Cult Cinema: Christiane F. (1981) - Reviewed

Years before Larry Clark’s Kids dove headfirst into the drug (and sexual) abuses committed by juvenile delinquents, Last Exit to Brooklyn director Uli Edel made one Hell of a debut with his searing and unforgettable chronicle of the 1970s Berlin music/drug scene Christiane F.  A profoundly disturbing swan dive into filth and vermin, the cult classic continues to be referenced in movies and pop culture including The Green Inferno and most recently Climax.  And yet the film itself, one of a kind which could be never made with today’s child labor laws, remains a timeless time capsule of sorts by being about an ongoing epidemic afflicting youths to this day despite taking place in a bygone era.

Based upon a series of tape-recorded interviews with the title figure which were published in the German periodical Stern before being shaped into a best-selling book by Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck, Christiane F. stars Natja Brunkhorst in her acting debut (14 years old at the time) as a teenager introduced by her friends to the West Berlin rock and roll scene which is in preparation for a forthcoming David Bowie concert.  Snuck in by her friend Kessi (Daniela Jaeger) before meeting soon-to-be partner in crime Detlef (Thomas Haustein), Christiane is quickly introduced to LSD, pills and finally heroin.  It doesn’t take long for the young girl to start frequenting the Bahnhof Zoo, a train station infamous for being a hotspot for drug trafficking and prostitution, in search of her latest fix.

Hard and heavy, the low-budget mean and lean indie is largely boosted by the presence of both David Bowie and the musician’s original score for the film, co-composed by Wings of Desire composer Jürgen Knieper.  Shifting rapidly between original songs and electronic orchestrations as well as sharp piano cues that are every bit as chilling as the Ligeti keyboard strumming permeating Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a soundtrack that proves to be haunting, disturbing and powerful.  Much like Lynch’s Lost Highway, it’s a film with an arguably stronger following by music lovers than filmgoers.

Punctuated by the grimy aesthetic lensed by Funny Games cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, the sense of needing to take a shower after watching this film is aided most specifically by the makeup artist Colin Arthur.  Best known for his aging makeup effects in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, here he creates gangrenous sores, pale skin, dark cycles under the eyes and drowning sweat on the actors’ faces.  So convincing are the makeup effects that you have a hard time differentiating the actors from the real-life junkies who were brought onto the film hired as extras.  With all these elements in place, the backstreet alleyways and subterranean tunnels of West Berlin looks like a brick-and-mortar septic field.

Special attention of course must be paid to the young cast who were more or less asked (with the then-dated rule of only needing parental consent for such scenes) to go above and beyond anything any child actor should ever have to do for a movie.  Replete with graphic nudity, extraordinarily realistic images of needles puncturing skin and flesh, smoking, snorting, drinking, vandalizing, explicit sex scenes and paradoxically one of the most harrowing withdrawal sequences ever staged for a film, the underage cast truly goes the full distance for something which would be impossible now.

Though much of the cast consisted of first-timers and non-actors, the central focus is on the two leads played by Natja Brunkhorst and Thomas Haustein.  In an on-screen co-dependent relationship reminiscent of the equally sordid junkie couple Sid and Nancy, Brunkhorst and Haustein go straight-to-Hell together with more than a few scenes of both actors depicted in sexual situations performed for drug money.  Raising the eyebrows higher than Larry Clark’s films though far less lascivious in intent comparatively, the scenes in question forever mark the film with a controversy some viewers will not be able to think their way around.  That said, the performances are fearless and though Haustein would never act in film again, Brunkhorst as the leading lady is still active in film today including work as a director at one point.

Released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, Christiane F. was also understandably a controversial film almost immediately.  Much repulsion and outrage was made over the aforementioned scenes of minors involved in drugs and sex and the real Christiane F. herself thought the film had the unintended consequence of making the junkie Hell lifestyle appealing to young viewers.  While debatable, I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who aspires to live life quite like this film’s title character in what is ostensibly a non-judgmental character study designed to capture the essence of the West Berlin rock-and-roll/drugs scene in microcosm.  More than anything, you’ll never be able to listen to David Bowie’s Heroes the same way again without feeling your soul being haunted by spirits of the dead.

--Andrew Kotwicki