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Christopher Isherwood: Prater Violet

Though not published till after the war, this book is set in 1933-1934. The narrator is a writer called Christopher Isherwood, who lives in London with his widowed mother and brother. Early on he receives a call from Imperial Bulldog, a British film company, that wants his help on a film script. The film will be based on a musical called Prater Violet. Isherwood has been chosen because of his knowledge of Vienna, where the film is set. When he points out that he barely knows Vienna though did live in Berlin, they seem to think this makes no difference. Then the film moves from Austria to the fictitious country of Borodania (shades of The Prisoner of Zenda) but it doesn’t seem to matter. Isherwood is to work with Friedrich Bergmann, an Austrian Jewish director, recently arrived in England from Vienna. When they meet, they immediately hit it off, not least because Isherwood can speak German. They start work on the script, but seem to have a lot of time enjoying themselves. Bergmann, the foreigner, takes Isherwood around London and has quite public comments to make – from Shakespeare (written, of course, by Bacon) to the way Rembrandt painted being like cinema lighting.

Eventually, of course, they have to make the film and Isherwood gives us an amusing homage to the making of a film, with the expected chaos, the somewhat stereotypical stars and many of the less famous staff having strong views and not just on cinema. However, behind all of this is the rise of Hitler. We follow events such as the Reichstag fire trial and Dolfuss‘ repression of the workers. People are talking about imminent war and Bergmann, whose wife and daughter are still in Vienna, starts getting worried. When the attacks on the workers take place, Bergmann is naturally very concerned and starts being angry with everyone. Everything works out well in the end and the film is completed. Isherwood has left us with a tale which, while not great literature, is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of the making of a film and an excellent portrait of the film-maker, Friedrich Bergmann.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by Random House