I Am a Camera is more interesting for its historical value than as great cinema. It’s the first cinematic adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, which was also the basis for the stage musical and later 1972 film Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse. The musical Cabaret is based on the play I Am a Camera, the title of which comes from the book’s opening page. Interestingly, I Am a Camera actually uses Isherwood’s real name, while in Cabaret he is renamed as “Brian Roberts.” Sally Bowles is loosely based on cabaret singer Jean Ross, who always disliked her connection to Sally Bowles. She would later become a devout Stalinist, and would often be seen hawking the Daily Worker in Hertfordshire after she got out of Germany.
If you’ve seen Cabaret, I Am a Camera follows most of the same story: Isherwood is a young writer who moves to Berlin near the end of Weimar era and gets wrapped up in the nightclub scene of the time. He meets this proto-manic pixie dream girl nightclub singer Sally Bowles just as the Nazis are on the rise.
The film undeniably fails because you have the much better Cabaret right there—but then again, I Am a Camera was made in 1955, so the filmmakers faced some serious issues around censorship. Isherwood was gay, and certainly looking at the film through a modern lens it’s pretty obvious, although it’s only hinted at, especially through his lack of sexual interest in Sally. Cabaret makes the Isherwood character of Brian explicitly bisexual. Unfortunately, Julie Harris is frankly awful as Sally Bowles, her performance is completely over the top and she is all bouncing all over the place. She originated the role on stage, and you get the sense she is still playing to the back of the theatre and can’t rein the performance in for the cinema.
Laurence Harvey is pretty effective as Isherwood. Harvey was an actor who had an aura of mystery around him, which works given what the filmmakers couldn’t depict about the character. Sally Bowles’ abortion, which is huge part of Cabaret, is here relegated to a pregnancy scare, a lame contrivance due to the censorship of the time. The film’s greatest failure, however, is how half-assed its depiction of the eventual rise of the Nazis is. Cabaret is incredibly effective at showing these developments, but here they just tacked some stuff about the Nazis on in the last 20 minutes. This is probably due to just how much of a raw nerve the war still could hit 10 years after its end. Isherwood hated the film, and wrote in a letter to his friend John Lehmann that I Am a Camera was “disgusting ooh-la-la, near pornographic trash – a shameful exhibition.”
The Blu-Ray from StudioCanal includes interviews with Isherwood biographer Peter Parker and the film critic Anna Smith, along with a stills gallery and the trailer.