I’m going to say something possibly controversial, but there’s no getting around the fact that Christopher Isherwood was kind of an asshole. To his credit, he rather blithely acknowledges it in his books; he could obfuscate more, but he’s perfectly content to remain serenely above politics and, I don’t know, humanity? That’s what it feels like, at least.
All of this is on display in the BBC’s adaptation of Isherwood’s 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, sort of the anti-Cabaret Cabaret (and streaming on Netflix). In the more permissive 1970s, Isherwood basically rewrote his Berlin Stories and put back in all of the gay sex and politics he’d left out the first time around. I find the book an immense bore (he writes in the third person), but the film is an absolute delight, bolstered by beautiful men, a heartbreaking performance from Imogen Poots as the real Sally Bowles, Jean Ross, and a wonderfully strange, gnarled turn from Dr. Who’s Matt Smith as Herr Issyvoo himself. And, this being the BBC, there is no skimping on either male nudity or extremely violent, graphic homosexual sex. Thank god. Because enough with the cross-dressing underground nightclubs of Weimar Berlin; isn’t it time we saw some beautiful men enjoying one another? (Plus, the BBC lets Auden say that most of the German men are “hetters who use our money to pay for cunt.”)
Poots is deliciously over-the-top in her first scenes, and then gradually chips away at Jean’s artifice until she’s a Communist selling the Daily Worker and carrying around a copy of Isherwood’s Sally Bowles in her purse…and yet she ultimately has no patience for Isherwood’s reluctance to take sides in 1930s Europe. Earlier, he’d proudly told her about a newspaper job, which causes her face to fall. “Isn’t that Oswald Mosley’s rag?” she asks flatly. He casually says yes, it is, and Jean tells him if he takes the job she’ll never again speak to him, which is a rather more generous view of Jean Ross/Sally Bowles and less so of Isherwood than we’re accustomed to. Then again, Isherwood’s great skill was in capturing the spirit of an era (Weimar Germany; gay California). If he needed to be solipsistic and strangely pacifistic (given the times) to do so, then so be it. But I’ll never be in a rush to read his diaries.