Come hear the music play;
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret!"
The plot of the film has some substantial departures from the plot of the stage version. In places it draws more directly on the musical's sources, Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin and its nonmusical 1951 play adaptation I Am a Camera. Where the stage musical is deliberately theatrical, and at times blurs the lines between the cabaret performances and the characters' real lives, the film aims for grounded realism. For example, the only songs that are retained in the film are those that are performances in-universe.
The film won eight Academy Awards, including for Fosse's direction, Minnelli's performance as Sally and Joel Grey's as the Emcee. It is particularly notable for dominating the awards in the year of The Godfather, although the latter's comparatively few Oscars (three) still included Best Picture.
The film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Attractiveness:
- Subverted in the film's famous dance scene with Sally and the bentwood chair. Minnelli and Fosse worked hard to show the typically untrained technique and stereotypical moves that an enthusiastic amateur like Sally would have used. Minnelli — a trained dancer — later claimed that rehearsing these jerky, exaggerated moves seeded many of her later arthritis problems.
- The elderly Beta Couple Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider from the musical are replaced with the much younger Fritz and Natalia.
- The character of Natalia in the original book is a not especially attractive teenage schoolgirl, rather than a beautiful young woman.
- Adaptational Job Change: In the musical, the lead male character was a writer. In the movie, he's an English teacher.
- Adaptational Nationality: Sally is British and Cliff/Brian is American in the original play, but the film swaps their nationalities.
- Adaptational Sexuality: Brian Roberts is bisexual, unlike his book counterpart, who is gay.
- Adaptation Name Change: The lead male character is called Brian Roberts rather than Cliff Bradshaw.
- Bad Girl Song: Sally's first song is "Mein Herr", which establishes her as a Good Bad Girl."You have to understand the way I am, Mein Herr."
- Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Max views the Nazis as a bunch of thugs, but useful for getting rid of Communists. He remarks upon this as he, Sally, and Brian drive past a dead body covered in a prayer shawl underneath a Nazi banner.
- Beta Couple: Fritz and Natalia.
- Better as Friends: Sally goes after Brian but when he confesses that he may be gay, they agree to remain friends. Then subverted when it turns out he's bi — and Sally becomes the first girl he enjoys sleeping with.
- The Blind Leading the Blind: An innocent virgin asks Sally Bowles for advice on whether her feelings are true love or mere lust, since Sally is 'a woman who is giving her body often to men'. Sally, who is really 'as fatale as an after-dinner mint' can only shrug helplessly.
- Book Ends: Begins and ends with the distortion of the Master of Ceremonies, then off the Nazi audience.
- But Not Too Bi: The main male character, who is Straight Gay in the book, reveals himself to be bisexual in the musical, but we never do see him having an exclusive relationship with another man.
- Comically Missing the Point: When Natalia tells Sally about Fritz making a pass at her, she describes him as having no respect for her father's couch.
- Coolest Club Ever: The film's version of the Kit-Kat Club. Christopher Isherwood, writer of the books the film was based on, said that if anything like that had existed in 1930s Berlin, people would have been coming from all over Europe just to visit it.
- Diegetic Musical: All the musical numbers are in-universe performances at clubs or restaurants, most of them at the Kit Kat Club cabaret. (The original stage musical had non-diegetic songs as well, but they were left out of the film to keep it on a more realistic level.)
- Downer Ending: The final image of the blurry mirror reflecting the cluster of Nazi soldiers sitting among the crowd suggest that this is so.
- Dramatic Irony: The movie takes place in Germany in 1931. Throughout the movie, we see the Nazi party becoming more and more prominent, though not all of the characters do. The end of the film is Sally blithely performing before a crowd of armband-wearing Nazis, though the audience knows even that will end in time.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Fritz and Natalia. Though how long it will last is not too clear...
- Ethical Slut: Sally starts out as a straight example, before evolving into a deconstruction. Both she and Brian form a Love Triangle with a bisexual billionaire, causing friction in their relationship. She ends up pregnant but decides to abort the baby, feeling that she isn't mother material. It's implied that she instead wants to continue her partying lifestyle, which is ultimately shown to be empty and just escapism.
- Fan Disservice: The raggedy costumes, caked-on makeup and amateurish choreography strongly downplays, if not outright removes, any potential eroticism in the cabaret Chorus Girls. Coupled with the Emcee's creepy leering, the nightmarish editing and cinematography, and the overall setting of pre-Nazi Germany, the numbers overall come across more sad and sleazy than sexy.
- Fanservice: Liza Minnelli in a sexy black leotard, gyrating around a chair and singing with Audio Erotica — the song "Mein Herr" is full of it.
- Femme Fatale: A Deconstructed Trope. Sally thinks she can pull it off, but she really, really can't. Brian quips that she is "about as fatale as an after-dinner mint."
- Gag Echo: Sally draws a comparison between Fritz romancing Natalia and an animal stalking its prey. She suggests he needs to 'pounce' to get Natalia to notice him. Much later, Natalia tells Sally about Fritz making a pass at her on the couch. Sally awkwardly says "he pounced."
- Informed Judaism: Both Natalia and Fritz, although in his case he was actively trying to hide it.
- Kick the Dog: Some Nazis kill Natalia's dog and leave it on her front porch.
- Large Ham: Sally Bowles, whether it's just from her excessive drinking or her personality. But she's definitely a very OTT person.
- Little People Are Surreal: Subverted: Sally, trying to shock Brian, asks whether he's ever had sex with a dwarf. Brian calmly responds with, "Yes. But it wasn't a lasting relationship."
- Madonna-Whore Complex: Played for Drama. Sally would be the Whore, while Natalia is the Madonna. Natalia has to go to Sally for advice on sexual matters, while Sally herself angsts about whether a 'whore' like her could ever become a good wife and mother.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Subverted with Sally Bowles, who demonstrates just how messed up this kind of character tends to be in real life. She and Brian have a lot of fun at first but it's soon illustrated that she loves her partying lifestyle too much and she aborts their baby because she doesn't think she's mother material. The last scene of the film has her performing a number that implies she's going to continue a life of fun and frivolity — but the crowd is full of Nazi officers, implying Sally's fun won't last too long.
- Money Song: "Money Money", sung by Sally and the MC about how money "makes the world go round." Sung while Sally is enjoying being romanced by a rich bachelor.
- Mood Whiplash:
- Within the one song. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" starts with a simple boy with a great voice singing. But when the camera pans back to reveal the Swastika on his uniform and everyone in the audience joins in together, it gets extremely creepy.
- Really there are quite a few of these. There are numerous small set pieces that show the Nazis taking over Berlin that add a feeling of dread to the happy talk of the characters, like the radio with Nazi propaganda or the swastika posters. Then there are the cabaret songs which cut between the upbeat music and darker scenes, such as a man being beaten perhaps to death.
- Another scene cuts between the MC and some of the Kit Kat Club Girls doing a jaunty dance, and a bunch of young men sneaking into Natalia's yard in order to throw her dead dog against her door, all while chanting "JUDEN! JUDEN!" It is around this time that the MC and the girls switch their hats around, which now look like soldiers' helmets, and march offstage...
- Movie Bonus Song: "Mein Herr", "Maybe this Time" and "Money Money".
- Musical World Hypotheses: All the songs take place in a night club, with the single exception of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", a patriotic song that a boy sings to a luncheon, with the diners joining in for the last chorus.
- "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Played with. Fritz — under the advice of Sally — 'pounces' on Natalia one afternoon. Natalia describes herself as initially being shocked but quickly realising she enjoys it. Although it straddles the line, there's no reason to think Natalia couldn't have rejected him if she wanted to — or that Fritz wouldn't have stopped if Natalia made it clear she wasn't interested.
- Not-So-Harmless Villain: The Nazis. At first, they're seen as just another bunch of thugs; not people you'd want to be around, but not much worse than your typical street thugs. Maximillian even goes so far as to say that they can be controlled to a certain extent and used to deal with the communists. However, as the movie goes on, their popularity and influence increases, and it becomes clear that, yes, they are very dangerous and nobody in Germany is truly safe from them. The "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sequence is the point where it becomes clear that they can't be taken lightly anymore due to the support they generate from the public with their superficially positive message.Brian: You still think you can control them?
- Really Gets Around: When Sally gives Natalia the German word for 'fornication', Brian has this to say.Brian: Trust that to be the one German word you pronounce perfectly.
- Reveal Shot: Tomorrow Belongs To Me. Starts out as a nice song, and then you start to see the swastikas...
- Sex for Solace: Brian finds Sally devastated because her father has cancelled last-minute a meeting with her. She cries and assumes that her father doesn't love her and find her worthless. Brian tells Sally that she is very talented and beautiful, and they have sex the next minute.
- Shirtless Scene: Brian is shirtless in a trip to the lake house, in the first instance that implies Maximilian has an attraction to him.
- Shout-Out: The sultry dance Sally performs on top a chair as she sings "Mein Herr" is likely a reference to The Blue Angel, another famous film set in the cabarets of Weimar Germany, where Marlene Dietrich sings "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt" while seductively straddling a chair. Both songs additionally carry themes of infidelity and promiscuity.
- Silent Credits: The credits roll in complete silence.
- Sophisticated as Hell: "I think your paper and you party are pure crap, sir!"
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: A film based on a musical partly based on a part of a novel by Christopher Isherwood based on his encounters with Jean Ross (renamed Sally Bowles) in Berlin. As a nice coincidence, Liza Minnelli greatly resembles the description of Sally in the novel.
- Wham Line:Brian: Oh, screw Maximillian!
Sally: (primly) I do.
Brian: (chuckles) ... so do I.
(Sally's eyes widen in realization)