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17th January 2003 at 00:00
"Divine decadence!" was Liza Minnelli's catch-phrase, in everyone's favourite image of her with top hat and cane, prancing with monkey-faced Joel Grey plus a bevy of beauties in a louche night-club in 1930s Berlin. Bob Fosse's celebrated film Cabaret (1972), has spawned numerous theatrical spin-offs, all trading on that magic blend of grim tragedy and seedy glitter.

But behind it lay a convoluted hinterland: it was not the first attempt to film a play whose title, I Am A Camera, was itself drawn from Christopher Isherwood's novel Goodbye to Berlin (Vintage), a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of life in Berlin as it gradually succumbed to the Nazi embrace. "From my window, the deep solemn massive street..." began the opening sentence. "Houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class. I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording..." And what Isherwood recorded was a tale full of lurid pathos, in which he and his bright young acquaintances lived it up in bisexual dives, while the anti-Semites wrought their havoc in the streets outside.

The homosexual Isherwood was entranced by the amorous exploits of a young English woman whom he cloaked in the pseudonym Sally Bowles, and whom Minnelli played in Cabaret (opposite Michael York in the narrator's role). And while Isherwood thought York was perfect casting, he was amused to see how Sally had become glamorised. In Christopher and His Kind (published by Methuen 40 years later), Isherwood attempted to set the record straight:

"Art has transfigured life, and other people's art has transfigured Christopher's art". The real Sally was tougher and more mysterious than the figure Minnelli portrayed. While several of the songs in Cabaret now rank as classics in their own right - notably "Money, money, money" and "Come to the cabaret" - we can get even closer to the real musical spirit of pre-war Berlin via that immortal Brecht-Weill collaboration, "Die Dreigroschenoper" (Decca430 075-2).

Michael Church

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