In the late 1970s and early 80s, the harrowing story of an adolescent girl name Christiane F. repeatedly made headlines in Germany, leaving the country in a state of shock.
The 1978 biographic novel Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo was regarded as scandalous, highlighting how society had failed its weakest members — children.
The book that started it all: ‘Christiane F. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’
While the book was actually written by two journalists from Germany’s Stern news magazine, based on days of interviews with protagonist Christiane Felscherinow, its first-person narrative delivered a disturbing account of the reality of drug abuse and its consequences.
The 1981 film adaptation of the story — directed by German filmmaker Uli Edel — went even further with its extremely graphic depictions.
There was a widespread public outcry over how a prosperous Western society could allow its youth to descend into such a state of despair and misery, with heroin addiction, child prostitution and homelessness leading to the death of those surrounding the young Christiane F.
Some people accused the producers of the film version of seducing youngsters into substance abuse by glamorizing this kind of lifestyle on the silver screen, by simply reducing it to a coming-of-age story of sorts.
Nevertheless, the book spent 95 weeks at the top of Germany’s bestseller lists, and the movie was one of the top German cinema exports of all time.
A new Amazon Prime series
Amazon Prime is now revisiting Christiane F.’s world-famous story through an eight-episode TV series, which launches on February 19.
Australian-Austrian actress Jana McKinnon stars in the lead role, while film producer Oliver Berben, the son of the famous German actress Iris Berben, spared no costs in depicting the highs and lows of drugs abuse over the seven-hour series.
But can the streaming generation still be shocked, moved or even seduced by the story of Christiane F. — or have audiences seen much worse in the 40 years since the biography’s initial release?
A cautionary tale made in Germany
In Germany, Christiane Felscherinow became a reluctant celebrity after sharing her story in 1978. Kai Hermann, one of the two Stern journalists who recorded Felscherinow’s testimony, said that hers was a “story that you simply couldn’t escape. It would come back to haunt (the reader) time and again.”
In a way, her walled-in reality also mirrored life within the confines of the Berlin Wall at the time: Felscherinow’s attempts to escape the mundane limitations of her own existence were seen as a reflection of people being stuck in the city that was isolated from the rest of West Germany.
But much has changed since: the Berlin Wall has long come down, Germany has advanced to take the role of a global superpower, and the novel has become compulsory reading material in many schools across the country, as a cautionary tale against drugs.
Meanwhile, themes of drug abuse and prostitution have also became mainstream staples on television and cinema with works such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll?
Beyond Germany, the original movie by Uli Edel also reached international acclaim by featuring David Bowie giving a concert in Berlin. His hit single “Heroes” became the theme song of the movie.
However, the irony that Bowie himself battled drug addiction for years might be lost on the younger generations today, who may hardly remember much about Mr. Ziggy Stardust.
In a 2013 interview with Vice, Christiane Felscherinow pointed out the double standards behind such marketing ploys: “You are admired, even though you take drugs, just as long as you’re something special — a musician or a painter. But if you’re a drug user and you have none of these talents, you’re deemed useless to society.”
Addicted to addiction
The Amazon Prime version of Christiane F.’s biography rather relies on the “binge effect” of contemporary series; the show dives deeper into the roles, explores relationships between the characters, and asks the uncomfortable question: “Where did it all go wrong?”
The series addresses the issue of addiction by making the audience addicted to Christiane F.’s story itself. It features quick cuts, jumps between realities to mimic the experience of being on psychoactive drugs, and reserves all judgment, never proselytizing about the evils of drugs.
Instead, it portrays the contrast between the young girl’s overall sense of boredom, which she says drove her into drugs, and the escape that these illegal substances gave her. Viewers are assumed to be smart enough to draw their own conclusions.
The series is also inspired by hours of previously unpublished recordings from original interviews with Felscherinow
Felscherinow also said in the 2013 Vice interview that drugs simply gave her an escape from her dysfunctional upbringing: “I was so lonely when I was a kid. I just wanted to belong; I was struggling with the world.”
And that struggle is something that any person — young or old — can probably relate to. Producer Oliver Berben said that the story is about “how young people try to find their place in this world. And this is a tough and brutal world.”