Between Fiction and Documentary

Ulrich Edel’s Christiane F.

Because of the social problems it so matter-of-factly exposes, Ulrich Edel’s 1981 film Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo has not received sufficient credit as an aesthetic achievement.

Berlin in English, 1981.

That comes with the territory when your subject matter is young teenagers who prostitute themselves to support their drug habits.

But Christiane F. deserves to be included in the pantheon of classic European films, both for its reticent storytelling and the unsparingly icy cinematography of Jürgen Jürges and Justus Pankov, which make the drama as compelling today as it was during the height of the Cold War.

These days, most people who have heard of Christiane F. are likely to think of it first and foremost as an ideal vehicle for some of David Bowie’s most compelling work.

By agreeing to provide new material for the soundtrack and appearing in live concert footage, Bowie undoubtedly gave a massive boost to this film made by a young, unheralded production team that used first-time teenage actors and extras literally pulled off the streets of Berlin to play themselves.

Because the eponymous protagonist’s love for the musician was inextricably bound up with her descent into the hellish netherworld of hardcore drug addiction, his contribution feels necessary, even if cynical viewers who grew up with cinematic product placement might regard it as cagey self-promotion.

Not to mention that the recent memoir by Suzie Ronson, who worked on the Ziggy Stardust tour and then married his co-songwriter and guitarist Mick Ronson, reminds us that, for all the work Bowie put in to clean up his image later on, he lived up to the worst stereotypes of rock stars from the 1970s, including taking advantage of his fame to prey on young women and men who were too starstruck to say no to his advances.

Perhaps the fact that Bowie blamed his own problematic behaviour during that period on extravagant abuse of cocaine motivated him to make sure Christiane F. would be a success.

Since he credited the time he had spent in Berlin during the late 1970s with saving his life, breaking the hold of addiction, his decision to support a story about Berlin teenagers who lacked the resources to follow in his footsteps made a troubling kind of sense.

Despite Christiane F.’s outwardly glamorising treatment of Bowie, it complicates our picture of him and of celebrity culture more generally. This is particularly clear in its use of “Heroes”, the best-known song from his Berlin era.

When the standard English-language version comes on early in the film, while teenagers run amok in a shopping arcade, the lyrics perfectly capture the mindset that leads them astray.

Right before the song comes on, Christiane and her friend Kessi are standing outside the Sound discotheque that serves as a cultural home base.

When asked whether they would like to come along with a group, their protestations of being tired are brushed aside with a line that resonates throughout the remainder of the film: “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

When Bowie sings, “We can beat them, just for one day” in the first verse and “We can be heroes, just for one day” in subsequent ones, the shortsighted pursuit of pleasure that cannot be sustained transforms into a self-justifying epic journey.

Although these young people are not yet addicted to heroin at this juncture, they are already romanticising the narrowing of scope that the drug promotes. The future is so viscerally proximate that it is barely distinguishable from the present.

The heroic acts performed by Christiane and her new acquaintances are conceptually adjacent to the sort demonstrated in wartime. Only here the enemy is the humdrum bourgeois existence that counts as success in their parents’ world, one whose limitations are underscored by the physical claustrophobia of West Berlin.

It’s almost impossible not to romanticise drug users when they are depicted to the accompaniment of a song like “Heroes”.

Christiane F.‘s singular achievement is that it both permits this romanticisation to happen and then turns it inside out, revealing the degradation beneath.

We must confront the brutal cost of this heroism.

Like the book of the same name on which it is based, the film functions as a perverse take on the traditional Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel).

Christiane F. follows the conventions of the genre in showing how the acquisition of knowledge goes hand in hand with a loss of innocence.

However, whereas the stereotypical protagonist of a Bildungsroman – think Pip in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – emerges from this process as successful adults, wiser and warier, Christiane and her acquaintances end up as cautionary tales, their development paradoxically arrested because they must grow up too soon.

In this sense, Christiane F. represents a tale of Verbildung or miseducation.

The analogy to leading the life of a soldier during wartime applies here as well. Although Christiane learns a great deal over the course of the narrative, very little of that knowledge has a practical application outside the underworld she comes to inhabit.

The film communicates this fate most powerfully by decoupling sight from power.

Early on, we witness Christiane as a thirteen-year-old taking in her surroundings at the discotheque, sipping on a soft drink, disturbed by the drug use she witnesses.

Wanting to fit in, she starts experimenting with pills and LSD. But she draws the line at heroin.

Christiane watches patrons go in and out of a room whose door is painted with a large white H, disturbed because she has seen a junkie passed out in the restroom.

When she sees Detlef, the slightly older boy she is infatuated with, do this, she confronts him angrily, referring to the drug by the English-language pronunciation of the letter.

Instead of going with him to the David Bowie concert, which she has been looking forward to, she goes with another boy — his chilling nickname is “Leiche” (corpse) — who turns out to be going through withdrawal.

Although Christiane appears disgusted by Leiche’s suffering, she nevertheless helps him score. She then follows him and his dealer out to the parking lot and demands that she be let into the car he will use.

In the sequence that follows, we alternate between Christiane looking on from the back seat and close-ups of heating the heroin in a spoon, the needle entering her companion’s skin, and his head lolling back after the dose hits him.

Given her previous reservations, we expect this disturbing spectacle to reinforce her antipathy towards the drug. But she instead identifies herself with it. Knowledge doesn’t represent power here, but its opposite.

From this point onward, Christiane cannot help herself despite the fear and revulsion that her habit inspires.

What makes Christiane F. so powerful is also what makes it most problematic for contemporary audiences.

Because the first-time, teenage actors in the cast were really the ages they were supposed to be in the story — or even younger, as was the case with Thomas Haustein, the boy who played Detlef — adult audiences perceive that they lack the cognitive maturity that helps people make good decisions in a crisis.

But this realism came at a high price since those actors were themselves traumatised by the real-world setting in which key scenes were filmed, with extras played by actual drug addicts who frequented the area around Bahnhof Zoo.

Since we witness these teenage actors dealing with harsh realities that make them viscerally uncomfortable, the impact of Christiane F. is not muted by the artifice necessary to tell their story on film.

Instead of suspending disbelief, as movie audiences have been conditioned to do since childhood, we suffer through scene after scene in which we would rather perceive more distance between representation and reality, not less.

The fact that key locations in Berlin are featured throughout the picture reinforces this distressing verisimilitude. Even during the scene that takes place during a David Bowie concert, which had to be filmed in New York, it’s clear that we are far removed from the comfort of the Hollywood sound stage.

Although the teenage actors sometimes deliver lines awkwardly, their affect seems entirely consistent with the situations their characters face.

Despite their lack of experience, they strive to communicate a been-there-done-that cool that we are supposed to perceive as a performance within the narrative.

This is especially true for Natja Brunckhort’s extraordinary performance as Christiane, in which she delivers key lines as if she were trying them out for the first time, a kind of lexical costume that makes it easier for her to cope.

The best example of these qualities is a sequence in the middle of the film, in which we witness Christiane, who has recently turned fourteen, trying to grow up more quickly than her mind and body are prepared to handle.

After she spends the money her mother gave her as a birthday present on heroin for her boyfriend Detlef and his friends Axel and Bernd, we see them inside an old public lavatory at the Bahnhof Zoo station.

Frustrated because the boys are injecting the drug but expect her to snort her share, she turns to an older male junkie who stumbles through the door, asking him to borrow his works.

Crucially, Christiane can’t figure out how to do it by herself despite having watched others shoot up. She cries out for help from inside the stall. The older junkie complies, seemingly too numb himself to grasp the significance of this moment.

As the needle penetrates her vein, Christiane’s head falls back against the wall of the stall, her eyelids dropping like the curtains of a theatre. This is precisely the pose that centuries of Western art have taught us to understand as shorthand for sexual ecstasy.

Christiane’s knowledge of sex is extremely limited at this point. Yet when she emerges from the lavatory and joins Axel, Bernd, and Detlef outside the station and is asked how it felt to shoot up for the first time, she makes the analogy explicit.

“Sexuellen Höhepunkt hatte ich mir anders vorgestellt,” she declares: “I had imagined sexual climax differently.”

When Christiane and Detlef make love for the first time in the next scene, her face looks the way it does when she is shooting heroin. However, this time we get the impression that she is playing a role, whereas before it wasn’t an act.

Natja Brunckhorst was acting in both scenes, of course. But the inversion speaks volumes regardless.

The heroism that Christiane and her acquaintances seek is one that repudiates the performances necessary to live an ordinary life in favour of one in which authenticity reigns supreme. Because where addiction to drugs like heroin is concerned, there is no point in faking it.

Christiane F.’s greatest virtue is also its greatest vice.

By getting as close as possible to the line between fiction and documentary, it forced its teenage cast to see what cannot be unseen and forces us to watch them seeing it.

Few cinematic experiences are more harrowing.

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Photograph courtesy of All That I Love. Published under a Creative Commons license.