“As far as I know, Lenin said nothing about buggery”
I was told that I simply must watch Christopher and his kind after really enjoying I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, as it covered similar ground in recounting novelist Christopher Isherwood’s residency in Berlin in the early 1930s as his search for boy-fuelled hedonism comes up hard against the ugly rise of National Socialism. The film’s timespan and geographical scope also extends well beyond that of the play to create a neat companion piece which is also notable for featuring current Doctor Who Matt Smith in the sexually adventurous lead role.
It is pleasingly frank in its depiction of the gay sexuality that was missing from the play: Isherwood’s first stop upon arriving in Berlin is to be squired to the Cosy Corner, an underground gay bar of sorts, by Pip Carter’s wonderfully glacial Wystan, or WH Auden as he is better known and few blushes are spared with sex scenes (wouldn’t have imagined he was a top tbh) and deliciously scathing humour. The relationship between Auden and Isherwood is beautifully played by Carter and Smith and I wish we had seen more of it as their encounters are wonderfully scripted – the banter about…size is genius – but I guess that was the whole point about their general reticence of emotional intimacy.
There’s lots of fun too in the rooming house where he ends up living. What we lose from the play’s focus on Isherwood and Jean the inspiration for his Sally Bowles, here given vivacious life by Imogen Poots, we gain in a parade of vividly drawn characters, chief among whom is the always interesting Toby Jones as the slightly seedy Gerald, his sleaziness tempered by the largesse of his personality. The film also shows part of Isherwood’s process as a writer, the sense of him snatching inspiration for his writing from all around him, his notebook never far from his hand.
For me the film is weakest in its depiction of Isherwood’s home life: Lindsey Duncan is terrific as his domineering mother and Perry Millward does interesting work as his younger brother, but their scenes are generally underdeveloped, their relationships never really explored, which wouldn’t be quite so much of a problem were it not for the bombshell of a postscript which retrospectively throws a whole new light on the family dynamic and raises the issue of potential oversharing of information.
Isherwood’s later relationship with German lover Heinz – the preternaturally beautiful Douglas Booth – forms the latter part of the film and loses some of the interest that the pre-war Berlin section does. But on revisiting Berlin in the 60s, things pick up with some touching meetings. For me, the strongest part here was the realisation of the sheer lottery that the residents of Berlin faced as it was divided by the Allies – lives that had been horrifically disrupted by war were unutterably shaped in the most different ways by whether they were in the US or the Russian quadrant.
Of itself, Christopher and his kind is a highly entertaining watch, and in companionship with I Am A Camera, it gains in mutually reinforced interest (which will be further developed once the new production of Cabaret appears in town). Either way, I’d recommend it.