Goodbye to Berlin

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Goodbye to Berlin
First edition cover
AuthorChristopher Isherwood
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherHogarth Press
Publication date

Goodbye to Berlin is a 1939 novel by Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. The work has been cited by literary critics as deftly capturing the bleak nihilism of the Weimar period.[1] It was adapted into the 1951 Broadway play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten and, later, the 1966 Cabaret musical and the 1972 film.

The novel recounts Isherwood's 1929-1932 sojourn as a pleasure-seeking British expatriate in poverty-stricken Berlin during the twilight of the Jazz Age. Much of the novel's plot details actual events, and most of the novel's characters were based upon actual people. The insouciant character of Sally Bowles was based on teenage cabaret singer Jean Ross.[2] The novel was later republished together with Isherwood's earlier novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains, in a 1945 collection entitled The Berlin Stories.


I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

— Christopher Isherwood, A Berlin Diary, Autumn 1930[3]

After relocating to Germany to work on his novel, an emotionally detached writer moves around the city of Berlin and becomes involved with a diverse array of citizens: the caring landlady, Fräulein Schroeder; the "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles, a young Englishwoman who sings in a seedy cabaret and her coterie of admirers; Natalia Landauer, the teenage Jewish heiress of a prosperous family business; Peter and Otto, a gay duo struggling to accept their sexuality.[4]

The episodic work covers an ensemble of characters over a period of several years from late 1930 to early 1933. It is written as a connected series of six short stories and novellas. These are: "A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)", "Sally Bowles", "On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)", "The Nowaks", "The Landauers" and "A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)".[5]


Isherwood in 1939
Isherwood in 1939

The autobiographical novel recounts Christopher Isherwood's extended residence in 1930s Berlin and describes the pre-Nazi social milieu as well as the colourful persons he encountered.[4] Published in 1939, the book highlights the enclaves of people who would later be at greatest risk from Nazi persecution. Various Berlin denizens befriended by Isherwood would later flee abroad or die in labour camps.[6][7][8][9]

The novel's most memorable character—the irrepressibly merry Sally Bowles—was based upon 19-year-old Jean Ross.[2][10] Much like the character in the novel, Ross was a bohemian chanteuse in second-rate cabarets,[11] and she underwent a near-fatal abortion facilitated by Isherwood.[12] In his autobiography Without Stopping, the author Paul Bowles surmised that Isherwood, whom he met in Berlin, borrowed his surname for the character Sally Bowles.[13] Isherwood confirmed this allegation in his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, writing, "[I] liked the sound of it and also the looks of its owner."[14]

In his 1976 memoir based on this period of his life, Isherwood wrote that: "He liked to imagine himself as one of those mysterious wanderers who penetrate the depths of a foreign land, disguise themselves in the dress and customs of its natives and die in unknown graves, envied by their stay-at-home compatriots."[15]


The novel was praised by contemporary writer George Orwell as "brilliant sketches of a society in decay".[16] In her book Anti-Nazi Modernism, author Mia Spiro remarks that "despite that which they could not know, the novels that Barnes, Isherwood, and Woolf wrote do reveal the historical, cultural, political, and social conditions in 1930s Europe that made the continent ripe for disaster".[17]


Julie Harris as the insouciant Sally Bowles
Julie Harris as the insouciant Sally Bowles

The novel was adapted John Van Druten into a 1951 Broadway play called I Am a Camera. The play was a personal success for Julie Harris as the insouciant Sally Bowles, winning her the first of her five Tony Awards for Best Leading Actress, although it earned the infamous review by Walter Kerr, "Me no Leica."[18] The play's title is a quote taken from the novel's first page ("I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.").[3] The play was then adapted into a commercially successful film, also called I Am a Camera (1955), featuring Laurence Harvey, Shelley Winters and Julie Harris, with screenplay by John Collier and music by Malcolm Arnold.

The book was next adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret (1966) and the film Cabaret (1972) for which Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for playing Sally. Isherwood was highly critical of the 1972 film due to what he perceived as its negative portrayal of homosexuality.[19] He noted that, "in the film of Cabaret, the male lead is called Brian Roberts. He is a bisexual Englishman; he has an affair with Sally and, later, with one of Sally's lovers, a German baron... Brian's homosexual tendency is treated as an indecent but comic weakness to be snickered at, like bed-wetting."[19]

Isherwood's friends, especially the poet Stephen Spender, often lamented how the cinematic and stage adaptations of Goodbye to Berlin glossed over Weimar Berlin's crushing poverty: "There is not a single meal, or club, in the movie Cabaret, that Christopher and I could have afforded [in 1931]."[20] Spender, Isherwood, W.H. Auden and others asserted that both the 1972 film and 1966 Broadway musical deleteriously glamorised the harsh realities of the 1930s Weimar era.[20][21]



  1. ^ Grossman 2010.
  2. ^ a b Izzo 2005, p. 144.
  3. ^ a b Isherwood 1998, p. 9.
  4. ^ a b Doyle 2013.
  5. ^ Isherwood 1998.
  6. ^ Isherwood 1976, pp. 164–166; Farina 2013, p. 74–81
  7. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 150: "Erwin [Hansen] returned to Germany several years later. Someone told me that he was arrested by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp."
  8. ^ Parker 2005, p. 614: "It was probably during the Berlin trip that Isherwood learned that the Nazis eventually caught up with his other companion on his 1933 journey to Greece, Erwin Hansen, who had died in a concentration camp."
  9. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 297: "Heinz [Neddermeyer] might easily have been sentenced to an indefinite term in a concentration camp, as many homosexuals were...Like the Jews, homosexuals were often put into 'liquidation' units, in which they were given less food and more work than other prisoners. Thus, thousands of them died."
  10. ^ Isherwood Obituary.
  11. ^ Parker 2005, p. 205.
  12. ^ Parker 2005, p. 220.
  13. ^ Bowles 1985, p. 110.
  14. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 60.
  15. ^ Isherwood 1976, p. 54.
  16. ^ Orwell 1997, p. 237.
  17. ^ Spiro 2012, p. 244.
  18. ^ Botto 2008.
  19. ^ a b Isherwood 1976, p. 63.
  20. ^ a b Spender 1977, p. 198.
  21. ^ Johnstone 1975, pp. 33–34.