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Christopher and His Kind

Credit: ARTE

Christopher and his Kind (2011) is based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel of the same name. Isherwood’s tumultuous relationship with Kathleen who does not consider being a writer as a suitable long term profession provoked him to move away leaving all responsibilities on his unwilling younger brother. The film begins with Isherwood played by Matt Smith writing the aforementioned novel about his days in Berlin replicates the tensions with his mother Kathleen played by Lindsay Duncan and an almost non-existent relationship with his younger brother Richard played by Perry Millward as he flees his home to arrive in Berlin because to him, “Berlin meant Boys.”

The film explores the queer clubs with male prostitutes looking for ways to make easy cash and the Cabaret scene thriving in Berlin between the two world wars. We first meet the queer Gerald Hamilton played by Toby Jones in a train couch as he symbolically asked Isherwood if he was “going all the way” obviously shocking him who later in the film sarcastically commented he that implicating him as a traitor to Britain was unjustified since he had Irish blood in his veins bringing in the context of British colonization of Ireland. Cabaret singer Jean Ross played by Imogen Poots becomes significant since her songs voices the thoughts of the protagonists the viewer does not hear, but can surely understand. Jean’s song is heard right after Isherwood mentions to his brother about his uncertainty regarding him being Kathleen’s caretaker and Jean’s lyrics, “If I make myself true to one, how another will surely be sad and alone” becomes poignant as a remark on Isherwood’s nonchalant behaviour and perhaps Isherwood’s thoughts themselves.

It is evident that house lodgers had no privacy even in the act of sex, which soon became a public act which was known and viewed by all the other inhabitants in the house. Isherwood was watched and in turn watched a passionate BDSM act along with making merry with the other lodgers viewing the act which now becomes a performance under the gaze of many. Other activities like music too became an almost communal affair with other lodgers being forced to be listeners to the loud musician in the house which made others glad upon her death in the war and Caspar was thankful for the fact that he and Christopher were “normal” though they too attracted numerous eavesdroppers during their revelries. Jean coaxing Bobby to teach her to catch the flowing frothy champagne in her mouth with sexual implications in front of Christopher and Bobby tumbling into bed with Jean while Isherwood was sitting on the very same bed implies the free space of sexuality open to the gaze. Though, Bobby was the first person in the film to show discomfort in being under Gerald’s secret gaze as he engaged in his private matters.

As a contrast, Isherwood and Heinz’s love was extremely private and flourished in places almost away from civilisation including dangling their feet in a lake as it is a common feature of films dealing with the theme of love to present a scene involving water symbolism. Isherwood and Heinz found love in a time of destruction as the former decided to pursue the latter after an act of Nazi violence. He always considered Heinz as someone he would protect and he failed to do so. His world of books merges with his love as he reads books on their rendezvous and teaches Heinz English. Language was one constant he had in his days in Berlin. Possibly because their love flourished in war and their acts of togetherness conjoined with a frame of violence it seemed impossible for them to find anything substantial after the war ended.

It appears that the film’s queer men’s courage to be themselves and progressive thoughts were limited only to themselves. W.H. Auden who was Isherwood’s companion in “Cosy Corner” (“Noster’s Cottage” in reality) comes across as having skewed views on gender as he mentioned that the fact that they found men desirable proved how very masculine the men were. Moreover, Isherwood’s own views about women were pathetically patriarchal as he started to describe how romantic men were and stops immediately as he reached women and mentioned that he was glad about what he was thus instantly establishing a divide between the two mentioned sexes. Heinz himself was problematic and considered his wife “good” as she didn’t inquire about his past which included his time with Christopher and probably didn’t realize the significance of her son being named after the author.

The film also depicts the cafe culture of Berlin where Isherwood sat alone and wrote or read, immersed in a world of his own. The cafe became a place where things were at a contrast to the world outside which is best visualized when Isherwood watched a violent Nazi procession walk past the cafe he was in. Isherwood’s motivations and desires were mostly quite self-centered. His intention to go to Berlin was based on his desire to fulfil a need and a lack in his life and he does not mention the political situation until it directly affects him, much to the frustration of Jean and his Jewish student Wilfrid Landauer. While Berlin outside the space of the cafe was violent, the cafe itself did not suffer any internal repercussion due to the occurrences. The film portrays Isherwood’s isolationism and his stance upon the Nazis conquering Berlin and Isherwood being “anti-culture” and against culture worshipers who interfere in his life choices which applied to his case in many ways. Isherwood’s first direct contact with the political other was when he greeted a Nazi soldier in the washroom. It increases as he thought about writing for a fascist newspaper by Oswald Mosley which ended in Jean being shocked and having to threaten him with dire consequences to not agree to write absolutely anything for Action.

Credit: ARTE

Furthermore, during an act of violence images of cafes or salons scribbled with “Jude” and the Star of David were followed by images of female dolls with shadows of fire passing by their faces which might imply the condition of Jewish women who ran most of the salons in pre-World War II Berlin who simply had nothing to do but witness the rampage. Furthermore, as a reference to the tumultuous times and the notoriety of Gerald Hamilton an ironical scene is included where Hamilton was upset as people could not be trusted and Christopher mentioned that his wig was not in place.

It is also evident that Isherwood was elitist and could only empathize or realize the extent of the situation when it spilled over to his own world of books and men. Isherwood found himself among conflicting political opinions as he moved towards mingling in them at least partially and he told Gerald off for meddling in criminal politics with the government that could forfeit his own safety. The first time Isherwood took a public stance against Nazi Germany was when he saw Wilfrid’s books being burnt including works by Wilde and the book of Irregular Verbs implying the effect on the queer world that would occur with Hitler’s rise and he shared a silent glance with the man as he said “Shame.” Him mingling with the government was only to protect Heinz which fails as Isherwood is suspected of deceiving His majesty’s Immigration Service when he sent money to Heinz requesting him to mention that it was a bequest. Isherwood’s elitism which makes him not opt for a sensitive code of conduct is revealed upon him giving money to Heinz’s ailing mother in the presence of both his sons, thus invariably making the elder brother feel insignificant. The flowers he offered her almost become symbolic of her life as they fall to the ground implying her impending death.

Jean Ross herself was elitist, considering her treating the landlady “like a slave” and the latter too cannot be removed from following elitist values as she brought in her past status as a lady to exempt herself from cleaning Ross’s floors. Isherwood’s distance and elitism is revealed more as he mentioned that Jean’s sarcastic comment about him finally doing his bit for the class struggle upon dating Heinz. Furthermore, Isherwood’s dialogue in his autobiography not being able to be pleased sexually with a man from his own class or nation that has been transferred to Gerald Hamilton implies him chasing stereotyped notions of imagining a different nation and fetishizing the distance. As one realises, Isherwood’s choice in men in the film was not of his own nationality. Isherwood also never considered himself to belong to one place and one never really gets to know for clear what he considers his identity to be.

Furthermore, neither does he give much attention to his brother, nor does he care much about his opinions. The only time we see his brother and Christopher bonding is over books which again imply Christopher’s relationship and understanding of the world is fueled by the written word. Furthermore, Heinz’s mother is quite elitist when she speaks to Heinz which is probably coloured by her distaste towards Germans who killed her husband and it is obvious she cannot let go of the past and in her attempt to keep Heinz away she even praises Hitler. One also notices Richard blinking.

Irregular Verbs become a strong motif as Isherwood recalls in Lions and Shadows about a meeting with Auden, “We began to chatter and gossip: the preparatory school atmosphere reasserted itself. We revived old jokes.. we remembered how Spem [a master] used to pinch our arms for not knowing the irregular verbs.” The irregular verbs appears in Wilfrid’s study of them and the exceptions in the English language acting as a metaphor to depict the exceptional elements in society- the Jews and also serving as a reference to the conversation between the two queer writers who would inevitably be persecuted Gerald mentioned his fear of the homosexuals being “stamped out” by the Nazis and preferring the communists as Lenin said nothing about them. Furthermore, Wilfrid is another stereotype who had enough money to build a splendid library inspite of being a shopkeeper at Landauer’s Department Store which upholds the European gaze on the Jewish Other and their apparently fishy methods of money making.

Credit: ARTE

Christopher and his “kind” is mentioned twice in the film. Firstly by Wilfrid as he mentioned that in tumultuous times, they must all stand by their kind and secondly by Geoff who mentioned that Christopher and his “kind” were no longer welcome in his house with the former making Isherwood as one among the “Other” and second instance describes the repercussions of being the “Other.” The desperate Geoff with his Nazi sympathies could no longer tolerate Christopher’s presence in his house which was always unwanted and for the first time Christopher is confronted by a Nazi sympathizer and in a different scene, the Nazi swastika is shown with the camera moving closer to it implicating Nazism as a danger Berlin could no longer ignore. And as Jess said that people were getting used to the Nazis presence which is evident as the landlady adopted an attitude of passivity as she said, “They come they go, and so it will always be” and that people would get used to anything with time. Finally Isherwood found himself in a trying situation he could not push away as he stepped out into the street and the camera circled around him with Hitler’s booming voice on microphones and Nazi flags all around him as Isherwood looked around helplessly.

The film also depicts the post war scenario and the way Christopher and his kind dealt with the changing nation. Christopher finally opined that communism was the best hope and Jean distributed The Daily Worker in elite spaces like the cafe. It is not clear why Jean did not answer the question if Christopher and she would meet again. What reason could she have to want to avoid him after everything they had been through? The theme of time is bought up again with the clock that survived the wars. The apples that fall from the landlady’s bag almost imply the fall of Germany from the promises of greatness that Hitler made. The attitude towards Americans as Isherwood called Bobby a typical American who broke his promises changes in a post war situation as the landlady mentions being grateful to be in the US side of Berlin.

The scene with Auden and Christopher sitting on a bench facing the unmoving waters and the blue sky, seems straight out of a painting since everything in the frame was so static other than the two men discussing their affections and the conflicts Auden faces with his religion and his sexuality along with considering the communist atmosphere and the fact they had not done much for the workers other than sleeping with them. One of the most beautiful scenes shot beside water bought in the symbolism of water and love and the unrequited love of Auden for Isherwood making the frame seem as if it exited in a space where time ceased to function anymore.

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