Christopher and His Kind
Directed by Geoffrey Sax
Written by Christopher Isherwood and Kevin Elyot
Starring: Matt Smith, Imogen Poot, Pip Carter, Toby Jones
Run time: 100 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
“Christopher and His Kind” is the closing night film of The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, otherwise known as Frameline35, which runs from June 16-26. The film screens at the Castro Theatre at 7:30pm on June 26.
Before Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco there was Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin. Most Americans are familiar with the imaginary Berlin of “Cabaret,” based on Isherwood’s autobiographical novel “The Berlin Stories.” But it was Isherwood’s groundbreaking memoir, “Christopher and His Kind,” published in 1976, that acquainted readers with the real Berlin behind the fantasy. The memoir was immediately embraced by the gay movement of the day, and celebrated for its frank and unapologetic depiction of homosexuality.
The BBC production of “Christopher and His Kind” stars Matt Smith, aka the eleventh Dr. Who, as a rakish, elegant, charming sexual renegade, a renegade from the English upper classes, an expatriate flâneur, and a political fence-sitter, who is deeply affected by the men and mores of 1920s interwar Berlin. Smith’s performance elevates this made-for-BBC-television production to the level of a minor cinematic gem. The cast of memorably eccentric characters provide delights and insights, and, not uncommonly, bring “Aha!” moments, suddenly illuminating one and another of the memorable characters from Cabaret-notably Imogen Poot as the whimsically British chanteuse Jean Ross, the source for the American Sally Bowle, (Liza Minelli’s perhaps most memorable film character). In this BBC production, Ross sings several cabaret tunes (in English) of the time.
Isherwood (Matt Smith) comes to Berlin at the invitation of his good friend W.H. “Wystan” Auden (Pip Carter) for “the boys.” The German Golden Twenties are raging away in sexual and cultural abandon. A grave depression has arrived in Germany a full decade ahead of the American Great Depression-unemployment is high, inflation is getting out of hand, and young men are especially willing to sell their sexual favors for cold, hard cash. Isherwood’s boarding house, run by Fräulein Thurau (Issy Van Randwyck), is filled with sexually experimenting foreign lodgers and working girls, including the masochist Irishman Gerald Hamilton (Toby Jones), whom Isherwood had met on a train. Isherwood eventually learns that the boys “love” him as long as the money keeps flowing.
Parallel to Isherwood’s lessons in matters of the heart, his political fence-sitting takes quite a blow. The rise of Nazism and its everyday brutalities are foregrounded in this memoir, and the viewer is made to see the relationship between economic insecurity and Hitler’s facile answers. Isherwood is drawn into the political realm as he attempts to save a boyfriend, Heinz (Douglas Booth), from Nazi hands. What emerges is a nuanced and moving portrait of Isherwood, as he rebels against the strictures of English and Nazi German society, and becomes his own person.
Let it be noted, as a nod to trivia, that the suspended dolphin clock on Isherwood’s writing desk in Berlin is the actual clock, on loan from Isherwood’s surviving life partner Don Bacardy. When the memoir was published in 1976, Isherwood’s one-time boyfriend Heinz, who wound up living in East Germany with a wife and son, was so shocked by the frankness of the book that he permanently broke off all contact with Isherwood.
There is plenty of young man-on-man sex, many a forgettable tune, several poignant moments between Isherwood and other characters, and a thoughtful study of Isherwood’s relationship with his mother Kathleen (Lindsay Duncan). Much more than the key to “Cabaret,” Isherwood and His Kind stands as a moving portrait of an important writer as a young man, and as a powerful evocation of a place lost in time but richly alive in collective gay memory.