Kind can mean a group, the ability to treat others well, and – if your German translation isn’t that hot – child. It’s that mixture of youthfulness, shared experience, and compassion (or lack thereof) that make up the main themes of Christopher And His Kind.
Set in a Germany in which the shadow of the Second World War looms large, this is the largely autobiographical story of novelist Christopher Isherwood’s experiences and his attempt to, in his words, ‘set the record straight – well, as straight as it’s possible to be’.
A majority of the characters – gay, Jewish or any number of other people that the Nazi regime is keen to stamp out – are fully aware of the danger their ‘kind’ is in, even couching their political discussions in terms of how it affects their private lives (‘as far as I know, Lenin’s said nothing about buggery’). But they’re never able to relate the possible danger back to themselves as individuals. Here, everyone thinks of themselves in a protected bubble, significantly more liberated and open than you might expect from 1930s Berlin: a world in which your neighbours might eavesdrop on your very loud man-on-man action and never pass comment (indeed, the closest we get to reproach is a judgement on a heterosexual woman).
However, this complacency is never quite as chilling as perhaps it should be – since none of the lead characters are particularly concerned about the possible danger they’re in, neither are we – a challenge compounded by the fact that we know Isherwood (or ‘Chris’, as he never likes to be called) survives. He is the narrator, after all.
That said, it’s refreshing to see a drama where the gay characters are, for the most part, pretty damn happy being gay – there’s not much in the way of tortured homosexuals here. Everyone seems be having a joyfully decadent time in smoky nightclubs, where the entertainment is provided by androgynous, flat-voiced Berlinesque/Burlesque singers (it’s easy to see the leap between this and the story that was to become Cabaret), although this occasionally flirts with out and out (and, indeed, ‘out’) arrogance.
Matt Smith relishes the chance to demonstrate that he was already a skilled and nuanced performer before the TARDIS came calling, giving a nice line in hesitant, wide-eyed fragility (it would be great to get him on the same screen as upcoming Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield, watching them stutter and twitch through a scene together), while 28 Weeks Later’s Imogen Poots is moving and infuriating as a prototype Sally Bowles. Doctor Who fans will relish Toby Jones as a flirty neighbour who spies on Isherwood’s comings and goings (particularly the comings), which no doubt will lead to some interesting new spliced versions of last year’s Who episode ‘Amy’s Choice’ surfacing on YouTube.
Christopher And His Kind certainly isn’t a comedy, but it manages some savagely black humour in amongst the tale of discovery and personal liberation, even while the country itself is far from liberation. In the final analysis, it might be asked: do we need yet another drama about the War? Well, considering that even today, homophobia, religious intolerance, and racism are rife, this 90 minute film seems as relevant as ever. Complacency can kill, unless one makes a stand. For Isherwood, he found his escape in words. Right now, there are doubtless millions of others who don’t have that voice. Christopher And His Kind reminds us it was always thus.
Airs at 9.30pm on Saturday 19th March 2011 on BBC Two.
Released on DVD on Monday 21st March 2011 by ITV Studios Home Entertainment.