I, Cristina F.: A Shocking Story of Addiction
I, Cristina F., a shocking story that was a best seller and a hit in the cinema, recovered in a remarkable restored version. The case of Christiane Felscherinow shook Germany in the 1980s. Born in Hamburg in 1962, Christiane came to Berlin with her parents and a younger sister when she was just 6 years old, but she was already very clear about the trauma that comes with being part of a dysfunctional family.
At 12, she began to use cannabis, LSD and medications (Valium, Mandrix) that helped her escape from a reality that was difficult for her to accept: her father had left, her sister had gone with him and her mother did not lend her much attention.
Very soon she discovered the Sound nightclub, a Berlin dive frequented by heroin addicts that was a very dangerous trap for her. At 16 she was already a consummate junkie, but she was lucid enough to recount her experiences in a book (The Children from the Zoo station) that became a best seller and was made into a movie three years after its release, in 1981.
The director of the film was the German Uli Edel, who would later adapt two other highly controversial books: Last Exit, Brooklyn, a dark novel by Hubert Selby Jr. set in that New York neighborhood and full of marginal characters, and Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, by Stefan Aust, centered on the history of the Red Army Faction (RAF), an armed guerrilla group that appeared in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany and caused a national crisis with its string of bombings, just around the same time that the film Yo Christiane F was released.
Written by two journalists from the German magazine Stern -which in the 80 unleashed a great scandal with the publication of Hitler’s alleged diaries-, the book collects the first-person testimony of a young middle-class girl involved in a spiral of addictions. Its publication was a milestone: it was translated into more than twenty languages and was the basis for the film, which sold five million tickets in Germany alone.
Years later, after several attempts at detoxification and as many relapses, Christiane F. published a second book, this time with the collaboration of the German journalist Sonja Vukovic, which was also a success. Me, Cristina F. My second life is another very dramatic first-person account because it reveals the fight of an adult woman to reconstitute herself, after an intense personal storm and in the midst of the physical and psychological health problems caused by her addictions.
Christiane F., who is 61 years old today, suffers from fibrosis and hepatitis C (one of the most aggressive forms for the liver and which can lead to cirrhosis), talks about her not-so-peaceful “second life”, marked by the siege from an international press avid for curiosity, its depressive wells and the complicated upbringing of her son, Jan-Niklas.
The Cruel Reality of Addiction Explored in Film
But beyond the shocking biography of this beautiful and charismatic woman, an obvious hook for readers who are looking for shocking stories, the film has its own value due to its crudeness with the appearance of a microuniverse, the day-to-day life of a group of youngsters addicted to heroin who prostitute themselves with the sole objective of obtaining the necessary money for their daily doses.
It is also impressive for how it captures the climate of a city, Berlin, which in the years before the fall of the Wall experienced an explosion of youth nonconformity and the development of an underground culture that gave way to punk, the independent electronic scene and manifestos.
The radical left movements that had flourished almost all over the world were glamorous for many young Germans, just as the romantic ideal of Che Guevara spread through the world with superficial logic until it became an empty signifier. The setting of that Berlin is very well portrayed in the documentary B-Movie – Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 (2015), which could be the perfect complement to a film program about a place and a time with Yo, Cristina F. and the materials that are easy to find on YouTube about the Baader-Meinhoff organization.
The Visual Power of the Film
The photograph of Christiane F.–Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the original title of this film that is also known by another more hyperbolic title, I, Christiane F., 13 years old, drugged and prostituted, is a true prodigy because she rescues, at the same time, the sordidness and the dark beauty of a city in full social effervescence.
In many sections, she also transmits the verisimilitude of good documentary cinema. Those in charge of the image were Jürgen Jürges -a professional who has worked with Fassbinder, Wenders and Haneke, among other renowned filmmakers-, and Justus Pankau, a colleague with more experience in the field of documentary who was summoned precisely for this reason: it was he who managed to sneak into the thick atmosphere of the Berlin Zoo railway station, in the old Kurfürstendamm district, to clandestinely record the day-to-day life of the youngsters who star in the film.
None of these boys had an acting background, but they were all immersed in the same underworld as Christiane F., played in the film with astonishing ability by Natja Brunckhorst, who was 13 when she played the role. Edel’s feature film It’s not sweetened at all. On the contrary, it has several very powerful scenes, not suitable for impressionable spectators, which openly show syringes, drugs, blood, filthy corners of that underground Berlin and, particularly, a memorable sequence that reveals the crisis of the protagonist and her boyfriend Detlev.
Thomas Haustein, a boy the production found at the Sound nightclub and who had never acted until then, took on the role of Christiane F.’s teenage love, beautiful even in her desperate context. Haustein’s tense gestures, his somewhat robotic movements, his image of a sex-symbol delivered to bursting and his undeniable charisma work perfectly in the story. At times he seems like one of the “models” of Robert Bresson, sworn enemy of the more traditional acting composition. The casting and the subsequent acting direction were successes of the film.
As was the decision to film in real settings such as the neighborhoods for the popular classes built by the German state in Gropiusstadt and the public baths of Bülowstraße, another hot area of the Berlin subway in the late 70s and early 80s, that haunted city where famous artists such as Nick Cave and David Bowie came to settle.
The Influence of David Bowie
Bowie’s role is central in Edel’s film. In addition to the songs that he contributes to the excellent soundtrack (among them, “Heroes”, one of the hits of his famous Berlin stage in partnership with Brian Eno, used in one of the few radiant and hopeful sequences in the film), he appears in a concert in which Christiane F. watches him fascinated from very close and that charges the story with meaning: that Bowie influenced by German synthpop and European experimental rock is an indisputable mark of the time.
In his body and his music the echoes of an addictive city resonate in more ways than one. Although the English musician was spending a lot of time in the German capital at the time, the show put together especially for Edel’s film was shot at New York’s Hurray nightclub, where he was living temporarily while starring in a stage version of The Elephant Man on Broadway. Between the ecstatic look of that 13-year-old girl who discovers a world through music and the magnetic stage performance of her idol and the one that we will later observe in another part of the film completely lost by the effect of the heroin (in her first book, Christiane F. tells that she began to consume the night of that specially recreated Berlin recital), there is a difference that symbolizes the drama of the protagonist, a teenager overwhelmed by an exciting environment, but also wild and hostile that with the passage of time she would become a stubborn survivor.