‘Christiane F.’: How the story of teenage junkies in West Berlin became a phenomenon

Publicity shot for CHRISTIANE F. (1981): Christiane F. (Natja Brunckhorst) and her musical idol. © Copyright Euro Video.

Screening at the L.A. Goethe-Institut on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in German with English subtitles. Click here for more info.

“Christiane F. – We Children of Zoo Station.” Originally an article in STERN magazine, then a bestseller…

Set in West Berlin circa the late 1970s, Christiane F. makes no mention of the Berlin Wall, or Berlin’s status as a divided city at the epicenter of the Cold War. Nor is there any mention of spies, or draft dodgers or anarchists. In short, there’s little about the movie that would be considered synonymous with West Berlin.

Yet back in the day, the phenomenon of Christiane F. — originally an exposé in Germany’s Stern magazine, then a book and finally the movie — became part of the city’s mythology. West German teenagers helped make both book and movie hits: the book sold more than a million copies, and for a while Uli Edel’s film was the highest-grossing native production in West Germany, which is astonishing when you consider how ugly and unpleasant it is.

This out-of-print U.S. edition became a collector’s item; reissued in 2013 under the title ZOO STATION.

The movie’s real impact couldn’t be measured in statistics, however. It was credited with indelibly shaping the average West German’s impression of Berlin as a den of sin, and explains why so many of them shunned the place. Or why the average middle-class Bürger did, at any rate — for their sons and daughters it was a different story.

In a twist that must have given everyone who worked on the film pause, the movie inspired teenage girls to start dressing like the underage junkie and prostitute Christiane F., and made Bahnhof Zoo a hugely popular tourist attraction. (“Kids who come to visit used to ask to see the Berlin Wall. Now they want to see the Bahnhof Zoo,” lamented Wolf Heckmann, West Berlin’s drug commissioner, in a May 1981 Time article.) The Zoo train station became infamous.

CHRISTIANE F., “the cinema blockbuster that everyone’s talking about.” German teen magazine from early 1981.

I understand why those kids would have wanted to visit West Berlin’s seamier passages after seeing Christiane F. The notoriety was all part of West Berlin’s metropolitan allure, its status as a daunting yet fantastically attractive place.

Natja Brunckhorst as the 14-year-old ‘Christiane F.’ © Copyright Euro Video.

As a junior-year-abroad student in West Berlin in 1988, I found the Bahnhof Zoo a source of creepy fascination, and would contrive errands to go people-watching there. If you spent much time at the station, the sickly yellow-green fluorescent light that defined the atmosphere there, captured perfectly in Christiane F., started to feel gross; it felt like radiation seeping into your skin. And for all I know the Bahnhof Zoo may have been considerably cleaned up by 1988, given the outcry that arose after the book and then the movie brought attention to West Berlin’s booming drug trade.

One of the most memorable scenes late in Christiane F. certainly suggests things were much worse in the late ‘70s: Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) and her boyfriend Detlev (Thomas Haustein) have gone cold turkey, only to be tempted again the instant they go back to the Bahnhof. The movie then jump-cuts to Christiane, dramatically relapsed, staggering through the station with glassy, half-open eyes, and all the faces around her suggest this is either a circle of hell or else Limbo. Much of the scene was shot with a hidden camera, and it plays like a cross between verité and a singularly bad dream, with David Bowie’s “Sense of Doubt” on the soundtrack adding to the funereal, otherworldly air. A shot from the front of a subway car as the train heads into pitch blackness comes as a relief, and also as a fitting close to the sequence.

The real-life Christiane Felscherinow, a.k.a. ‘Christiane F.,’ circa the early 1980s.

No one will ever call this “the Hard Day’s Night of heroin movies,” as Trainspotting was. But it’s no Reefer Madness, either. The opening scenes give an incisive sketch of 14-year-old Christiane’s desperate boredom in her mother’s high-rise apartment (exactly the sort of tower block that gave rise to punk rock in England during these same years), and Christiane doesn’t first try heroin/hashish until 45 minutes into the movie. Another 20 minutes of screen time go by before she injects for the first time, at which point she throws herself into the lifestyle with that mix of fearlessness and naïveté that only teenagers have.

1970s flyer for the Sound discotheque in West Berlin.

Compared to the grimness and squalor of the second hour, the first half of the movie is positively upbeat, and even contains a few bursts of exhilaration, such as Christiane’s first entry into the Sound disco she’s not old enough to be in legally; some casual vandalism at the Europa Center and the kids’ subsequent flight from the police; and the David Bowie concert.

Natja Brunckhorst as Christiane F. © Copyright Euro Video.

But that second hour is as punishing as movies get; a grueling sequence where Christiane and Detlev go cold turkey is appalling. There’s lots of puking — astonishingly realistic puke, which they spray on each other and on the bed, but are too addled to even try to clean up. Later it’s heartbreaking to see Christiane prostitute herself, tottering around outside the Bahnhof like a George Romero zombie in skintight jeans and high heels.

As disturbing as much of the movie is, Christiane F. doesn’t play anything for sensationalism, and director Edel doesn’t resort to tricked-out cinematography or editing. The film’s semi-verité feel makes the sordidness all the more credible.

The unfortunate, dubbed U.S. release, from 1982.

Christiane F. is out of print on U.S. Region 1 DVD, and the movie isn’t (legally) available on streaming either.* The previous U.S. DVD of Christiane F. had no subtitle option: the viewer had to choose either the original German or English dubbing that made Christiane F. sound like the exploitation movie it tries hard not to be.

The English dialogue featured a lot of ridiculous hepcat lingo, apparently voiced by twentysomething porn actors, so viewers who didn’t speak German may have been challenged to take the movie seriously. (2015 update: A restored version of the movie, with proper English subtitles, will be coming out on Blu-Ray sometime in the near future.)

After making his debut with Christiane F., director Uli Edel went on to direct Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990), and — less happily for his reputation — Madonna in Body of Evidence (1993), before eventually returning to Germany to make The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008).

Argument for an all-region DVD player: a German DVD release.

Christiane F. has lapsed into obscurity in the U.S. (though it’s funny to hear the Jemina Kirke character in Lena Dunham’s 2010 debut Tiny Furniture establish her hipster-poseur credentials by name-checking it). More than that, the world Christiane F. portrays has far receded. The Berlin of today, brimming with energy and creativity and technology, with its huge new Hauptbahnhof, is a world away from the grotty death trip of Christiane F.

A good thing, too. Even the Bahnhof Zoo itself seems relatively innocuous today, unremarkable, greatly demoted in status now that most of the major train travel is routed to other stations.

*Interested parties should consult YouTube.

Since the late 1970s, German news media have followed the real-life Christiane Felscherinow’s battles with addiction. This Berlin tabloid is from 2008.

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