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Christopher and his Kind

by Kavish Chetty / 28.03.2012

Sexual innuendo of a certain cast is the holy province of a homosexual audience, and Chris and his Kind tailors its affections and affectations accordingly. A young man bursts open a bottle of champagne, and as its foamy ejaculate thickly drips off his fingers, his girlfriend says “oh, you must teach me to catch it in my mouth!”. Another young man sits opposite a lechy-looking train passenger – both headed to Berlin – who asks of him, “are you going all the way?”. These are only two recollections of a film studded with such sly suggestions of sexuality and each was met with slack-jawed guffawing by the audience. Equally, where the cinema of teenage boys might tempt its audience with pendulous superbreasts and asses, here the film binges on the male body – a glimpse of muscled shoulder here, a coquettish cock there; even bed-frame thrashing sex scenes times two or three. This isn’t to suggest that this film should attract only the more fabulous of cinema-goers – its charms are altogether in excess and “hetters who spend their money on cunt” (to quote Auden) should find much to amuse them. But I have never, for example, seen so many middle-aged (even quarter-aged) white queers in one place.

Chris and his Kind is a BBC biopic on the life of gay English novelist Christopher Isherwood – adapted from his autobiography of the same name published two years ago. It begins with the mature novelist in seventies America posed before the typewriter, and anticipating a nostalgic, memoirish trip through time to his younger, more vulnerable years. In the thirties, Germany’s Berlin had a curious reputation: on the one hand, there were the grumbles of goose-stepping Nazis entering early ascendancy. But on the other, the capital city had become the gay tourism centre of Europe; a strange contradiction. At the beginning of the film, a young Christopher refuses his mothers’ exhortations to study the law in England and exiles himself instead to the land of frankfurters and bratwürste. Here he meets up with his poet buddy W.H. Auden, and the two hang around the liberated Cozy Corner, a club teeming with bent Adonises looking to swap dicks for Deutschmark.

Christopher and his Kind - The Male Body

The earlier portions of the film capture the exuberance of Berlin’s queer underworld, showing off with excitable flair its easy love and lack of prejudice, its nightclub atmosphere plumed in curls of smoke. Here Chris begins an affair with a rent-boy called Caspar, befriends an aspiring British actress (moonlighting as a cabaret sleaze artist) and acquaints himself with Gerald Hamilton, the Irish critic who spends all his off-time pursuing the kinkiest sex he can get his porky fingers on. All characterisations are entertainingly campish – you might even say hilarious – and brought alive at any rate with the soul of the times. Matt Smith as Christopher is the perfect portrait of the gay literary figure, down to the shy twitches around the edges of his lips. Imogen Poots (who plays the aspiring actress, a Ms. Jean Ross) is vampish and theatrical: several scenes hone in on her singing talents in the underground clubs. It is against this cast and others that the film takes on the shape of self-discovery in a strange land. Chris gives English lessons to the Jewish department-store don Wilfrid Landauer; when Caspar abruptly disappears, he starts another relationship with a striking street-sweeper named Heinz.

But the shadow of the swastika looms large in the details, and soon its scarlet banners are being unfurled from rooftops and sexual liberties are going flaccid. Caspar is recruited by the Nazis and guards over Landauer’s department store when it is wrecked and looted. Heinz’s brother becomes seduced by the nationalist rhetoric which comes out from beneath Herr Hitler’s toothbrush moustache. So, Christopher’s freedoms, relationship and ultimately life, are thrown into a historical jeopardy. The film allows breathing space to show the impact of the social on the personal and wide-scale changes in the German imagination force Chris and Heinz to beat an exit back to England. There they hope to secure permanent residency for Heinz. While they wait, we are treated to an amusing dinner scene featuring Chris and his domineering mother swapping serrated lines of dialogue between one another. While it is true that all performances are executed greatly, the characters themselves, it must be said, are hardly very adventurous archetypes: they’re a predictable, by-the-numbers bunch, exquisite in portrayal, but lacking in imagination. In this film, domineering mothers are domineering, queers are queers, and (for most of the film) a decadent slice of the middle-class is mincing around in happy abandon while the existing social order is crumbling beneath them.

Christopher and his Kind - Bed Thrashers

From here things get a little damp: Heinz is denied staying-rights by a passport official (and is eventually arrested and sentenced to prison). Jean gets pregnant and her “Hollywood” boyfriend splits on her. While not losing much of its original energy, the film then goes on to explore the fortunes of the bit-players various who made up the universe of Christopher Isherwood. In all, then, Chris is surprisingly watchable – an obviously gay movie which has enough in the way of entertainment (if not strict historical/biographical accuracy, which is hardly the point) to amuse most. If the theatre gets as packed as it was on Sunday night – I don’t think there was a single free seat available in the end – prepare to watch the film in an atmosphere buzzing with queenish shrills of laughter and delight.

* Christopher and his Kind plays as part of the first installment of the three-part 2012 Out in Africa film festival. It runs again on March 31 at 9 PM at the V&A Waterfront, Nu Metro in Cape Town and on March 30 at 9 PM at Hype Park, Nu Metro in Jozi. A full schedule of the festival is available HERE.

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