Christopher and His Kind
Film review by: Witney Seibold
In 1931, young author Christopher Isherwood slipped the surly binds of his oppressive blueblood mother, and traveled to Berlin. He claimed that it was a good place to get some writing done, and acquire the necessary inspiration to produce the Great European Novel, and was encouraged by his good friend, W.H. Auden. He actually wanted to go because he heard that Berlin was crawling with legions of sexy young German men, and endless night of rampant sexual hedonism. Isherwood did manage to have multiple affairs with sexy young German boys, and he also was inspired by his wacky apartment neighbors that he wrote Sally Bowles, the inspiration for “Cabaret.” As in “Cabaret,” though, the idyll was interrupted by the rise of the Nazi party, and the start of the War. Isherwood eventually fled to America.
Geoffrey Sax‘s “Christopher and His Kind” can most accurately be summed up as “The Young Chris Isherwood Chronicles,” complete with that sort of made-for-TV chintziness the name implies. Indeed, the film was originally made for the BBC last year, and has now played at the Los Angeles Film Festival here in the states. The film is gaining a small amount of traction in America, thanks to the presence of actor Matt Smith, better known to genre TV fans as the most recent Doctor Who. Smith is a good enough actor, and, occasionally, managed to get Isherwood’s foppish speech entirely correctly, but otherwise didn’t bring too much to the role; for large portions of the film, he seemed less like the hero of our story, and more of a passive observer to the rise of Nazism.
Nazis are all too often shorthand for “evil” in movies. Not to marginalize the horrific crimes committed by Nazi officers, but Nazis are too often depicted as inhuman creatures, akin to werewolves, who have no tragedy or soul. “Christopher and His Kind” was largely about the Nazis rise to power, and yet we never got a sense that, as was the case, the Nazi party was once just a silly, dismissible ultra-right-wing cult of noisy weirdos. Sadly, this is not the film to analyze the slow ascent of the Third Reich.
We do, however, get a rich portrait of what the fringe was up to at the time. The romantic world of smoky nightclubs, sweaty, sex-soaked brothels and backalley sexual dalliances. There are hookers and deviants around every corner, and they’re all up to something enviably fun; there is one scene where Isherwood and his landlady (and a few others) are listening at the door of Isherwood’s ex-pat buddy, the marvelous queen Gerald Hamilton (Toby Jones). Hamilton is, we see, dressed in drag and is getting spanked. There is a wonderful sense of community to this simple act of voyeurism.
We also get to see the intense, intense romances Isherwood had, including the extended affairs he has with handsome and emotionally manipulative Caspar (Alexander Doetch), and then the much more meaningful affair he had with the janitor Heinz (the impossibly attractive Douglas Booth), who would eventually be left in Berlin to hide from the Nazis (contrary to the litigious efforts made by Isherwood to keep him out of Germany altogether). The crux of the story all rests with the free-spirited Jean Ross (Imogen Poots), who was the direct inspiration for Sally Bowles. Jean is depicted as a hard-swearing, free-loving, 21-year-old nightclub pixie, but Poots is, I think, a little too delicate and shy to give the role the necessary emotional power to really make Ross crackle the way she needs to.
Indeed, that’s my central compliant with the film in general: it feels kind of… muted. Too mannered. Too – if you’ll excuse this mild bit of casual prejudice – British. It’s a story about sexual hedonism, wild breakups, and demonstrative breakdowns, but seems too afraid to get its hair mussed. I understand it was meant to play on TV, and you can’t exactly show closeups of sweaty men copulating furiously in German alleyways in the BBC (despite some sexy naked kisses here and there), but this story seems to warrant something a bit edgier. A bit sexier. A bit less controlled. It deserves, if you will, the 1972 version of “Cabaret.”
If you’re already a fan of “Cabaret,” or anything Isherwood has done, this film will serve as a nice footnote to the man. If not, start with “Cabaret,” and work your way out from there.