English writer Christopher Isherwood (1904 – 1986) was from Cheshire, which is right near Manchester (where we are!). His engaging writing style consisted of semi-autobiographical accounts of life, with Goodbye to Berlin consisting of several short novellas about his time in Berlin as the grip of the Nazi regime began to take hold of a nation.
Amongst the short stories is one called Sally Bowles, which is a lively account of Isherwood’s friendship with a precocious 19 year old dancer and actor. His portrait of this character would lead to the musical Cabaret, which was adapted into a film in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli. Whilst this story is upbeat and has a youthful energy to it, the others go on to document the rising sense of Nazi brutality, which all makes for a pretty remarkable account of a remarkable moment in history.
Goodbye to Berlin
Isherwood lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 before leaving to escape the Nazi party. Being British, gay, and holding left wing leanings, had he hung around he wouldn’t have made it much further in life. After he left, the British chap penned this episodic collection of novellas and the work was eventually published in 1939.
George Orwell was hugely impressed and said of it: “Brilliant sketches of a society in decay”. As it was semi-autobiographical, the characters we meet are exaggerated slightly. Sally Bowles, for instance, was based on Jean Ross (1911 – 1973) and she would, in later life as a political activist, resent her association with the character.
The other stories are the Landauers, A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930), On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931), The Nowaks, and A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3). In other words, they encompass a difficult era in German history, with the Treaty of Versailles (so brutal in its enforcement of capitulations on Germany) oppressing the land and, then, out of the midst emerged the Nazis, a far right party headed by an enigmatic, ranting leader.
Isherwood’s stories capture the onset of this political revolution, particularly towards the end of the book. Whilst he was long gone by the time Kristallnacht and other oppressive antics, you can fully see how they emerged – already, the assault on Jewish families was in full flight by the early 1930s.
Yet Goodbye to Berlin isn’t an overly depressing read – as Orwell put it, the decay was setting in, but the book does display a lively, vibrant Germany where intellectuals could hang out and be a part of the time. This was all crushed into oblivion as Hitler tightened his grip, however, which makes the book all the more poignant – it represents a way of life which was quashed by humanity at its worst.
The Oscar-winning film adaptation of Isherwood’s novella is quite an unusual way for a book to end up on the big screen. In 1951, a different Isherwood story was adapted into a stage play. Then, in 1966, the musical Cabaret emerged about the Sally Bowles character, which was then adapted into the ’72 film by Bob Fosse, which went on to really put Liza Minnelli on the Hollywood map.
Minnelli is the daughter of Judy Garland (of Wizard of Oz fame), of course, with Garland accused by Hollywood executives of not being attractive enough for film. Ultimately, this led to her early death at 47 in 1969 – we mention this due to the ongoing issues in recent Hollywood history about certain behaviour, so you can see this has been a deeply ingrained issue for some time.
Happily, Minnelli has had a much better life and has starred in all manner of things, with an endearing recent role in the excellent series Arrested Development, plus cameos in other stuff like Sex and the City 2. Indeed.