An Englishman abroad, Christopher Isherwood visited Berlin twice in 1929 before moving there towards the end of that year, his home until 1933 and the inspiration for the two novellas which would become known as The Berlin Stories, Mr Norris Changes Trains of 1935 and Goodbye to Berlin of 1939, the latter containing the 1937 short story Sally Bowles, a character derived from his friend Jean Ross with whom he shared a flat in those early days.
Isherwood describing himself as “a novelist, comfortably well-off, set in my ways, a confirmed bachelor,” he was not unaware of the changes the city and the nation of Germany was going through with the rapid rise in politics of the Nazi party and their followers, “setting themselves up on street corners and making themselves unpleasant;” feeling powerless to make a difference he instead chose to observe and record as truthfully he could, commenting “I am a camera.”
Adapted into a stage play in 1951 by John Van Druten for which The Haunting’s Julie Harris won a Tony Award for her performance as Sally Bowles, I Am a Camera was later re-adapted by John Collier to remove certain aspects of the narrative which were felt would automatically incur an X certificate regardless of context; Passport to Pimlico’s Henry Cornelius directed with The Silent Enemy’s Laurence Harvey as Isherwood and Harris reprising her role as Bowles.
Released in 1955 and now restored for Blu-ray as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range, I Am a Camera is somewhat overshadowed by the later less restricted adaptation of the same source material where Liza Minnelli took the role of Sally Bowles, life of the Cabaret, but the original remains a document of its time though perhaps more interesting for the subplot involving Fritz Wendel (The Beast Must Die’s Anton Diffring), forced to conceal his Jewish heritage to court Natalia Landauer (The Night of the Hunter’s Shelley Winters) and what conspicuously cannot be said regarding Isherwood’s personal associates and unwanted pregnancies.
Wendel’s closeted identity as ironic as Isherwood playing straight man to Sally’s supposedly adorable and irresistible funny girl, first appearing in a sparkling black outfit with cigarette and monocle before being abandoned by the fiancé she only met earlier in the week, she clings to the high life but lacks the resources to fund it in the same way she lacks any self-control, others left paying the bill for her impulsive demands.
Ultimately leaving Isherwood’s flat in the same outfit in which she arrived, it is as though nothing which has happened has any impact on Sally Bowles, I Am a Camera occasionally raucous and noisy but not particularly entertaining, what would now be regarded as a light romantic comedy set off-balance by the heavy casting of Harvey as serious-minded Isherwood, allergic to frivolity, though there is a fascination to see him being manhandled by The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan then electrocuted Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Tutte Lemkow.
I Am a Camera will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital by StudioCanal on Monday 23rd May