Christopher Isherwood & Pandemic Berlin

Elliot Douglas explores Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin…and discovers some pandemic-related parallels.

I doubt Berlin would have registered on my radar so early if it wasn’t for Christopher Isherwood. More specifically, it was Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli and loosely inspired by Isherwood’s writings, that I watched, enraptured, as a closeted teenager in rural Scotland.

For longer than I care to admit, the outlandish dancers, dirty Berlin nightclub where the illicit gay subplot plays out, and Liza’s contralto vibrato belting out “Maybe This Time” were more closely connected in my mind to the aesthetics of the German capital than the city itself.

Capri Theater advertisement for the film Cabaret (1972) – 12 May 1972 Morning Call, Allentown PA

Like me, Isherwood came to Berlin as a writer at the age of 25 (Liza was also 25 at the time of filming). Like me, he was a gay Brit who came to embrace his sexuality in one of the world’s queerest cities (“Berlin meant boys,” as he wrote in his memoir). And while it would be a stretch to compare our contemporary Covid-ridden capital to the sinister events of late-Weimar-era Berlin, there are certainly some similarities in the current blend of economic depression, political turmoil and social restrictions.

In any case, taken with the idea of being a latter-day Issyvoo, I decided to seek out some of the places he lived and spent time in, to try and gain more insight into his life. Despite the conflicts and contradictions between his two famous novels set in Berlin, Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)—both inspired by his time here but with altered names and details to hide his homosexuality—and his “frank and factual” memoir, Christopher and His Kind, written forty years later, following his Berlin trail proved fairly straightforward. It also helped shine a light on the long and fascinating history of queer culture in the city.

Sexology in Tiergarten

Postcard featuring the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft © Archiv of Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft

Being openly gay in Weimar Berlin, despite its progressive reputation, was not without its dangers, especially after 1929 when Paragraph 175 was once more actively enforced, making homosexual acts between men a crime.

Hence the gay community flourished in large but underground communities, and reading about the clandestine nature of Christopher’s first months in Berlin it’s difficult not to make a comparison with socialising under lockdown. The difference, of course, is that in 2021 there are no large public social events at all—underground or otherwise.

Christopher first arrived in Berlin in 1929, determined to become a “permanent foreigner” and enjoy the decadence and hedonism for which the city was already famous. He was self-confessedly naive and ignorant, less interested in politics and more in exploring himself.

His first apartment was at the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Research, a spacious villa in the Tiergarten—notably just a few short steps away from major landmarks like the Bellevue Palace and the Brandenburg Gate—where everyone from homosexuals and transgender people to nymphomaniacs came to meet each other, submit to Hirschfeld’s friendly but professional analyses, and form a community.

Hirschfeld, a German Jewish doctor, had gained international attention and notoriety in the preceding decades due to his outspoken support for sexual minorities. He published several works on homosexuality and transgender studies as early as the 1890s, albeit often under pseudonyms.

After World War One the new government of the Weimar Republic, in an effort to distance themselves from the conservative values of the empire, called on authorities not to enforce Paragraph 175. Under these comparatively liberal values, Hirschfeld was able to set up his institute, which became internationally renowned by the mid-1920s. Hirschfeld himself undertook several speaking tours abroad to discuss his research into the phenomenon of homosexuality.

During his time at the Institute, Christopher watched the comings and goings of the facility, allowing himself to be swept along by the queer figures he met. Meanwhile, Hirschfeld diagnosed Isherwood as “infantile”. At the time, Christopher certainly had the freedom to be infantile; to childishly explore his identity in a city of possibilities. In Christopher and His Kind, he describes a “ball for men” at a private club in the Tiergarten where he dressed in a skimpy sailor outfit and was mistaken, much to his delight, for a sex worker.

German students and Nazi SA members plunder the library of Magnus Hirschfeld, director of the institute

Of course the institute, and the sexual openness it represented, didn’t last. It was burned down by the Nazis in 1933 and Hirschfeld was forced into exile in France where he died shortly afterwards; the gay rights movement was not to gain traction in Western countries again until the 1960s.

Where the building used to stand is a small, graffitied plaque, which acknowledges that the institute was set up with a grant from the Prussian government: “The institute was the first facility for sexological research and learning, and was a place for medical care and refuge for everyone who faced societal discrimination for their sexuality.”

Down and out in Kreuzberg

On the Isherwood trail in Kreuzberg, image by Elliot Douglas

After a short sojourn to England, Christopher made it back to Berlin in 1930 and found himself living with the working-class family of his German teenage lover, Otto, in the then very poor area of west Kreuzberg. In Goodbye to Berlin, he gives the address as Wassertorstraße; in Christopher and his Kind, he says it was actually Simeonstraße near Hallesches Tor, a street that no longer exists.

Christopher says he met Otto when he was “16 or 17” and was happy to manipulate the vanity of the attractive youth (whom he says was probably really more interested in women) to make him his lover. The idea is both hopelessly romantic and deeply problematic; Otto was just one of many young men and boys for whom Christopher bought lavish presents or directly paid for sex.

Despite his upper-class upbringing, Christopher was not wealthy; a homosexual uncle occasionally financed his travels while his mother had cut him off by this stage, partly because of his sexuality. But he nevertheless had more connections from his background and nationality than the boys of Kreuzberg, and an income from teaching English.

Therefore there is something uncomfortable in his taking advantage of a lower-class family with two rooms who, by his own account, were starstruck by his presence, giving up their beds for him to make love to their teenage son.

Isherwood and W.H.Auden by Carl van Vechten, 1939 (public domain)

Christopher also makes a great fuss of being the only Englishman in Kreuzberg when he went to register at the local police station (yes, the Anmeldung process existed in 1930). His smug self-satisfaction—as if he is only deigning to be there—is slightly revolting.

At the same time, I confess something about the non-sexual aspects of this lifestyle appeals to the vagabond in me. My first trips to Berlin as a teenager were defined by sleeping in dodgy hostels or at friends’ grotty apartments. During one pre-pandemic trip, I stayed in a friend’s tiny two-room apartment in a run-down area of Gesundbrunnen, where after a night of revelry, we found there was no room for both of us on his thin mattress. He kindly elected to wrap himself in a blanket and slept on the floor.

The spontaneity of such an arrangement is one of the things that Berlin is missing in 2021. Meeting with friends has become an organised, non-spontaneous act: meticulously-planned walks, usually based around the weather and with anxiously exchanged text messages ahead of time about how many people we had contact with in the last 14 days. The idea of dropping everything to move in and share a bed with an acquaintance and his whole family is, well, unthinkable.

Settled in Schöneberg

Schöneberg during lockdown, image by Elliot Douglas

Christopher’s most famous residence in Berlin, and the one still most closely associated with him today, is Nollendorfstraße in Schöneberg, where he moved into a lodging house that he shared for a time with English starlet Jean Ross. The cabaret singer and bastion of sexual openness, barely nineteen at the time, was the inspiration for Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin, later immortalised by Liza Minnelli in the film version of the musical Cabaret.

Of course, the film bears little comparison to the real Berlin. Christopher himself, still alive and living in California when it was released in 1972, was dismissive, saying it glorified an inaccurate version of Berlin and turns the homosexuality that was so largely accepted into “an indecent but comic weakness, like bed-wetting.”

Again, the source materials vary regarding Christopher’s time in Schöneberg. A character he met at the boarding house became an inspiration for the incorrigible Mr Norris in Mr Norris Changes Trains. In Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher is constantly entertaining guests who define the times and politics of the day: most notably Bernhard, the son of a wealthy Jewish family of department store owners who comes to him for English lessons and is later persecuted by the Nazis.

In reality, Christopher’s time at the boarding house was defined largely by his desire for hedonistic experiences and, well, sex. Meeting Heinz, the lover with whom he would eventually leave Berlin, he found something more lasting, but perhaps not more meaningful. They haunted the underground clubs of the area, where Jean Ross warbled her chansons.

Christopher and Jean, both uninterested in politics at the time (though Jean would later become a committed communist) and “both of them selfish”, spent their non-work days lounging around the boarding house discussing men. “What a pity we can’t make love, there’s nothing else to do,” Jean says to Christopher in Christopher and His Kind one rainy afternoon.

Nollendorfstraße is still there, forming the heart of Berlin’s gay neighbourhood; rainbow flags adorn the picturesque businesses and bars in the squares around it. But most of these businesses were closed when I went. People scurried by wearing face masks but no-one could even duck into a shop for distraction, let alone a sleazy bar.

The kind of boredom Jean and Christopher felt was seemingly still here; but unlike now, they were not separated from the city around them. The gay bars and bohemian stores they could frequent, and which I could see through a thin pane of glass, might as well have been ninety years away in time for me.

Christopher’s Berlin

It’s important to remember that Christopher’s years in Berlin encapsulate barely a couple of years in his youth. He would go on to spend much of the rest of his life in the United States, and travel the world. Berlin had been a defining factor in his life, but perhaps not the most important one.

There might be some comfort in that. In search of Christopher’s Berlin, I was in search of profundity—a profundity that wasn’t really there. Christopher, aged 25, was as selfish and foolish as I am. He made mistakes, acted irrationally and did his best to ignore the problems of the world around him, until he had no choice.

He tried to rid himself of distractions — “I am a camera” he wrote, taking in the events around him without doing much to alter them. He was an observer and outsider, who just wanted attention.




Next in Memoir, Reminiscence & OpinionAt the end of the Chausseestraße »