Not a new one as such, but it was playing in tonight’s open air cinema, and they all count. Besides, it was that or a very clichéd-looking romantic comedy so I chose the one that would make me happy.
Berlin, 1977. Christiane is 13 (she’ll turn 14 during the film) and her life is somewhat dominated by David Bowie. She sneaks in, underage, to a club whose playlist appears to only contain Bowie songs. At home, she somehow persuades her mother to buy tickets to the Bowie concert, and when her mother’s hapless boyfriend attempts to win her affection, he buys her a copy of ChangesOneBowie (it doesn’t work, she has it already).
Unfortunately for Christiane, this isn’t the music hall Bowie of the 1960s or the pantomime dame of the early 1970s, but the one who spent the mid-1970s off his head in Berlin. And the Berlin in which he (and Christiane) lived isn’t today’s gentrified meeting-point for hipsters and tourists, but an endless row of grim tenements, spreading out into the horizon. The city is almost exclusively filmed either in drab grey or at night (you get the sense that Sebastian Schipper took a few lessons here before he filmed Victoria).
Christiane hooks up with Detlev, a waste of space who isn’t even capable of growing a proper moustache, but love is blind, hey? Detlev shares a squalid flat with Axel, where there’s just about enough space between all the rubbish on the floor to lay a couple of matresses.
Slowly, tentatively, Christiane and Detlev start to get involved in the local drugs scene – initially trying just one, just to see what its like, but gradually being drawn into increasingly heavy use.
They start to hang around Zoo station (the subtitle of the film is “We kids of Zoo station”), one of the few areas of Berlin that looks just as drab now as it did then. But it is somewhere to find the punters who will pay for hand jobs, blow jobs, and increasingly full on sex required to fund their habit.
As a depiction of how increased dependency on drugs takes over your life, there have been few films as convincing or as grim in the nearly 40 years since Christiane F was filmed. I do, however, have one niggle, which is that I don’t think we really get a sense of why she does drugs often enough to get addicted.
When Christiane starts taking heroin, she is promised a sensation like a spectacular climax, but afterwards says that her expectations from a climax were, well, a little more than that. And although the dullness of her home life (her parents are divorced and her sister has gone to live with their father) might explain why she’s looking for a way out, there is no plausible explanation why she should do this through drugs, apart from vague references to peer group pressure and the fact that it might look cool.
As said, this isn’t a specific problem with this film, and I do find it strange that of all the films which show how hard drugs destroy lives (and there are many), I can only immediately think of one which suggests that the experience of drugs might just be fun and exciting (Trainspotting since you’re asking). But if taking drugs is as soul-numbing as its portrayed, why on earth would anyone do it in the first place?
Once the desperation takes hold, Christiane F is on much safer ground. Christiane and Detlev try and detox themselves, resulting in them writhing around in her bedroom, clawing at the walls to show the children’s wallpaper that has been papered over. Friends overdose or die from drugs cut with strychnine, and yet they still kid themselves that they can have one last blast today and start to give up tomorrow. Meanwhile, they start to look increasingly sickly, their faces become spotty and they lose control of their lives.
Much more fun than a bland romantic comedy then, but there is one thing I noticed that is still playing over in my mind. If you made a film today set in 1970s Berlin, one thing would be inevitably there. And yet the only reference to divided Berlin comes in the lyrics of Heroes. Apart from that, we are looking at a drab derelict area of Berlin which has nothing to do with the wall going through the city.
The narrative that we are used to says that 1970s Berlin was terrible because East Berliners didn’t have the opportunities of their Western counterparts (there are those who will give an alternative narrative that says that the West Berliners lacked the free Kindergärten and guaranteed jobs of the East). But if you accept that both sides contained shitholes which left many people behind, the wall ceases to become the determining feature that dominates pretty much all fiction about post-war Berlin.
As said, that one’s still running through my mind, but I think its an interesting thought. Especially as Christiane F was filmed in 1981 and even then felt no special need to put the wall front stage.