S P O I L E R S
There's one very crucial element in Kevin Elyot's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Christopher And His Kind that any viewer is going to have to accept if they intend to enjoy this lovely drama. And that's the casting of Matt Smith. Smith filmed this last May, shortly after completing acting duties on his very first series of Doctor Who and, with his debut as the Eleventh Doctor secured, duly basking in the glow of acceptance from critics and fans alike.
Playing Christopher Isherwood, one of the late 20th century's most recognised gay writers, is something of a leap for Smith and admittedly it is initially a struggle to separate the stiff body language and the clipped British tones of Isherwood from the gangly, eccentric Time Lord. It's that unique Smith physicality and that weirdly handsome face that potentially lures you sideways into an alternate world where the good Doctor has adventures in pre-war Berlin and gets it on with some handsome boys. Slash fiction writers will have a field day.
Some might also see this as a cynical attempt by the producers to give Smith's career a serious boost and will question why yet another straight man is playing gay. Christopher And His Kind, like many other gay themed dramas, does raise questions about authenticity in the television and film industry but is not the place to find the answers (and recently the opposite has been true where the media has interrogated gay actors about playing straight) and no one can blame Smith for seeing this role as a career defining opportunity.
'manners and lust'Leave Doctor Who and any such doubts at the door when you start watching this. Have faith in Smith's performance because, as soon as you can divorce it from the image and voice of his Time Lord, you'll really appreciate the hard work he puts in here. He clearly did his research, numerous interviews attest to the fact that he went to visit Isherwood's partner Don Bachardy in California, and often you see something of Isherwood in Smith's face and you can certainly hear those gentlemanly, plummy vowels. He also perfectly synthesises, with his expressive eyes and face, the 'manners and lust' of the innocent Englishman abroad introduced to the decadent and unhindered gay culture of Weimar Germany just before the rise to power of Hitler and the National Socialists.
The opening sequence, over which the titles play, includes Jean Ross (Imogen Poots) singing for her supper in a Berlin nightclub (and later inspiring the creation of Sally Bowles) and a tetchy Kathleen Isherwood (a perfect Lindsay Duncan) berating her son for swanning off to Germany (because as he explains in the voice over "Berlin meant boys") rather than settle down as, ironically, a doctor. "Berlin isn't the right place for you at all," she advises. "What on earth do you mean?" asks her son. "It's German, darling." It is Isherwood's relationships with strong women that the intercutting between mother and friend underlines as well as his dispassionate position when it comes to the politics of the day. As his mother reminds him, "you won't forget, will you darling, that the Germans killed your father" and gun fire echoes on the soundtrack, he resolves to leave England unaware that he will see Berlin succumb to the same prejudices.
neo-pagan modernismThe Isherwood shown here is the renowned observer who drew upon his memories and set them down, the epitome of the iconic quote, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking" from Goodbye to Berlin. As Jean croons "I don't know to whom I belong. I believe I only belong to myself" we get a sense that this is also about Isherwood's journey of sexual self-discovery just as Europe feels the chill of a fascist rule that demands social, sexual and political conformity.
To which the answer is an affirmative when you later see Isherwood picking up rent boys and shagging them senseless in the Berlin boarding house he eventually shares with Gerald and Jean. There is some sweetly defined comedy as they both eye each other up on the train and Gerald realises his badly-fitting wig has slipped and he must quickly attempt to readjust it. It's a gag that is repeated and marks out the man's vanity and insecurity.
Once ensconced in Berlin, his friend Wystan Auden (Pip Carter who looks uncannily like Auden) takes him on a tour of the nightspots and inducts him into the sweaty, smoky playground of rent boys ("all rampant heters" according to Auden) and cabaret singers, where cellar bars and clubs glisten with condensation as the shattered German economy gets a boost from the selling of sex. There's a lovely little scene where Auden and Isherwood, in the equivalent of a post-clubbing come down, lie together in a state of dishevelment and discuss the niceties of trying to communicate with German male whores. A blonde number, Caspar, appears to have caught Christopher's eye even though the scene does suggest that Auden was more than fond of Isherwood, later acknowledged as a physical intimacy when Auden leaves Berin, and it establishes an unrequited love that the film continues to comment on until the very end.
This modernism underpinned Isherwood's own role within the counter-culture and sexual revolution of the late 1960s. The dolphin ornament and its clock that Geoffrey Sax often refers to in the film suggests the nature of cultural cycles as liberalism gives way to conservatism.
It is in effect a symbol of Isherwood as an observer, almost indifferent to the Nazi threat until he witnesses the very culture he loves thrown onto a funeral pyre in a later scene where Sax provides a close up of Oscar Wilde's Die Erzählungen und Märchen (Short Stories and Fairy Tales) consumed by flames.
"passing through, dear boy. That is our destiny"The clashing of the tectonic plates of Nazism and Weimar liberalism depicted here do remind the viewer of Fosse's Cabaret (1972) and it is evident that Sax and Elyot do their utmost to steer this adaptation away from the musical by downplaying the cabaret elements featuring Jean Ross and using the few 'songs' in the film simply to comment and underline themes in the story, emphatically portraying Isherwood's rampant gay libido and distancing it and us from the bisexual figure of Brian Roberts in Fosse's film (a change that Isherwood didn't approve of in a film he didn't have much time for) and framing the narrative around the social and political differences between middle class England and an increasingly hedonistic Berlin.
Raymond Knapp notes in The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, "a world grown decadent gives a place to both his sexual explorations and the Nazis" and where "we are allowed through him to distinguish between sexual license and evil."
It doesn't quite slough off the associations with Cabaret and in fact, there is one deliberate shot where Sax offers an homage to Fosse's film as he shows Jean reflected in a mirror during one of her torch songs. However, it is also defiantly an adaptation of the same source material in its own right and corrects many of the musical's omissions and elisions.
Isherwood, needing to find a room of his own to teach English and subsidise his Berlin trip, washes up at the boarding house in Schöneberg where he again meets Gerald. Again, the film emphasises his observation of the other inhabitants around him, the various tarts (male and female) and their clients that frequent the corridors and stairs of Fraulein Thurau's house. Gradually he becomes not only the observer, joining in with the other residents to spy on Gerald's BDSM activities, but also the observed as Gerald enjoys the sweaty, noisy couplings in Isherwood's room
The film really comes alive when Isherwood is seen to interact with the characters that we know from his book. A scene with Gerald plucking out his nasal hairs and admiring the photograph of a well endowed former lover Heinrich ("he smelt exactly like a fox. Delicious") provides Isherwood with a philosophy ("passing through, dear boy. That is our destiny") and a lesson in class distinction that reflects the author's own sexual and political journey.
The sex scenes with Caspar are rendered tastefully but the sight of Matt Smith inflagrante delicto with a muscly German is perhaps something that some viewers might not be expecting but then again this is not family viewing and avoiding such material would not be true to the spirit of Isherwood's frankness in his own biography. Amusingly, as Isherwood's inhibitions begin to loosen, Auden doesn't seem terribly impressed as he sits with Isherwood by a lake, complaining about sun-stroke and remaining buttoned up amongst the semi-naked boys, as Caspar flexes his attributes to a swooning audience of one.
"You will write about me, won't you darling?"Equally lively are the scenes featuring Smith and Imogen Poots, as English actress in exile Jean Ross, who declares she's "practically antique" at the age of 21 and rather upsets polite cafe society by loudly claiming "what an old whore" she is as they drink beer and watch the trams go by. Naturally, she can foresee the future and knows that Isherwood will write a novel about her that will sell millions.
When the affair with Caspar fizzles out (underlined by one of Jean's songs where she fools herself, and by extension, Isherwood as he sits in the audience with "after all, he loved me without question") he casts around, eyeing up Jean's sugar-daddy Bobby Gilbert (Will Kemp) and a Brownshirt pissing next to him in the latrines (our first real acknowledgement of the Nazis and their symbolism) who is blessed in the trouser department judging by the expression on Christopher's face.
Later, when he is engaged by the Jewish owner of a department store, Herr Landauer, his "anti-culture" attitude and nascent political "sympathies" are challenged, highlighting that his outsider status will no longer offer him credibility as Landauer suggests that the political landscape is about to change for the worse and he will need to start choosing sides. He's so disinterested in the divisions around him that he even considers earning money by writing for Oswald Mosely's fascist rags until Jean threatens to disown him. As she bluntly puts it, "I may wear green nail varnish but I'm not completely vacuous." Their conversation, about the toppling over of the Republic as the Nazis gain strength, is visually punctuated by a silhouette of a juggler, entertaining the masses that Jean believes are too complacent to take a stand.
... drowning in blue skies and SwastikasAfter Wystan Auden has returned to England, Isherwood falls in love with Heinz Neddermayer, a street cleaner. As their relationship develops, Berlin's Jewish community is regularly attacked by torch-wielding mobs and Isherwood is briefly reunited with Caspar, horrified to discover he's joined the Brownshirts and is preventing customers from visiting Landauer's department store. Landauer finally convinces him that the politics of the day will eventually force him to make a decision about whose side he's on even as he sits in the cabaret listening to Jean's increasingly desperate songs when he should be taking more notice of her role as his conscience.
The performances from Poots, Smith and Douglas Booth, as Heinz, drive the story forward as the mood becomes increasingly desperate. Jean's anguish as she decides to have an abortion after Bobby abandons her, more or less conveyed through a combination of visual tableaux and a tearful rendition of her first song, is superbly realised in Poots's performance, Sax's slow dissolves and intercutting and a cabaret spot-light turning into an operating theatre light. With Jean's departure, Sax simply pulls the camera back to a wide shot of her room and we watch as, over time, it empties of her personal things leaving Isherwood behind with the landlandy Fraulein Thurau observing, as Gerald once did, "they come, and they go. That's the way it has always been."
The next jump to 1933 sees Isherwood drowning in blue skies and Swastikas, his final meeting with Landauer reduced to a nod through the bonfires made of books and a sorrowful visit to his empty, vandalised home. The film draws to a conclusion with Isherwood battling to keep Heinz in England (in an amusing scene at the immigration office) because Isherwood is clear they "are responsible for each other as individuals". It is at this point that Christopher And His Kind is more episodic in structure and the last half does tend to lose some of its momentum, becoming fragmentary perhaps just as Nazi ideology and symbolism takes grip of the narrative. The ending is beautifully bittersweet, briefly reuniting Isherwood with Heinz and Jean and then with the burgeoning gay liberation of 1976 at last providing him, as a writer, with some sort of cause without very much effort on his part.
What emerges from this story is that Isherwood is too self-interested, too class bound to be bothered with causes and as Auden reminds him "the closest we've come to solidarity with the workers is by sleeping with them". You may come away from the film disliking him but his inability to act, until it was too late as far as the Nazis were concerned, at least offers a coded warning to complacency, then and now, even if he comes across as inept, pompous and naive. Isherwood realised much later in life that politics and identity are intertwined and admits in the end "that he was only ever able to add to the chorus" rather than take centre stage. His willingness to be open about his sexuality also suggests to us now that the closet, whatever that may mean for anyone and not just gay men and women, is a lie and sitting on the fence about your sexuality and your identity is not an option if you want to be true to yourself.
A fine adaptation, well performed and with special praise for Matt Smith and Imogen Poots, and assuredly handled by director Geoffrey Sax who gets the budget up on screen with memorable images and a delicate touch.
The DVD presentation is richly detailed, with luxurious colour and solid contrast. The soundstage is superbly mixed with crisp dialogue perfectly complimented by a busy mix of effects and music. Sadly there are no special features.
BBC Two and BBCHD will be screening the film Saturday 19 March, 9.30pm
Christopher And His Kind
ITV Studios and Mammoth Pictures for BBC Wales 2010
ITV STUDIOS Home Entertainment / Released 21 March 2011 / Region 2 DVD / 3711534173 / Cert: 15 / 90 minutes / 16:9 / Stereo / Subtitles: English