Film Review: Christopher and his Kind (BBC)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1651062/

 

(from imdb) In 1931 budding author Christopher Isherwood goes to Berlin at the invitation of his friend W. H. Auden for the gay sex that abounds in the city. Whilst working as an English teacher his housemates include bewigged old queen Gerald Hamilton and would-be actress Jean Ross,who sings tunelessly in a seedy cabaret club. They and others he meets get put into his stories. After a fling with sexy rent boy Caspar he falls for street sweeper Heinz,paying medical bills for the boy’s sickly mother, to the disapproval of her other son, Nazi Gerhardt. With Fascism rapidly rising Christopher returns to London with Heinz but is unable to prevent his return to Germany when his visa expires.

Review by Erastes

A visually beautiful film, which draws you into to the Berlin of the early 30’s, Christopher and his Kind is the dramatised version of the book of the same name which was not published until 1976. Becoming a figurehead for the growing gay movement, Isherwood reflects on his earlier life, particularly his relationships in Berlin and decides to add to the existing canon by writing Christopher and his Kind.

With immensely clever set direction and some CGI which did now and then show the join, it looks and feels like an immensely lavish production. There are all the familiar scenes we expect in a film like this in this era, steam from the trains billowing onto the platform, scary and omnious scenes with the Nazi flag flying from every building, book burning and the like. It’s cleverly done and you hardly notice that it’s actually done in small scale, but it looks like it’s done with a cast of thousands.

The cast is wonderful–Matt Smith could have overshadowed the piece with his performance, but he’s nicely tempered by the dour and slightly clingy WH Auden (Pip Carter), Isherwood’s domineering mother Kathleen (Lindsay Duncan) of whom Christopher takes no notice but has an more extreme effect on Isherwood’s younger brother Richard (Perry Millward) (who was also homosexual.)

Imogen Poots has large shoes to fill as Jean Ross (the woman who Isherwood immortalised into the unforgettable Sally Bowles) and here she is much more like her actual incarnation. Many American viewers will probably be surprised not to find Bowles is American!  Poots does a grand job, from her chewed green lacquered fingernails to her brittle strength to her not-brilliant singing ability! There’s a marvellously campy performance by Toby Jones as Gerald Hamilton (the inspiration for Mr Norris in the books) who double-entendres his way through his first meeting with Isherwood and enjoys every perverted pleasure Berlin can throw at him.

Of course, only having an hour and a half to play with, there’s a lot condensed here, and some people might say that there’s not enough time  spent on the political situation and it’s top heavy with the gay scene and gay sex, but that’s rather the point of the book. Isherwood wanted to show the reasons he went to Berlin, and he gives those reasons very succinctly at the top of the film:

It’s 40 years since I first wrote about my time in Berlin, and the book I’m now writing is perhaps an attempt to set the record straight, well,as straight as it’s possible to be. I destroyed my Berlin diaries you see, so have had to rely a good deal on memory. As to why  I went in the first placy, my friend Wystan Auden was there and encouraged me to join him. I could say that I went there because of what was happening politically, but in fact I went because of the boys. To me, Berlin meant boys

Smith, in recent interviews–and very sensibly–has said that he wanted to show that he’s not just The Doctor and he does that in spades in this film. I don’t think anyone was in doubt of his talent, but here he really drives home that he’s an old soul in a very young body. He absolutely convinces as the rather remote Isherwood, who says in an interview with the Jewish Landau, that he has his sympathies but he finds it hard to work himself up to the pitch required to “do something” about what’s happening in the city.  “I rather suspect I’m best equipped to observe and record.”

This is certainly borne out by Isherwood’s prescence in the city. He seems to glide along on the surface and never really engages with the maelstrom. I don’t criticise him for this, for I’m sure, being, like him, a Brit, with the luxury of simply being able to walk away when things got too hot, I would do the same.

Fan of the era, or Isherwood or Matt Smith, or simply gay history, this is a must-see, must buy.

 

Review: The Berlin Novels (Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin) Christopher Isherwood

We apologise for the break in reviews being posted. Personal reasons, real life, yadda yadda. We will back to normal as soon as possible!

Collection of two previously published novels written by Christopher Isherwood, published in 1946. Set in pre-World War II Germany, the semiautobiographical work consists of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; U.S. title, The Last of Mr. Norris) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The Berlin Stories merge fact and fiction and contain ostensibly objective, frequently comic tales of marginal characters who live shabby and tenuous existences as expatriates in Berlin; the threat of the political horrors to come serves as subtext. In Goodbye to Berlin the character Isherwood uses the phrase “I am a camera with its shutter open” to claim that he is simply a passive recorder of events. The two novels that comprise The Berlin StoriesI Am a Camera (1951; film, 1955) and the musical Cabaret (1966; film, 1972) made Isherwood’s literary reputation; they later became the basis for the play

Review by Charlie Cochrane

Sometimes, when you look straight on at a small star, because of the way the eye’s constructed, you can’t see it. You have to look to one side and then it appears in your field of vision – elusive to the point that you begin to think you’re imagining its existence. That’s how I feel when I read novels by authors like Isherwood (or Forster), whose sexual preferences are now well known but who were writing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and when they may well have been – to the public eye – in the closet. I don’t necessarily see the sexual references direct, they’re subtle and intriguing, and at times I wonder if they’re just wishful thinking.

So it’s hard to read Mr Norris Changes Trains ‘at face value’, knowing that William Bradshaw, who relates the story, is based on Isherwood himself and that Norris was inspired by Gerald Hamilton, himself a homosexual. The reader finds themselves looking for clues to a romantic liaison between the two, or with the other male characters in the story. They won’t find the former, but there are hints of the latter.

Norris himself is a marvellous anti-hero. Wig wearing, fastidious, of dubious morality, treacherous as they come (and with a passion for punishment), Norris is the sort of man the reader should abhor but, like Bradshaw, we fall under his spell. Even when we’re incredibly suspicious of what he’s up to – especially when he seems to be using Bradshaw as sexual bait for a German politician, Kuno. Set against the background of pre-war Berlin, the political intrigues of the Communists and the Nazi parties, the story deals subtly with truth, trust and the morality of those who simply do what they can to survive such times.

Worth reading? Of course; it’s a good story, well written (I like Isherwood’s no-nonsense style) and provides intriguing insights into a place and era I knew little about.

In Goodbye to Berlin, Bradshaw has reverted to Isherwood. An author’s note points out the overlap in characters and locations between this ‘book’ and Mr Norris Changes Trains; it also describes the volume as ‘this short loosely connected sequence of diaries and sketches’, although it emphasises that it is not an entirely autobiographical work. That description is important – if you come to this book thinking you’ll get the traditional story arc, you’ll be disappointed.

What you get are a delightful series of vignettes, some of which feature characters with whom the reader might think they’re familiar – although the Sally Bowles of these stories is a very different person from the Liza Minelli/Cabaret version. Not a very good singer, for a start… On Reugen Island is probably my favourite story, depicting the breakdown of the relationship of what might be a gigolo and his employer. Again, the depiction of gay relationships is circumspect, although there are more overt descriptions of the seamier underside of Berlin society, for example the short scene set in and around the Salomé club.

What strikes the reader is the sense of a society struggling to survive economic uncertainty and political turmoil – and we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that elements of this society are doomed. That sense of imminent disaster pervades the writing and adds a frisson and depth to stories that – in another setting and another era – might have worked less well. I’d also recommend that readers find out more about the real characters inspiring these tales; the real ‘Bernard Landauer’ – a marvellously complex character who appears to be trying to seduce Isherwood – is based on a man who helped many Jews escape Portugal and who died in the same plane as leslie Howard.

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Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

The author’s favorite of his own novels.

When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.

Now a major motion picture by Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

Review by Gerry Burnie.

How do you go about reviewing Christopher Isherwood “A Single Man,” (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964, Vintage Classics, 2010) without the urge to genuflect at the beginning of each chapter? Answer: You don’t! It is somewhat similar to reviewing E.M. Forster, or perhaps Charles Dickens. To comment on Isherwood’s strengths as a writer would be presumptuous to say the least. His strengths lie in each word, times the number of words in a phrase, multiplied by the number of phrases in a paragraph, etc., etc. Besides, having been deceased since 1986 he is in no need of advice from a neophyte like me. Rather, about the most one can do, realistically, is to comment on what can be learned from this acknowledged master of observation, narrative skill, style, wit and humour.

“A Single Man,” considered by many to be his finest achievement, was a daring novel for 1964—the same decade that saw the homophobic ‘Stonewall Inn raid,’ in New York City, 1969. This story depicts George Falconer, a gay, middle-aged British college professor who has recently lost his longtime partner, Jim. It occurred as the result of a car accident while Jim was visiting his parents in Ohio, and to protect Jim’s image George declines an invitation to attend his lover’s funeral. Therefore, he is deprived of even this token closure.

Left alone in the modest house that Jim and he shared, which is only accessible by crossing a sagging bridge, George now uses this ‘moat’ to defend his lifestyle against the Strunks and Garfeins; representing suburban family values. In this milieu ‘The Girls’ nurture their obstreperous brood according to the latest psychology book; the self-expressing kids run amok; the grown-ups hold weekend barbeques complete with “martoonies” beside the kidney-shaped pool, and the paunchy Mister Strunks can be heard muttering such things as, “I don’t give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me.”

Consequently, overwhelmed by the surrounding common denominator, George is struggling to find meaning in his humdrum existence; a situation that Isherwood ingeniously captures with the opening line, casting George as an “it.”

That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. ‘Here’ comes next, and it is at least negatively reassuring, because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself;

Without addressing the issue directly, therefore, Isherwood nevertheless draws the reader into the depths of despair plaguing his main character; i.e., the purposelessness of his existence. He then proceeds to transition George by way of a sterile freeway to the San Tomas State College campus—passing an equally septic senior-citizen’s complex along the way. Once on campus, however, George starts to feel a measure of regeneration, for suddenly his life regains a semblance of meaning; like an actor stepping outside of himself to assume the role of an alter ego.

He is all actor now; an actor on his way up from the dressing room, hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance. A veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line ‘Good morning!’

He also feels some semblance of power as he signs a student card, thus giving some faceless student a bona fide academic identity; for without it the student would cease to exist in the eyes of San Tomas State College; and worse still, in the eyes of the IBM gods that are just beginning to stir in the early 60s.

Feeling thus re-invigorated he crosses the campus, coming across a tennis match in progress along the way. The sun has broken through the early morning smog, and the two boy-combatants are stripped nearly naked. They have nothing on their bodies but tennis shoes and tight-fitting shorts, the type that cyclists wear, moulding themselves to the buttocks and loins. One is Mexican, representing the growing ethnic challenge to the bastions of Caucasian middle-class establishment, and the other, representing the latter, is blond and beautiful but no match for the darkly handsome, aggressive and cat-like Hispanic. Therefore they are a metaphor, and George observes that the blond boy has accepted the rules and will suffer defeat and humiliation rather than break them. He will also fight clean with an almost un-modern-like chivalry until the game and the cause for which he stands are both lost. Nevertheless, from George’s perspective there is a more immediate and personal outcome:

The game is cruel; but its cruelty is sensual and stirs George into hot excitement. He feels a thrill of pleasure to find the senses so eager in their response; too often now, they seem sadly jaded. From his heart, he thanks these young animals for their beauty. And they will never know what they have done to make this moment marvellous to him, and life less hateful …

George then resumes his role as a college professor, boldly making his dramatic entrance into the classroom where he is now front-stage-centre. It is a role that he is expected to play, and one that he acquits with subtle mastery; lecturing, scolding, amusing and hopefully imparting as well. From his place in the limelight the majority of students are merely an amorphous blur of faces; however, certain students—a handful—stand out as individuals: Kenny Potter being one of them. Potter sits in the front row because he tends to do the opposite of what most people do. George finds himself constantly aware of Kenny, and Kenny seems aware of George as well, but since Kenny also has a steady girlfriend George puts no more significance on it than that.

Feeling fortified by this up-lift, he next makes a stop at the hospital. He has gone there to see Doris; a former femme-fatale who, like her kind, once thought nothing of openly raiding a gay partnership because “They can’t really be serious …” or “All they really need is a good woman in their mixed-up lives,” and Jim in his insecurity had succumbed to her wiles.

I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.

Now this yellow, shrivelled manikin with its sticks of arms and legs was all that was left of her, and George could let it go. Therefore, he quietly affirms his state of being: I am alive, he says, I am alive! His tough, triumphal body had outlived Jim and was going to outlive Doris, too; moreover, it felt good to be alive to dream about dark-eyed, Hispanic seducers and golden-haired Adonises.

In the same celebratory spirit he decides that he doesn’t want to eat alone that night. He therefore calls the remaining person in this world who still cares; his boozy best friend, Charlotte—“Charley.” At one time they had had a brief affair, and although other relationships had intervened on both sides they had remained friends. Like Woman, however, Charlotte still harboured hopes that they might one day pick up where they had left off. Nevertheless George was used to this by now, and in spite of having to diplomatically manoeuvre around compromising situations he was able to enjoy their times together. The booze helped, of course, and George was feeling no pain by the time he finally left for home.

Still on a high he decides to by-pass the house to visit a nearby bar on the ocean front; the very bar where he had met Jim looking gorgeous in his WWII sailor’s uniform. It was a neighbourhood hide-away with a long history of make-outs to its credit—mostly of the heterosexual variety, but tonight there is solitary young man sitting quietly at the bar. It isnone other than Kenny Potter, a surprisingly long way from his own neighbourhood on the other side of town. Surprised, George makes contact, and the two of them proceed to get drunk—Kenneth fairly, and George very. In the course of doing so it has now been revealed that Kenny’s choice of this bar was no coincidence; that, in fact, he has made quite a study of George’s haunts and habits, and in response to the question of how he managed to get there he readily admits that his girlfriend drove him.

George can almost feel the electric field surrounding them. More than anything he wants Kenny to understand it, too; to know what this dialogue is all about. So there they sit smiling at one another, or more like ‘beaming,’ and suddenly the suggestion of a skinny dip is raised—by Kenneth. Ever ready to accept a dare, especially from a radiant, younger man, George agrees through an alcoholic haze. Challenge given and challenge accepted, Kenneth suddenly becomes master of the situation, his physical size dictating the logic of it, and when it appears that George is floundering Kenneth insists that he take George home to recoup.

It has therefore become quite obviously that this is a flirtation, but George cannot bring himself to say the words of outright seduction; not to one of his students. The rules forbid it, and like the blond Adonis George must play by the rules. Moreover, his years of avoidance have made the idea somewhat of a taboo. Nevertheless he finally passes out, and wakes up in bed mysteriously dressed in his pyjamas. Meanwhile Kenneth has taken off, but his note provocatively suggests that they might have shared an intimate moment together: or is it just a tease?

“If those cops pick me up, I won’t tell them where I’ve been … I promise!

“This was great, this evening. Let’s do it again, shall we? Or don’t you believe in repeating things?”

George’s rejuvenation is now complete. However, at this point I will leave it up to the reader to discover how the story ends. Suffice it to say that it is as abstract and as real as the opening line. In other words, it is typically Isherwood!

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