Cabaret is first and foremost a film about escapism. Poor little Sally Bowles, a wannabe starlet who is desperate to appear unique and exciting and interesting, spends her nights performing at the Kit Kat Club in Weimar Berlin, waiting for the big break that will never come.
There is some criticism among musical fans, as to whether or not Liza Minnelli was the right choice to play Sally. The argument is that Sally is meant to be a mediocre talent -- her tragedy is that despite her passion and commitment, she's never going to be the next big Hollywood star, and it seems like she's the only one who hasn't realized that yet.
And Liza Minelli, with her huge eyes and thrilling voice, can't help but draw you in. But I think that she's just off-kilter and eccentric enough to avoid the believability issue that come when an obvious talent attempts to portray a lesser one, and her fragility gives so much life to the character that her performance as Sally is iconic in musical theater.
So Sally, an ingenue reveling her own eccentricity, crosses paths with Brian Roberts, a mild-mannered English tutor who seems as quiet and emotionally repressed as Sally is boisterous and sexually liberated. Brian, by the way, is played by Michael York, an actor who most people from my generation would recognize primarily as Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers franchise.
Which isn't, you know, super relevant, but just something I get a kick out of.
Anyway, the two grow together as friends and eventually as lovers, but the quirky laissez faire attitude towards sexuality in 1930s Berlin, combined with the introduction of a wealthy debonair playboy in the form of Maximilian quickly puts a strain on their relationship. Mainly because they both are crazy into him. One of the most fun and interesting moments in their time together comes after an argument when Sally melodramatically confesses that she has been sleeping with Maximilian and Brian is basically like LOL me too, which really throws Sally off her game.
But the take away from all of this leads us right back to the central theme of this film: escapism. Even two people in what seems to be a fairly fulfilling relationship can't help but stray from the mundane, the conventional, the expected, in search of something a bit more exciting, regardless of the consequences.
Just as Sally constantly tries to escape her life, the Kit Kat Club serves as a break from reality for Berlin. It's a city full of people thinking that if they cover their ears, hum really loud, and focus on the bawdy musical numbers, they will be able to block out the ugliness that is taking over Germany. But the sad message of the film is that you can never truly escape reality.
As Sally abandons her vision of an idyllic life with Brian and has an abortion, the growing number of Nazi uniforms at the Kit Kat Club hint that its denizens won't be able to ignore the rise of fascism in Germany. There's a certain nihilist tone to the film of, "Well, we might as well have fun while it lasts." After all, the Kit Kat Club represents exactly the sort of "degenerate" art that was one of the first bits of culture sacrificed at the altar of Aryan ideology.
And there's one more thing that I would be profoundly remiss if I didn't mention: Joel Grey. Joel fucking Grey, man.
He is a tiny powerhouse of frenetic debauchery in this film, and it is glorious. As Master of Ceremonies, he provides our entry into the underworld of cabaret, his painted grin equal parts gleeful and malevolent.
And we can't kid ourselves, most of the fun in Cabaret comes from the outlandish song and dance sequences that are featured throughout the movie at the Kit Kat Club -- they are pure fantasy, and operate in complete isolation from the rest of the film. No one spontaneously breaks out into song and dance in this musical -- all of the traditional theatrical numbers take place solidly on the stage featured in the cabaret night club. They are a huge part of what make this film so memorable.
There's no doubt that Bob Fosse was put on this earth to direct and choreograph its dance sequences, as they are eccentric little things that simply would not work without his hyper-theatrical flamboyant touches.
So many movie musicals suffer from having cookie cutter numbers that you could really switch from one to another without too much fuss or confusion -- not so here. The showmanship of the musical aspects provide a perfect counterpoint to the sometimes drab vulnerability of the real world sequences.