Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Christopher and His Kind" from 22.3.2011

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2011
As with authors, certain periods intrigue and strike a lasting chord. Alongside Waugh, W.H.Auden and Virginia Woolf, my bookshelves feature most of the works of Christopher Isherwood. They start with 1928's "All the Conspirators", "Mr Norris Changes Trains" of 1935 and "Goodbye to Berlin" from 1939 and conclude with "Christopher and his Kind" from the late 1970's and the recent volumes of diaries.

My history books feature much on the Weimar Republic and plays and theatre programmes include Martin Sherman's "Bent." Art books and exhibition catalogues touch on the fascinatingly sleazy world of George Grosz whilst amongst the DVD's and CDs are several productions of Kander and Ebb's master work "Cabaret" and the canon of Kurt Weill.

Rather like the Titanic, Berlin between the wars has the power to fascinate. Since the 1960s popular imagination has been captivated by the bohemian demi-monde of Weimar, a seedy cauldron of decadence that spawned some striking sounds and images that the straight majority has come to consider glamorous and appealing: naughty Teutons awaiting a shocking come-uppance. For the last fifty years there has been a huge mainstream market for the combination of Weimar decadence and hubris: it sells.

I was interested to see how Isherwood's overview in "Christopher and His Kind" would translate to television eight decades on. The adaptation, shown on BBC 2, was fittingly undertaken by Kevin Elyot whose "My Night with Reg" is a significant landmark in the "age of Aids" towards the end of the last century.

The cast was impressively stellar with Matt Smith effete with floppy fringe, tweed suits and strange, possibly authentically tortured vowels and inflections. He was after sex and put the record straight regarding his intentions with admirable honesty from the outset: "I could say I went because of what was happening politically. But in fact I went because of the boys."

We are left with no illusion as to his priorities. Once he had been met by his chum Wystan Auden (Pip Carter) and dumped his battered suitcase, Isherwood was straight off to the smoky subterranean Cosy Corner club, a louche box of tricks frequented by rent boys, ready to oblige - but as Auden explained, "all rampant hetters."

Unleashed in this sexual sweetie shop, Christopher immediately copped off with the hunky pro Caspar and had a divinely rampant time far far away from his upper middle class background. He inhabited a hedonistic club scene replete with chancers,whores and exhibitionists. This formed the prototype for countless clubs all over the world for decades to come with varying degrees of authenticity and dilution from the truly hard core to the "decadence lite" of London's Blitz and New York's, Studio 54.

Isherwood's Berlin is conveyed with reasonable authenticity and a fair eye for detail. We can't quite smell the ersatz coffee and cheap cigarettes that seem to waft from the pages of "Goodbye to Berlin" but get a fairly comprehensive view of the range of experiences on offer to Christopher, in "permanent foreigner" mode.

This impression is expanded by exceptionally fine portrayals of his contemporary Berliners. Shady businessman and voyeur, Gerald Hamilton - the model for Mr Norris - is convincingly recreated by Toby Jones from the moment of their encounter on the train. He epitomises Berlin at that time - as fake as his poorly fitting toupet, as fraudulent as his business dealings and as tragically seedy as his penchant for a flabby brand of sado-masochism. Naturally after a little bother, Gerald disappears..Del Boy in a gimp mask.

So iconic has the character of Sally Bowles become - as created on film by Liza Minnelli - we almost expected her to appear in this piece. We were in fact presented with the real model or inspiration for Sally, Jean Ross enticingly played by Imogen Potts.

Another lost soul, her Jean is fragile, mannered and full of attitude: "Oh, mummy would nearly die if she knew what an old whore I am." Her convincing performances as a nightclub chanteuse were perfectly pitched, demonstrating what she was selling to her punters but also why she had not the necessary star quality to succeed as an artist. Jean was destined to be exploited by her American lover but never get her big break in Hollywood. Just like Gerald, Jean exemplified the weak and deluded that inhabited this pitifully self-indulgent subculture until it was swept away by the infinitely vile new broom of Nazism.

We see Auden and Isherwood pottering about in this mire. Slumming, they take their pleasures and observe the indigenous wildlife go about their business with the rather superior detachment of the writer observing at the zoo. Each was able to analyse and order what they had noted and build up a portfolio of experience and apercus, as with Auden's supercilious: "I do loathe the sea. It's so wet and sloppy." He then shuffled back home for running repairs.

We also see the well-heeled middle (if not upper) class background which Christopher rejected for the initially divine decadence of Berlin. It was chiefly represented by his formidable mother Kathleen, intelligently played by Lindsay Duncan. A few minutes in her controlling presence explains why her son took refuge amidst the demi-monde. Her uncompromising views chilled rather. She was unmerciful in reminding her son of the pain involved in both in bringing him into the world and in losing his father in the war. Even-handedly, she dispensed her manipulative malice equally to her son's German lover as much as her sons.

One came close to understanding how suffocated Christopher must have felt by the remorseless imposition of maternal views but felt sorriest of all for his brother Richard, condemned to stay at home under her rigid rule. In fact Christopher was presented as joining in with his mother in paying no heed to his sibling's views and feelings. This came across as a form of unthinking betrayal and diminished the viewer's respect for him.

Christopher's apparent detachment from the repression of his brother mirrored his attitude towards his German lovers. In fairness, we can absolve him entirely for the loss of his early affair Casper to the Nazis and observe that he tried to protect his subsequent lover, street sweeper and muscled cherub, Heinz Neddermayer (Douglas Booth) even when both had to leave Berlin, but in the end failed to ensure his long-term safety.

When years later they met, Heinz, now married with a child, seemed intent to use the connection to bring his new family out of East Germany to join his old lover, which Christopher did not exactly rush to agree. We are left questioning whether this amounted to betrayal. The phrase repeated by Isherwood's well-heeled Jewish language student of years before again sprang to mind: ""We must stand by our kind Christopher, whatever the cost." Clearly not everyone was willing or able to adopt this approach - certainly not Christopher, who ultimately seemed to have failed to protect those he may have once loved.

This suspicion is compounded by Auden's harsh remark "The only cause you really care about Christopher is yourself. But you've turned it into an art form." One might also add, "and made a living from it."

Despite a capacity for adventurous sex and romantic attachment, Isherwood's main role in life does appear to be an onlooker and reporter. As an artist, his function was to observe often ghastly goings on and present his take on them.

This beautifully shot film recreates his visit to Berlin with flair and ingenuity. Unfortunately, since Weimar became"fashionable", it has become somewhat cliched and certain scenes, such as the book burning, pogrom and even nightclub lack a degree of impact and are perhaps "tired." Any glamour in the decadence has long-since worn off.

This occasional lack of dramatic impact is compounded by a flatness in Isherwood's character. Although he dared to dive into this hedonistic world, he was presented as essentially selfish and uninvolved and in consequence inevitably failed to carry with him the sympathy of the viewer. In some ways the title "Christopher and his Kind" is perfectly apt: the rent boys of Berlin were equally as exploitative and detached as their customers. Maybe they deserved each other, if not their ultimate fates.

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