Directed by Henry Cornelius and written by John Collier, Berlin, the 1930s, a young English writer arrives in the city and takes to sharing a flat with vivacious nightclub singer Sally Bowles. Together they experience the mad swirl of bohemian life and dream of the successes that will be theirs in the future. Starring: Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, Shelley Winters, Ron Randell, Lea Seidl, Anton Diffring and Ina De La Haye.
At first, this film gives off a typically old-fashioned charm, leading us into a thick atmosphere of reminisces and fond memories but doesn’t give away the hectic, exuberant energy that awaits. I Am a Camera was based on the The Berlin Stories’ by Christopher Isherwood and the play adaptation of the same name, which was subsequently adapted into the iconic musical Cabaret, so for anyone familiar, you can predict what lies ahead. Laurence Harvey’s Christopher brings us the protagonist focused on his work, making him rather sheltered, with both a strong confidence and an occasional self-doubt. His life is thrown into chaos after meeting the incomparable and unstoppable Sally (Julie Harris), starting them down a road filled with spontaneity and festivities.
It’s a story that may divide viewers with whether you can fully throw yourself into the fairly ridiculous height which their journey reaches. It moves fast and snowballs into a long, lost weekend, Sally easily charms Christopher but he’s no match for her energy and liveliness. It’s an interesting set-up for a film made in the 1950s, where romance was so often the chosen vehicle for stories, but while there’s a hint of it here, it always feels more like a friendship. It’s what you might call a co-dependency in today’s world, Christopher needs someone to pull him out of his shell and Sally needs someone she can rely on.
The lead performances from Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey are unsurprisingly great. The two share a wonderful chemistry, there’s a bond or love which isn’t just a simple romantic connection. Harris throws everything she has at this performance, the sheer amount of energy she puts out makes you feel like she must have been exhausted after every take. While Harvey brings an interesting lead in that he doesn’t feel like the typical hero or lovably hapless, he lands somewhere in the middle. Creating a balance of being both confident and capable while bringing a sincere vulnerability. They’re a fun duo to watch and of course adding Shelley Winters to any production was always going to improve it. Ron Randell and Anton Diffring also add a nice variety and different energies for the leads to play off of.
Visually, the restoration work is striking, especially considering a great deal of the film takes place in close quarters. Although the war is particularly relevant to the story, being set in 1930s Berlin, it does feel underserved. It was too big of an ask to match the poignancy of that topic to the bubbly tone of the film for the most part. It also feels as though there’s a momentary shift, after the halfway point, becoming something more manic and almost cult-like as the film reaches its most ridiculous moments. It’s an odd transition and doesn’t work entirely well, slightly throwing things off course.
I Am a Camera is a whirlwind without the romance, a chance meeting leading to a meaningful, if chaotic, friendship. It’s bursting at the seams with energy, creating a gentle chaos which is constantly one-upping itself. Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey lead the way beautifully, they create a genuine connection and are hugely enjoyable to watch as they scramble through these crazy days. The tone can get messy at times, and the inclusion of the incoming war feels perfunctory but it’s otherwise an adventure that feels surprisingly reminiscent of modern cinema.