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German Series in Canada
We Children from Bahnhof Zoo

Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo Titel
© 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images

Drug abuse takes center stage: The Amazon Prime eight-part series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” rolls out Christiane F.’s confessions of her heroin addiction as a timeless coming-of-age drama. Now, some 40 years after the twelve-part reportage featured in Stern magazine shocked Germany to the core with its depiction of the then 16-year-old’s life in West Berlin, a depressing tale of drug abuse and child prostitution, the streaming service is now injecting an overdose of zeitgeist into the biography of Germany’s best-known junkie. Addiction potential: moderate.

By Angela Zierow

The stuff (Fever-) Dreams are made of

“This is one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen. That it is based on actual events makes it more heartbreaking.” Even Roger Ebert, hard-bitten star critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, was moved by the 1981 version of We Children from Bahnhof Zoo. And he was not the only one. The low-budget production made by Director Ulrich “Uli” Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex) and Producer Bernd Eichinger (The Name of the Rose) influenced an entire generation of young adults and made stars of the teenagers Natja Brunckhorst and Thomas Haustein. In Germany alone, around five million people watched Christiane and her clique as they descended into the hellish world of heroin addiction in West Berlin. Variety magazine hailed “Christiane F.”, as the original movie was titled in the US, as the international breakthrough of New German Cinema.
Amazon Prime Video Germany

Christiane Felscherinow 

Three years earlier, the bestseller of the same name had already created a furor. Based on their twelve-part reportage in Stern magazine, journalists Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck documented the everyday life of Christiane F. (short for Felscherinow), which saw her spending nights drugged up to the eyeballs at the Sound discotheque, chasing her next fix and prostituting herself alongside other children at Zoo train station. Just 16 years old when she gave the interviews, the young woman from Gropiusstadt (in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood) already had shockingly long experience of drug addiction: weed at the age of twelve, heroin at 13, and prostituting herself for the first time at 14. The book, which has so far been translated into some 20 languages, recorded the vicious cycle of addiction and increasing emotional brutalization, depicted the fragility of friendships between junkies, and described the misery of the addict’s life and the parallel societies that existed in the shadow of the Berlin Wall with an intensity that was unprecedented at the time. The report topped the Spiegel bestseller list for nearly two years. With over three million copies sold, it remains to this day one of the most successful German non-fiction books of the post-war period. Anyone who grew up in Germany in the early eighties devoured the book – or at least the photo story version published in the teen magazine Bravo – with a mixture of fascination and horror. 
The Alice Project

Just ordinary teens

Around 40 years later, Christiane’s appalling descent into drug abuse has been turned into a TV series by a top-class team: it was directed by Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War, Perfume) and the head screenplay writer was Link-Icon Annette Hess (Weissensee, Ku’damm series), while Oliver Berben was responsible for producing the eight episodes. A Constantin Television and Amazon Prime Video co-production, it cost over 25 million euros. Though screenplay writer Hess worked her way through every minute of the audio recordings made by the two Stern journalists, her version is not so much a social study of the divided Berlin of the seventies that sticks rigidly to the original book, but more of a hybrid of coming-of-age tale and timeless drug addiction drama that is sprinkled occasionally with Berlin dialect. The backstories of the six-member clique who spend much of their time at Zoo station have been pepped up and expanded to include fictional elements; Christiane’s junkie boyfriend Detlef is now called Benno. At its core, however, the story remains the same: having just moved to Berlin, Christiane (Jana McKinnon) gets to hang out with the cool kids at school. Right at the start, while enjoying a first shared joint at Zoo station with her new friend Stella (Lena Urzendowsky), she says: “A station is a pretty sad place really because no one wants to stay here.” At this point the two girls are just ordinary teens trying to come across as rebels by smoking at school; members of a pubescent group of schoolkids who do exactly what one would expect from youngsters of that age: out of boredom and the thrill of the forbidden they test out a few boundaries, yell and shout a bit on the subway, sneak out of their bedrooms at night to party, smoke too much. Then they pop their first pill in front of Sound, “Europe’s most modern discotheque” at the time. In the series, this first trip gives the kids such a rush that they fly across the club’s dancefloor. Anyone who has read the original book will know that it is only a question of time before they inevitably come crashing down again.
 
Getting completely wasted as a way of escaping the misery of the teenage existence is all too tempting: “It’s like having someone coming to wrap you up in a warm blanket, and everything feels good and safe.” The six of them are linked by more than a desire to have adventures: they feel lost and are all battling with their own personal crises. Christiane is not coping well with her parents’ divorce, Stella has been abandoned by her alcoholic mother after being raped by a regular at her bar. Babsi (Lea Drinda) is falling apart in the gilded cage of her grandmother. And of course, the junkie’s eternal mantra of “I’ve got everything under control” also proves in this series to be an illusion; addiction leads to prostitution and drug-related crime, Stella ends up in jail, and Axel (Jeremias Meyer) intentionally takes a lethal overdose. He is not the last to die.
Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” | © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images / Josef Fischnaller

Sound and vision

The series charts with impressive intensity Christiane’s emotional roller-coaster ride between her school life, which is falling apart, selling her body at the station, going with clients to their apartments and hanging out with her boyfriend Benno (Michelangelo Fortuzzi). Cameraman Jakub Bejnarowcz has done an impressive job, creating atmospheric color compositions and portraying highly realistic scenes that feel spot on, right down to the smoky nooks in the nightclub. Not a single detail is out of place; rarely have the depressing high-rise blocks of Gropiusstadt looked so stylish. This result is a visually impressive and to some extent surreal nightmare through which disparate lost souls flit. And though hyper-stylized drug movies have not really been anything new since cinema hits like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, the visuals of “Zoo” would constitute a feast for any Insta story feed. It almost comes as a surprise that nobody whips out a selfie stick and that no scene includes a flash reference to some ultra-fast fashion store or another.
 
And this is precisely where the dilemma lies. Even on cold turkey, the members of the Zoo gang look clean and healthy. No jaundiced and sweating junkie faces with empty staring eyes, no pathetically emaciated creatures to document the relentless way in which the addiction destroys body and soul. Of course we get to see some kids, faces pale as death, shooting up in disgusting public restrooms or throwing up into plastic buckets while trying to wean themselves off heroin, plus some old guys in even older underwear touching up young prostitutes, but all of it is depicted in such a hip aesthetic that the “ick factor” is seriously toned down. When Christiane shoots up for the first time backstage at a David Bowie concert, with Damien Rice’s Chandelier as a soundtrack, it looks so great that you just want to join her.
 
To top it all, the actors all come across as pretty adult. After all, what was so shocking about the original We Children from Bahnhof Zoo was that Christiane F. and her friends were genuinely still children. Uli Edel’s movie got audiences so stirred up precisely because his (amateur) ensemble looked so darned childish, making the misery of the Zoo kids appear disturbingly authentic. It’s not that the stars of the new series do not give impressive performances: 22-year-old Jana McKinnon is convincing as the defiant junkie brat Christiane; Lea Drinda, who plays Christiane’s friend Babsi, oozes naive world-weariness with her puppy-dog eyes; Lena Urzendowsky depicts a wonderfully fucked-up Stella, who occasionally works as a pimp. And Michelangelo Fortuzzi gives a great performance as fickle drug addict Benno.
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images / Josef Fischnaller
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images / Josef Fischnaller
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images / Josef Fischnaller
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios / Soap Images / Josef Fischnaller
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
  • Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images
    Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”
 

We could be heroes

David Bowie’s soundtrack was just as groundbreaking as the 1981 movie. This exceptional artist from the UK lived in Berlin himself in the late seventies. To this day, Rolling Stone Magazine rates his track “Heroes” as one of the greatest songs of all time. It was Bowie himself on stage at the concert portrayed in the original movie. Now Alexander Scheer, who played Bowie’s alter ego Newton to great critical acclaim in the musical Lazarus, appears instead of the now-deceased “thin white Duke” in two brief performances. This plays no really significant role, as the soundtrack to the series, though including snippets of Bowie’s musical legacy, comes courtesy of prize-winning music producer Robot Koch, who rose to international fame with the trip-hop trio Jahcoozi, and features electro, dancehall and hip hop – a timelessly cool omnipresent carpet of sound. The fact that every episode is jam packed with music – just like US teen series tend to be – occasionally knocks the story off-kilter: at such times “Zoo” comes across more like an extra-long ad for Berlin Fashion Week, with Christiane, kitted out in a cute faux fur jacket and white cowboy boots, strutting from the curbside line of prostitutes down into the station catacombs with her glam queens.

Official Spotify playlist: Link-Icon WE CHILDREN FROM BAHNHOF ZOO featuring Robot Koch, Michael Kadelbach; David Bowie, uva ...
Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” | © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images

The needle and the damage done ... 

The series met with a mixed response in the German-speaking world. In today’s era of dark web drug dealing, legal highs and cocaine cabs, the general tenor is that the classic heroin addict look complete with injection paraphernalia all seems a bit outdated. We Children from Bahnhof Zoo, it is claimed, is the kind of drama that could take place in any big city anywhere in the world. Many critics questioned whether it was really necessary to do a remake of such an iconic film, especially as it was obvious from the outset that the new version would never achieve the powerful impact of the original. The movie industry also criticized the fact that “the balancing act between lavish cinematic production and the depressing realities of the drug world” was not always perfectly achieved. Spiegel magazine’s comment was “If you’re going to shoot up, then do it with a vaccine.”, though it also admitted: “It turned out pretty well.” TAZ newspaper agreed, saying that the series “…drifts successfully along between reinterpretation and faithfulness to the original work”. FAZ newspaper, on the other hand, opined: “It is not wrong to attempt to turn the original material into a coming-of-age story for the present day… However, the price of this ‘modernization’, as the makers call it, is inevitably a significant de-realization.”
Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” Still from the Constantin Production / Amazon Prime Series “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” | © 2020 Constantin Television GmbH / Amazon Studios, Photo: Mike Kraus/Soap Images

What remains, all things considered?

A highly watchable junkie horror show, neatly packaged in just the right way for the target audience, starring some very promising young actors; a drama about young people who are yearning for a different life but take a wrong turn on their path toward it, and a universal tale of first love, boundaries crossed, friendship and betrayal, where a generation of an audience sits in the first row that knows neither the original book nor movie.
 
CREDITS
OT: We Children from Bahnhof Zoo, 8 x approx. 60 minutes, Directed by: Philipp Kadelbach; Starring: Jana McKinnon, Michelangelo Fortuzzi, Lena Urzendowsky, Bruno Alexander, Jeremias Meyer, Lea Drinda

 

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