There are few seemingly banal images as devastating as that of a birthday cake in Uli Edel’s Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981). Icing in the shape of the number fourteen carries considerable weight after seeing the titular character take heroin for the first time to get the attention of a guy who introduces her to the world of sex work. Christiane’s fourteenth birthday marks the start of her descent into drug addiction and prostitution. Edel’s film, based on a hugely successful autobiography, is a cautionary tale about the ramifications of misguided attempts at pursuing freedom. In spite of its didactic handling, the film was majorly successful amongst German teenagers–aided by an appearance by David Bowie. Christiane F. was a national wake-up call to the increasing teenage drug problem during the 70s and a way to remember the lives of those lost at the Berlin Zoo Railway Station. Forty years after the film’s premiere, with the market for nostalgia aesthetics and trauma porn at an all-time high (thanks Euphoria!), Amazon has optioned the property for a new miniseries aimed at the next generation of teenagers: Gen Z. We ask ourselves, as Amazon has, will the repackaged cult-classic still carry resonance with a stylized , sanitized, and possibly disingenuous approach?
Much like the autobiography the film is based on, Christaine F. (1981) follows the titular character as she, dodging home life , goes clubbing with friends, dates around, and eagerly anticipates a David Bowie concert. Edel’s depiction of Christiane positions her as a paradigmatic individual of a youthful, post-war generation that shares similar desires, idols, and anxieties. Christiane is not unique in her experiences and tastes. Like the rest of her friends, Christiane yearns to take part in the exciting Berlin nightlife: go to clubs, hook up with guys, and get high. However, on her first night out, she quickly recognizes her limits. She loses her friend in the dark corridors of a club, must flee from a guy who gets too handsy, and her first drug trip lands her outside, sick to her stomach. Things go awry, but that doesn’t dispel Christiane’s desire to participate in this wild new world ; not even the terror invoked by seeing a man overdose in the club’s bathroom can assuage her determination.
While throwing up in front of the club, Christiane is checked on by an empathetic sixteen-year-old named Detlev. The pair instantly connect , begin dating, and plan on attending a David Bowie concert with each other. However, Christiane’s prospects are rapidly undermined as she catches Detlev on the way to shoot heroin with a girl she doesn’t know . Christiane’s disapproval of Detlev’s drug use creates a rift between them; she attends the concert with someone else. However, spotting Detlev and his new drug-friendly girlfriend at the concert conflicts Christiane; she decides to try heroin for herself. Christiane and Detlev regain common ground and their relationship resumes. Together, they spiral into addiction as their measures to stay high get increasingly desperate; we arrive at the image of a birthday cake with the number fourteen frosted atop it.
The Bowie concert might have been a superficial draw for audiences at the time of the film’s release , yet the appearance remains meaningful within the story’s context. It serves as both the turning point for Christiane and the culmination of the film’s romanticization of her naive escapades . T he song performed by Bowie at the concert, “Station to Station,” deals with his struggles with drug addiction. The addicted alter ego Bowie sings about, The Thin White Duke, is described as “bold and suave on the outside, but troubled and emotionless on the inside;” a state that also perfectly describes Christiane at the time she hears the lyrics. The same applies to Christiane’s interests: Detlev, her friends, the clubs, the freedom, the drugs; all of which become disillusioned throughout the runtime, all troubled and corrupt. Edel has no interest in glorifying drug-addiction and instead aims to confront audiences with its horrors. Any “entertainment” the film has offered so far dissipates.
Christiane’s disillusionment commences soon after adopting regular heroin use She is disturbed by the realization that Detlev hooks up with guys in order to afford drugs, she barely processes the drug-related deaths of those she knows, and she quickly recognizes and admits she has a problem. When a friend mentions she wants to try heroin for the first time, Christiane retaliates when hearing the same argument she herself used a few scenes earlier repeated back to her–“I’ll only use once and I have enough self-control.” Christiane is representative of those around her as the narrative of her downfall is too. The events of her story have become cliches, but they are not contrivances; it is rather their accuracy and ubiquity that has made them so. Her “cliches” aid in elucidating the massive real-life death toll. M any of her friends suffer from identical weaknesses and fates. Christiane will often open a newspaper or enter an apartment only to be confronted with the fatal overdose of someone she knew; we might even expect to see her in a similar situation eventually. Much like the rest of Berlin and Germany reading the papers, Christiane struggles with comprehending what has led her and those around her to this point, as well as the scale it’s taken on.
In light of the news reports of the deaths of those at the Zoo Railway Station, as well as the rise in drug addiction and related deaths amongst youth, Christiane F. provided the necessary catharsis for those trying to comprehend this phenomenon. A midst a rising drug crisis, the film and book became required viewing/reading in schools nationwide—deterring youth from succumbing to the same fate. Everybody knew the story of Christiane F., and nobody wanted to become her successor.
Amongst all of the tragic things Christiane and her friends go through, it is, necessarily, her withdrawal that is portrayed most graphically and viscerally: quivering bodies, wails of agony, pools of various bodily fluids Christiane and Detlev excrete and then rest in. No music, score, or cutaways. The scene serves as the epitome of the film’s disillusionment. Christiane and Detlev, after their grueling withdrawal, lie to their still addicted friends by proclaiming that withdrawal was easy, that with a few Valium they’ll get through it. They give their friends the confidence to attempt it themselves and are subsequently moved by their ability to inspire others with their story. Thirty seconds later, Christiane and Detlev decide to start using heroin again. In the film, despite her many relapses, Christiane eventually stays clean; however, the real Christiane Felscherinow still struggles with staying sober to this day.
For many decades, Christiane F. served as an efficacious portrayal of the horrors of drug addiction as the story remains a cultural reference point; nevertheless, Amazon’s new show seems to be looking to reframe, and possibly undo, this legacy. With expensive outfits, perfect hair, special effects, colorful lighting, and sumptuous cinematography, the new miniseries trades in the film’s realism for Instagram-ready fantasy. It becomes hard to imagine how younger audience members could be captivated by original film from 1981 with this flashier offering at their disposal. The new show gives the fans of shows like HBO’s Euphoria or 2019’s Rocketman more of the same, this time under the moniker of a vital and veridical story whilst reducing that story to 70s nostalgia and an excuse for slow-motion scenes of pill-popping. Instead of a culture-defining story of a girl in crisis, Christiane F., like many films and stories of our past, comes conspicuously close to becoming synonymous with cool lighting and bell-bottoms over anything else.