At various times throught a lifetime, one sees movies that change that life forever, and for me, this was one of them. It gave me a vision I'd never had before, and it's been with me since. I've been trying since yesterday to remember just where and when I saw this movie. It must have been in 1982 or 1983, when I was living in San Francisco, making occasional visits to Palo Alto to complete my law degree at Stanford, but mostly soaking up the ambience of the City itself; I remember how this films' incredible soundtrack inspired me to ride the Muni underground late at night with my cassette deck and headphones, listening to Bowie and Eno, looking at the other riders. Looking up the movie's history now on the internet, I see it was completed (in Germany) in 1981, released in theatres there in 1982, so probably only in a handful of US cities could I have seen the film, especially that early. Then I lost the film for years -- couldn't ever find it on VHS, or on DVD, until I randomly turned it up on a Neflix search last week, and had to have it immediately; the film pulled on me like heroin did on its young protagonist.
Christiane F.: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is a true story, ripped from the headlines of Berlin circa 1980. Its heroine is a 13- and 14-year-old girl who gets into drugs through the club scene, becomes addicted to heroin, and winds up as a train station prostitute. The film is ostensably an anti-drug movie, but the only redemption for the film's protagonist comes in a voice-over at the very end; the real message here is in the imagery. And the imagery is some of the most powerful, maybe the most powerful I've ever seen in a film. The soundtrack is David Bowie's best music, mostly from the Low and Heroes albums he produced with Brian Eno during one of his own druggie periods. The visuals are stunning, gritty yet cold, the lonely horror of the train stations, restrooms and Soviet-era block apartments set as background to the warmth and humanity of the characters. Amazingly, Natja Brockhorst, the actress who portrays Christiane and probably the most beautiful child actress I've ever seen, doesn't seem to have had that much of a career after, and is now working behind the cameras.
Although I searched for this film for years, I had no idea it had a cult following until I renewed my internet search; it looks like I am far from the only person whose life it touched. Yet when I try to reach into my head to tell you exactly how this movie affected me, I suffer from a rare loss of words. Certainly, the ethereal, haunting beauty of the film is memorable for a lifetime; yet many of its scenes are of stark depradation. In today's films, even the supposedly "hardcore" ones like Alpha Dog, drug use (except for marijuana) usually occurs off-screen; in Christiane F. is is explicit, in your face; it is the character's lives, and there is nothing glamorous about the way it is portrayed. As opposed even to later well-done drug movies like Spun, there is no humor here, no let-up; just sadness and warmth, icy cold and pragmatic reality.
So. I did not become a heroin addict after watching this movie; I did not move to Berlin. After all, this movie was about kids, and I was probably about 25 when I saw it. It did give me a new vision of cool, a kid with his or her head all smacked-out riding the subways. It took me years to figure out you can't get that head from drug use; it just comes from watching movies as good as this one. You can't groove on the beautiful Bowie soundtrack when you're jonesing for a hit, of heroin or anything.
So when I think of the image the film formed in my head of a cool junkie riding the subway through the night with Bowie in his ears, I realized that's an image that could never meet reality; only the voyeurs like me could do that. The real junkies were having an existence I wouldn't wish for you (unless you're in the Bush administration) on your worst stay. It think that maybe heroin addiction is such a powerful and compelling image for us because it is the distillation of essence of a life driven by desire and attachment. We are all, in a sense, junkies, wanting that perfect buzz we can never have it, and we don't all seek it from drugs. We seek it from money, power, sex and all the other cravings signified by all the obvious buzzwords and labels. And like junkies, we'll never lose that urge, but it's part of who were are; to steal the words of one of the biggest cults in operation today, we have to just deal with it, one day at a time.
[I'm writing this early on Sunday morning with a head full of sugar and caffeine, having made myself buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. Now here's a drug buzz I can live with and still work out later today. Find your own comfort zone.]
Oh, and by the way, this movie is available only in German or in English dub; I would have preferred to watch it in German with English subtitles. So much for the comfort zone.