Rewind: Matt Smith’s ‘Christopher and His Kind’ revisited

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As it reaches it’s five year anniversary, I decided to rewatch Doctor Who star Matt Smith’s 90-minute BBC film Christopher and His Kind.

Directed by Geoffrey Sax (the director 1996’s Doctor Who TV Movie, don’t you know?), the 2011 biopic is based on the memoirs of English novelist Christopher Isherwood, a young man who travelled to Berlin in 1929 and stayed there until 1939 as he found his place amongst the German capital’s cabaret scene.

Berlin was at its cultural peak at the time, with many advances in art, architecture and literature among other things. However, the cabaret scene was the side of the Berlin nightlife that was frowned upon by many, dismissed as immoral and often quite secretive to avoid being caught.

Isherwood was drawn to the scene by his friend WD Auden, who taught him the ropes once he arrived in Germany and introduced him to an underground bar for gay men to socialise where many of the men there were “on the game”, as Christopher so eloquently put it. Isherwood was there to explore his homosexuality and while living in Berlin he fell in love with a young man called Heinz Neddermeyer.

Christopher And His Kind

They were together for the duration of Christopher’s time in Berlin but separated when the Gestapo arrested him in 1939 after Christopher attempted to get him a permanent visa for England.

They were apart for many years after that, with Germany suffering under Hitler’s reign. In the 1950s, the pair met up one final time, learning of the paths each others lives had taken. Heinz had found a wife and they had had a son together. Christopher remained single until he met Don Bachardy, an artist from America who he went on to fall in love with and they remained together until Christopher’s death. Before his death, Christopher published memoirs of his time in Berlin under the same name as the film. He never was never in contact with Heinz again as he was appalled by the frankness of his book.

In the film, the story begins with an elderly Isherwood sat at his typewriter writing the memoirs as we see it unfold. Matt Smith brings a wonderful, believable portrayal of Isherwood and I was drawn in from the start by him. He finds an innocence in the role as Isherwood was finding his way into the city’s gay scene, but that soon becomes history as he meets Caspar, a rent-boy, and then his lover Heinz. He discovers a new side to himself that he was unable to express under the pressure of his mother and upper class society.

Christopher And His Kind

Smith brings the youthful innocence to his character that he displayed in the Eleventh Doctor and Jim Taylor in Ruby in the Smoke. However, much like The Doctor, he has an older, much deeper emotional side; he gives a strength to Isherwood that many actors can struggle to bring to any character.

People aren’t wrong when they say Smith has old eyes. It really shows in this film. It is definitely up there with one of Smith’s best performances, but don’t be expecting the innocence of his character to remain for too long!

Imogen Poots plays the part of Jean Ross (Isherwood’s inspiration for his famous character Sally Bowles), a young woman living in the same building as Isherwood who sings in a bar to earn her wage. Poots brings the perfect amount of feistiness to the role, but also addresses the sensitive events (such as an abortion storyline) with the perfect emotional response and a heart-wrenching vulnerability, as does Smith.

Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Christopher’s mother was of her usual high standard, putting across the typical sheltered attitude of an upper class woman although there are some hints of suspicion about her son’s sexuality.

Sax directs the film tastefully and the horror of Kristallnacht, seen through the eyes of Isherwood’s outsider, is brought to life effectively despite the TV budget.

Christopher And His Kind

This biopic gives an excellent insight into pre-war Berlin culture and the discretion that gay couples had to live by in order to maintain their relationship without being arrested. Featuring an underrated performance by Matt Smith, filmed in between his first two seasons of Doctor Who, it also tells the story of a man now known as a hero of the gay liberation.

> Buy Christopher and His Kind on DVD on Amazon.

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