swept into her world of 'divine decadence,' as she beckons him inside with her brightly metallic green fingernails. Their relationship is by turns comical, touching and tragic, because the more they get to know each other, the more obvious it becomes that they are impossible as a couple.

"The second thread is Germany's descent into fascism. Cabaret is set just two years before the Nazis gained control of the German government, and their presence is inescapable throughout the film. Near the beginning, a Nazi supporter comes into the Kit Kat Klub, where Sally works, to solicit donations and is immediately ushered out by the manager. (Shortly after, we see the manager being beaten in an alley by Nazi sympathizers.) By the end of the film, the club's audience is filled with patrons wearing swastika armbands. In between, numerous scenes (and parts of scenes) attest to the gathering storm, even as Brian and Sally remain absorbed in their day-to-day lives.

Marisa Benenson

Marisa Berenson

"An especially chilling example occurs when Brian returns to the boarding house one day to find his sweet, friendly neighbors sitting together in the front room trading stories from the official Nazi press about the international conspiracy of Jewish bankers and communists. Later, one of Brian's pupils, Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson), is subjected to a vicious attack, because she is a member of a wealthy Jewish family. A subplot involving Natalia and a fortune hunter named Fritz (Fritz Wepper), who woos her for her money, then discovers to his amazement that he's fallen in love with his 'mark,' takes a dark turn, as Natalia's race becomes a matter of controversy. Among people with money and influence, nonchalance rules the day. We will take care of the Nazis, says Maximilian (Helmut Griem), the dissolute baron who briefly" adopts Bowles and Roberts.

"The third and final thread is the Kit Kat Klub itself, the 'cabaret' of the title, where Sally works while she deludes herself that she has a future as an actress. A surreal and seedy locale, the club is presided over by a mysterious figure known only as the Master of Ceremonies, or M.C. (Joel Grey), who welcomes us to the film with his famous greeting ("Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!") and bids us farewell at the end....

"'Leave your troubles outside!' says the M.C. 'In here, life is beautiful!' At one level, the M.C. represents the wilful narcosis that blinded so many of the people of Germany (and the world) to the Nazi threat. But at the same time, he presides over musical numbers that literally fling the problem in the audience's face, while he grins over their complacency (the most obvious example being 'If You Could See Her'). Even when the club numbers seem to be commenting primarily on Brian and Sally (as in 'Money' or 'Two Ladies'), the M.C.'s sardonic delivery always hints at some larger game being played....

"Christopher Isherwood, on whose stories Cabaret was based, complained that Liza Minnelli was too talented to play Sally Bowles, who, in Isherwood's original conception, was supposed to be a third-rate performer with hopeless aspirations. Isherwood had a point, but Fosse understood how to use Minnelli's talent as a musical performer to create a different version of Sally Bowles, one who only exists as a creation on a stage and, once the lights go down, lapses back into an emotionally wounded creature so desperate that she lives her life as if playing a part. Between drinking, serial affairs and the endless lies Sally tells herself, there's barely anyone there, which is what dooms her relationship with Brian. Minnelli finds layer after layer of humor and pathos in this impossible creature and even makes her strangely appealing as she dances on the edge of a volcano that is gathering itself for an imminent eruption. The famous title song of Cabaret is often treated as an anthem to living for the moment and enjoying what's in front of you, and Minnelli, as Sally, gives it her all. Watch it in context, and pay attention to how Fosse follows it up, and you'll never be able to listen to it the same way again."

This film is ranked 77h in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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