Life is a Cabernet

Ever wonder what Chicago would look like with more makeup, fewer inmates, and a rising fascist movement? Stop dreaming because Turner Classic Movies has the whole package in Cabaret. Set in 1931, the bangles are bedazzled, the fringe is flamboyant, and there’s brandy in every teacup. Youths party all night long and the Nazi’s casually build a following, making Berlin both a place to be modern and a place people discretely flee. Cabaret shows us all the angles interwoven with pinup dancers and lovely girls that may not be girls at all.

Germany’s in a bit of a rough time, but at least the clubs are still running. The Kit Kat Club is the most beautifully staffed joint in town and its shining star is Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). Sally may be an American fluent in one word of German, but she can sing, dance, and sleep her way into the good graces of Berlin’s night owls. When she’s not on stage, Sally’s usually getting tipsy at the boarding house or showing her latest roommate around Berlin. Enter Brian Roberts (Michael York), an honest Brit with an impressive education and fluid plans for his future. Sally and Brian hit it off. Having an abnormally outgoing personality, Sally finds quick work for Brian as a translator and English teacher. Cabaret splits its time between parlour room English lessons and sassy stage numbers, showing us Berlin by day and by night. Sally and Brian make friends with the bashful Fritz (Fritz Wepper), the blank canvas Natalia (Marisa Berenson), and the generously wealthy Maximilian (Helmut Griem). We occasionally check in with these floating characters before being pulled back to the lives of Sally and Brian. Has Sally become a great actress yet? Has Brian completed that PhD? In the evenings they get drunk, sing, dance, and pass out where they please. Life is a cabaret!

…Until the country takes a left turn. Set in 1931, the subtle rise of the Nazis is the most powerful component of Cabaret. People pay no attention to the men in beige until suddenly they’re a mob singing in unison at the mountains. To profile a few victims, Cabaret includes Natalia as the wealthy Jewish daughter and Fritz as the Christian that can’t understand why their love is forbidden. He pines for her, she cradles her dog, and the growing movement yells outside her family’s gates. But we’re not here for the unrequited love or social oppression; we’re here to see Sally storm through the day like the calmest she can do is an 8. I’m not sure why Cabaret included the Nazi rise to power, since it has no effect on Sally and Brian story. Even The Sound of Music eventually pushed the Nazis into the Von Trapps. In Cabaret, the movement is just something that happens in the background and occasionally warrants a line or two.

I was pulled out of the poignant scenes of arm bands and corpses in the street to hear more about Sally’s new fur coat. Take away the meaningful undertones and Cabaret feels closer to La La Land, the Berlin edition. We’re skipping along merrily until suddenly Sally’s quiet musings are live on stage. With a touch of theatricality, the tense moment when best friends privately consider a threesome can easily become tonight’s main stage attraction thanks to three performers and a bed sheet.

Sally keeps her spotlight on from start to finish. She bursts in and out of rooms like a dramatic east wind, fluttering her fake eyelashes and flooding the room with the blunt truth. Sally has dreams, sure, but she’s waiting for her big break to tap her on the shoulder rather than, say, trying an audition or two. Meanwhile, off-script, things progress dangerously with the disposable characters, Natalia and Fritz, but our blinders are firmly set on what beverage Sally needs to quench today’s sorrows.

Pick a plot, Cabaret. One of these stories would have been enough for a movie. I’d happily tune in to see the lovers torn apart by Germany’s unrest, or the bizarre motivations of the rich Maximilian who wedges himself firmly between the happy couple. I’d even like to see more of the Kit Kat Club’s staff and their steadily shifting clientele – but we only peek at these secondary stories like commercials, always curving back to Sally and Brian. I spent two hours waiting for the “And thus it was that…” but like the ketchup my waiter never brought, I was left with a mountain of fries and just shy of satisfied.

Cabaret is a creative movie, with lots of fresh angles and interesting cuts, but it feels over-acted and unnecessarily extended. It needs a good editor. With four plots in one and heavy historical symbolism that’s brushed aside for fresh manicures and flirting, Cabaret under-wowed me and comes in around a 4/10.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum.”