Berlin in the 1920s was the “gay capital of Europe.” Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was busy lobbying the Reichstag to decriminalize homosexuality; activist Adolf Brand ran a gay magazine titled Der Eigene; and bars and nightclubs abounded in Schöneberg, the city’s gay village.
So it is no surprise that a footloose young gay writer, stifled by propriety in his native England, should want to visit. Christopher Isherwood had been born into the landed gentry in Cheshire in 1904 and educated at Repton and then Cambridge (from which he did not graduate). He had heard about Berlin from his friend, the gay poet W.H. Auden. “To Christopher,” Isherwood later wrote, “Berlin meant boys”—and in March 1929 he left for a visit. He spent much of the next four years there, before evacuating in May 1933 after Hitler came to power. He emigrated to the United States in January 1939.
Isherwood wrote much about Berlin. His semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) was the inspiration for Cabaret—play, musical, and film. But Goodbye to Berlin and The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) were written at a time when frank accounts of homosexuality could not be published, and much is left out. In 1976, he was finally able to right this wrong with Christopher and His Kind, his memoir of the years 1929–1939.
Arriving in Berlin in March 1929, Isherwood rents a room from Magnus Hirschfeld’s sister on In den Zelten. Auden shows him the delights of gay Berlin; he falls in with the Hirschfeld crowd, including Francis, a gay man who rents another room in the same flat; and he alternates between teaching English and writing. In December 1930, he moves to a new apartment on Nollendorfstraße and subsequently meets Gerald Hamilton, on whom Arthur Norris in Goodbye and Mr. Norris is based. He also meets the English signer and model Jean Norris, who becomes Sally Bowles in the Berlin novels and Cabaret.
In March 1932 he meets a young man named Heinz, and the two of them fall in love. But the situation in Berlin is deteriorating. In January 1933, Hitler is sworn in as chancellor; in February, the Reichstag burns; and in March, the Enabling Act is passed, giving Hitler absolute power over the government. Nazis are boycotting Jewish businesses, Jews and homosexuals (including Hirschfeld) are fleeing the country, and books are burning in the streets. In May, Isherwood and Heinz leave for Greece, where they are to stay with Francis and a German friend.
But as a German citizen, Heinz’s situation abroad is not secure: Hitler is widely expected to institute conscription, and he stands to lose his citizenship—and his ability to travel—if he does not answer the call. They spend four years traveling in England and on the continent, trying to get Heinz first an English residency permit and then Mexican citizenship, before Heinz is forced to return to Germany in May 1937. He is promptly arrested as a draft evader and homosexual, tried, and sentenced to six months in prison, one year of labor for the state, and two years of military service. (Isherwood sees Heinz next on a 1952 visit to Berlin, by which time Heinz is married with children.)
Isherwood returns to London to live with his mother, where he writes, “Heinz is always the last person I think of at night, the first in the morning. Never to forget Heinz. Never to cease to be grateful to him for every moment of our five years together.”
Then in January 1938 he and Auden leave for a six-month writing trip to China. They return in September to gas masks in the streets of London and fear everywhere of war. On September 30th, Hitler and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sign the Munich Agreement, in which the United Kingdom agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland, then part of Czechoslovakia. Fears of war relax, and in January 1939, Isherwood and Auden sail for New York; Isherwood will never again live in England. On September 1, the Germans invade Poland.
Christopher and His Kind is a rambling book, but then real life—unlike fiction—is rambling. The task of pasting together excerpts from diaries, letters, and novels is complicated by the fact that many of the same people appear in all three sources, but under different names and with slightly different chronologies. In his own case, the author solves this problem by calling himself “Christopher” in the memoir to distinguish himself from the character “Isherwood” of Goodbye to Berlin. The result is that that his memoir is written, rather oddly, in the third person—hence, “to Christopher, Berlin meant boys.”
In 2011, Christopher and His Kind was made into a movie starring Matt Smith, who played the doctor in Doctor Who (2010–2014), Prince Philip in The Crown (2016–2017), and the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Mapplethorpe (2018). The balance of the cast featured Pip Carter as W.H. Auden; Imogen Poots, who played Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2017); the prolific Toby Jones as Gerald Hamilton; and Issy van Randwyck as Isherwood’s Nollendorfstraße landlady, Fraulein Thurau.
It is a beautifully filmed period piece, though perhaps those in the know could distinguish the sets in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from Berlin itself. Smith is excellent as the young Isherwood; he bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to the original, and he does a superb job of emulating the character of his voice—a thin, stereotypically “gay-sounding,” upper class English accent.
The screenplay, by Kevin Elyot, does a respectful job of taming the rambling original and fitting it into a coherent story of a mere 90 minutes. The movie focuses almost exclusively on the Berlin years, which occupy only the first half of the book. Some important figures, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, are omitted altogether; others are condensed from the original. Thus the “Gerald Hamilton” of the movie incorporates elements of the book’s Gerald and Francis, and the “Heinz” of the movie melds the Heinz of the book with elements of an earlier boyfriend, called “Otto” in the book. But these expediences serve to clarify the character of the original, even if they gloss over some of its (less important) historical details.
The book was published in 1976, when Isherwood was 72 years old, describing things that happened when he was in his twenties and thirties. Even as it describes terrifying historical events—events with frightening parallels in our own era—it is inevitably nostalgic, a mood that pervades the book and the movie. The old miss their youth, even the bad bits.
The young Christopher is at times bitingly sarcastic, in the vein of Oscar Wilde: In response to a report of a “moral lapse” by Gerald Hamilton, he quips, “Gerald having a moral lapse is like someone falling off a footstool at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.” But the older Isherwood, with the reflection of age, extends the same sarcastic criticism to his younger person. In 1931, Christopher lived for a few months in the cramped tenement occupied by Otto and his family. Of this stay, he writes, “As far as Christopher was concerned, the discomforts were easily bearable, like those of a camping trip which could be easily brought to an end whenever he wished.” Slum tourism, anyone?
Although the movie begins and ends with the older Isherwood sitting at his typewriter working on his memoirs, the voice of age and experience is otherwise missing from the adaptation. As a consequence, Christopher comes across at times as shallow and selfish. This reflection is present in the book, and it gives the author a more sympathetic character, for the reader can join him in tsking the folly of his youth. Where it comes across most strongly, however, is in filmed interviews with Isherwood, such as one with James Day in 1973 or 1974. Here he is truly human and gentle—and author with a persona, yes, but also a human like the rest of us.
One serves to complement the other. It is not enough to say, “I liked the book better than the movie” or vice versa. One needs all three to get a more complete picture of Isherwood the man, one of the great gay novelists of the twentieth century.
Christopher Isherwood: Christopher and His Kind (Avon, 1976) · Christopher and His Kind (BBC, 2011) · Selected Wikipedia articles: LGBT culture in Berlin, biography of the author · Illustration by gay·F·fect; photograph of Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress