35 Years ago German director Uli Edel adapted a startling non-fiction account of the 1970s West Berlin drug scene. Penned in 1979, the film (originally titled Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo) brutal as it was, gained favour and acclaim amongst critics and viewers alike, partially due to the presence of global superstar David Bowie, who lived in the locale during the late ’70s.
To successfully adapt a film from a novel is never an enviable task, but it becomes exceptionally difficult when the subject matter contains a range of real-life horrors. Disgust, filth, gruesome addiction and dark truths accumulate to form the basis of Christiane F., a story which only the most daring and visionary of directors could attempt to do justice.
A precarious balancing act is required on the part of the filmmakers to achieve the same on-screen effect as a book has elicited from its reader. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is one of the rare occasions in which this sensation is transferred with apparent ease. Edel does a fantastic job in turning gruesome scenes from the cult story into a powerful and hurtful representation of heroin addiction.
Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is an autobiographical work by a German actress and musician Christiane Felscherinow (born in 1962), in which she documents her teenage drug use and addiction. The book was published in 1979, based on tape recordings gathered by a journalist for the German news magazine Stern. Christiane F. was only 16 years old at the time, which made her testimonies all the more horrendous. The film adaptation followed in 1981 under two different titles – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo in Germany and Christiane F. in English speaking countries. In 2013, a follow up to the first book – Christiane F. My Second Life was published.
In an interview with Vice in December 2013, she stated that she hopes her story;
“..will scare people away from taking drugs more than my first book. I’m quite sure it will. It describes how much pain I’ve had in my life, and [explains] that I will die a very early and painful death.”
When the first book came out it soon developed a cult following and was even suggested by certain schools to be included on the curriculum in order to keep young teens away from drug use. Nevertheless, quite a few readers and viewers felt the lure of the drug addiction after reading the book and/or watching the film, hence in the aforementioned interview, Christiane F. went on to explain that;
“kids were more fascinated than upset about what they read. So Stern [publishing] published a factbook, which they handed to teachers and parents, with information about how to deal with teens who were fascinated by the story of Christiane F.”
The film Christiane F. was supposed to achieve the same effect as the book – to keep young teens away from the drug scene – however the film’s version of the drug scene of Berlin in the 1970s seemed a bit glamorised in comparison to the book. However, none of the later films dealing with drug addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), to name but a few, could quite grasp that dark and appalling sense of helplessness and woe of the drug scene, as it was portrayed in Christiane F.
The havoc of drug use and child prostitution is told from the perspective of Christiane F. as a 13-year-old; played by Natja Brunkhorst who was, at a time of filming, the same age as the heroine of the book. It is a story about the struggle to fit in; first love, careless parents and all-encompassing addiction. Christiane looks healthy in the early stages, using no make up or substances until she discovers the local club The Sound and meets teenagers and young adults who smoke hashish, take LCD and shoot up.
Christiane’s appearance slowly changes. She starts wearing her mother’s heels, begins lying, and dyes her hair a vibrant reddish colour, which emphasises her narcotic-afflicted pallor. The slow regress of her health and changes in her appearance from healthy teen to a emaciated addict-prostitute is portrayed with stark, unflinching realism, thus the film appears almost as a documentary.
As noted by Edel, he mainly chose non-professional actors, only one of whom had ever had an experience with heroin. In spite of that, it seems that most of them had been professional junkies all their lives. The film also includes grim scenes of addicts hanging around the station and shooting heroin in public toilets. One of the most horrifying of these is when a junkie jumps into a toilet booth and grabs a pre-prepared shoot of heroin from Christiane and shoots it into his neck, while an old lady stands by looking on. The shock, fear and disgust in the lady’s face is bloodcurdling. The film isn’t shy of depicting similar moments; hence it is no surprise that Christiane F. has created such a notorious reputation for itself.
The book opens on a naive and hopeful note of a young teenager who is excited to fly for the first time in her life to a big city named Berlin. There is beauty in that innocence and hopefulness of her and her family’s new life. It is followed by a detailed description of the apartment she imagined they will be living in Berlin, and the harsh reality of the almost empty space that they move into, where her voice echoes and an old kitchen cupboard is used for storing her and her sister’s toys. The surroundings of the apartment building are scary to her; older children, instead of playing with younger ones, attack them, stealing and breaking their things.
The film opens with a close up of Brunkhorst, during which in her thoughts she describes the “piss and shit” surrounding the apartment blocks. These thoughts and opinions as an inside voice of Christiane F. interweaves throughout the book, but they are missing in the film, apart from the opening scene. Hence, if only watching the film, the viewer mightn’t fully grasp the reason why Christiane F. turned to drugs, what pushed her and in the end due to that she just might come across as heinous and bored teenager.
The other definitive con that the film has is that it lacks the point of view of the people around Christiane F., the book includes chapters from those within her life at a time, especially of note would be the comments from her mother, to get a better perspective of her first love – Detlev – and addiction.
Hence, the more personal touch and storyline is missing in the film, which might have made the viewers easier relate to the heroine, and the story itself more unique. In this sense the film, when compared to the book, is quite negligent, as it leaves quite a few details about Christiane’s life out of it, that the avid reader would’ve probably liked to have seen on the screen as well.
The film also lacks a juxtaposition of the “before”, “after”, and “after the after” of the life of an addict, that is so well portrayed in the book. Of course, there is a lot more background information given in her autobiography, however, the film could have given some more details of her childhood, the move from Hamburg countryside to Berlin, her abusive and alcoholic father, mother who cared a little about her daughters and neglected them, giving more attention to her new found relationship.
Christiane F said:
“I actually don’t like the film that much; it doesn’t describe how I grew up, how I was neglected by my parents. My father was a drinker and he abused my sister and me. He was choleric and my mom just did nothing, She was more into her affair with another man and her beauty. I was so lonely when I was a kid. I just wanted to belong; I was struggling with the world.”
Moreover, the film finishes on a lot more positive note than the book, in that Christiane F. is brought to her relatives in a small village near Hamburg, declaring that she survives. The truth is that, while she does survive, her addiction doesn’t disappear so easily. Her heroin addiction continued for few more years, and she remains an addict. In her own words; “I decided to live different life to other people. I don’t need a pretence to stop.”
The cinematic ending is lighter, more hopeful, and, sadly, more cliché – Christiane is brought away from Berlin’s drug scene and now she will be just fine. This lacks the detailing of Christiane getting clean, why she was brought to her relatives at that point and whose initiative it was. The book explains it not only from Christiane’s perspective but also from her mother’s point of view, all the work of preparation and her mother’s desperation and helplessness in the whole situation. In addition, Christiane F. only got clean from heroin years later; however, she is still an addict – an alcoholic. Thus, the film loses that sad taste of real life. The addict that gets away from drugs very rarely gets away unscathed; there is hard and continuous work to be done with oneself, and it takes a lot of willpower to do it.
To sum up, Christiane F. is an amazing and utterly realistic film that harshly and truthfully portrays the drug scene in Berlin in the 1970s. On the whole, the film adaptation is true to the book and accurately portrays the life of Christiane F. during these years, however, as already noted it lacks the background information of how she grew up and how she struggled with the move to Berlin and tried desperately to fit in.
As a consequence, the film is missing the more personal aftertaste that the book creates, and one might even remember the film more because of the appearance of David Bowie, who recently passed away, and not the story itself. It must be noted that the soundtrack of the film is wonderful, with the theme of Bowie’s song Heroes/Helden of hope and dreams of the future interweaving throughout the film. Furthermore, the performance of the young actors, who at the time of the filming were more or less at the same age as their characters, is truly fantastic and it has added an extra artistic quality to the film. As a standalone piece the film is strong, gripping and a must watch; one of the strongest, bleakest and most horrifying films on the drug addiction, one that will stick in the mind for years to come.
EDIT: A more recent interview with Christiane F was published, written by punk photographer Brad Elterman.