‘To Christopher, Berlin meant boys.’
I had not heard of Christopher Isherwood until I read Goodbye to Berlin as a part of my module reading list. It is safe to say that I was not disappointed!
Abandoning his medical training in London, Christopher Isherwood joined poet WH Auden in the cultural epicentre of Europe, arriving in Berlin in 1929 during the final years of the Weimar Republic. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) is the second novel in Isherwood’s collection of The Berlin Stories, along with Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Originally intended as an extensive episodic novel entitled The Lost, Goodbye to Berlin offers a six-part sketch of 1930s Berlin society, a city burgeoning with excess and divine decadence. Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel was successfully adapted for stage and screen, inspiring the 1966 hit musical Cabaret and the 1972 eponymous film, starring Liza Minelli.
Goodbye to Berlin begins with its most acclaimed sentence as Herr Issyvoo (Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical self) states, ‘I am a camera with its shutters open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ Issyvoo’s famous ‘camera-eye’ chronicles the spiralling decline of the Weimar Republic and the creation of the Third Reich, threatening the lives of marginal groups in soon-to-be Hitler’s Germany. Issyvoo’s camera captures a rapidly vanishing pre-Hitler Berlin, emblematic of liberalism and progressivism, in a bid to preserve what remains to be ‘developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ However, the effect proves contrary, serving only to hasten the city’s decline as he attempts to immortalise in print what is already fading into the background. Nowhere is this more forcefully expressed than in the critical moment of the ‘Sally Bowles’ episode, depicting the ‘most elegant funeral’ of a once esteemed Weimar Chancellor and Foreign Affairs Secretary, Hermann Muiller. The decline and political demise of the Weimar Republic is already evident in the early 1930s in this bleak literalisation, paving the way for the rise of Nazism with the Reichstag Fire in 1933.
Elsewhere, the situation appears to be no different, if just as bleak and ruinous beyond the surface. Superficially, Isherwood depicts Weimar Berlin as a city of wild decadence, sexual liberation and artistic progressivism that became host to many 1930s British writers, and among these were Isherwood, Auden and Spender. Sexual liberties and Berlin’s morally questionable reputation made the city a culturally desirable destination that offered greater freedoms and toleration for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. The German economy had been damaged from a decade of turmoil following the Versailles reparations, hyperinflation and the devastating 1929 Wall Street Crash, undercutting Isherwood’s treatment of sexuality in the novel. Although neither prostitution nor homosexuality were given legal status in Germany, greater toleration, economic depravity and an influx of wealthy foreigners created a commercial network for easy sex.
Sally Bowles, Isherwood’s most memorable character inspired by singer Jean Ross, lives a stunted cabaret career, tirelessly scouting for her next sexual rendezvous that will launch her stage career. It is in the character of Sally that we see Isherwood’s subtle criticisms that foreground sexual liberty as masking the present economic turmoil, becoming a form of service and commerce. Sally’s relationships are merely considered contractual, her company bought and discarded when she is no longer worth her price, ultimately rendering her a commodity under the sexual ‘liberalities’ of Weimar culture. Sally comes to represent the fragmentation and decline of Weimar’s proclaimed progressivism, the liberalism that serves to disguise only ‘commodified self-indulgence’. This image of decline is reflected explicitly in Sally’s pathetic hoodwinking by 16-year-old boy for her money with the expectation that marriage with the ‘looney’ would have been ‘good for [Sally’s] career.’
Sally’s vividness and eccentrics perform an important function in Goodbye to Berlin, but she is not the only one that fascinates the reader with her antics. Fraulein Schroeder, a recurring character from Mr Norris, is Issyvoo’s landlady, reduced to ‘scrub[bing] her own floors’ and housing boarders, fallen from grace in a world with unstable hierarchies. Fraulein Schroeder entertains the barman Bobby, exchanging her lodgings for sexual self-indulgences that commodify her as much as Sally herself, raging with jealousy over Bobby’s back door dealings with the young prostitute, Fraulein Kost.
Next, we move to ‘On Reugen Island’ and Issyvoo’s encounter with a gay couple, Peter Wilkinson, an English intellectual, and Otto Nowak, a working-class boy that also makes an appearance in Mr Norris. Peter and Otto’s relationship serves as symbolic of this relaxation of class boundaries in Berlin that permitted British writers to engage in casual erotic relationships. As gay life blossomed in Berlin in the late 1920s, an interesting intersection of class took place with unemployed heterosexual boys performed same-sex favours in exchange for payment from wealthy customers. Peter and Otto’s affair problematises this very transgression of class, founded on the basis of money exchange used to fuel Otto’s lifestyle amid the economic depression and unemployment. Otto’s unofficial position as a male prostitute is only deemed more necessary with Issyvoo’s later residence with the Nowaks, providing an eye-opening depiction of the extreme poverty to beget the Berlin slums.
Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is pervaded by a sense of decay festering what remains of Weimar Berlin, with society forced to transition into a world vastly different from what they have known. From the wealthy Jewish Landauers to Sally Bowles, the Nowaks, and Fraulein Schroeder, Isherwood depicts the harsh reality of decline that ensues Weimar Berlin, its citizens ‘acclimatising themselves’ for the new era of the Third Reich. They must adapt fast for ‘they are doomed to live in this town’ or risk a fate much like Bernhard Landauer.