The Frameline35 festival, now in its 35th reincarnation, screened more than 230 features and shorts at four locations across San Francisco, centered, of course, at the Castro Theatre, the 1922 movie palace located in the heart of the most famous gay neighborhood in San Francisco (and, arguably, the world). The Castro audience is not one known for being demure or quiet. The crowd at Sunday’s screening of Christopher and His Kind, the BBC docudrama about Christopher Isherwood that closed the festival, was no exception: quick to laugh (loudly), gasp and even dance when the moment called for it.
Christopher and His Kind, the festival’s closing night film, is the first dramatization of Isherwood’s 1976 autobiography about his decade living in Berlin in the 1930s. Isherwood’s time in Germany would go on to be the basis of his short story collection The Berlin Stories, which was then adapted by way of John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera into the musical (and eventual 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli) Cabaret.
Like those stories, Geoffrey Sax’s film, originally produced for BBC TV, is most interested in the ‘thems’ of the world: a mid-20s Isherwood (current Dr. Who Matt Smith) travels from his suffocating English home at the insistence of his friend, poet W.H. Auden (Pip Carter), to explore the hedonism of inter-war Berlin. Sharing his boarding house are Jean Ross (Imogen Poots), an American actress and nightclub singer and the inspiration for Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, and Gerald Hamilton (Toby Jones), a seedy Englishman with a penchant for corporeal punishment (a fact the film does not shy away from).
As the 1970s Isherwood who narrates the film from his home in Santa Monica says, though, the only real reason to go to Berlin was for the boys. The film is at its strongest when it focuses on Isherwood’s burgeoning sexuality—a tumultuous affair with a chiseled gay-for-pay prostitute named Kaspar and a more stable but ultimately frustrating romance with the street sweeper Heinz. The Berlin of the 1920s seems remarkably progressive—homosexuality is a topic of conversation, not a topic for conversation, and the film does a good job of showing Isherwood’s excitement at expressing his desires unimpeded.
But despite Isherwood’s relative romantic freedom, the specter of the growing Nazi threat begins to take center stage as the movie progresses. It is here that Christopher and His Kind hits a few less-successful notes: only so much historical nuance can fit inside a 90-minute made-for-television movie. But while the film’s treatment of Nazism sometimes reaches for low-hanging fruit, there are also some moments that are remarkably effective. In one scene, Isherwood watches a squadron of SS stormtroopers march through the dark streets of Berlin, their shadowed eye-less faces devoid of expression. Instead, Sax shows us the glimmer of their torches in the eyes of the mannequins that line the windows of the Jewish-owned department store tagged with a single, explosive word: “Jude.”
It’s moments like these, when the film plays its gimmicks just right so that it references rather than duplicates all-too familiar tropes, that Christopher and His Kind does best. Sax filmed the biopic in 22 days on a $2 million budget—that occasional jolts betray its TV-movie DNA is testament to the director’s dexterity with the tools he has.
Christopher and His Kind probably won’t have a life beyond television (Sax doesn’t think it will), but for a festival closer on Pride Sunday in San Francisco (and on the heels of the vote for marriage equality in New York), it was warmly welcomed by its Castro audience. Frameline35 bestowed its Outstanding First Feature award to the French film The Evening Dress, directed by Myrium Aziza. The Outstanding Documentary Feature Award went to Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf’s Wish Me Away, a film about the emotional journey of Chely Wright, America’s first openly gay country music star.