Christiane F. (1981)
Written by Herman Weigel
Directed by Uli Edel
“Scared Straight” is a subgenre of exploitation cinema focused on discouraging the youth from engaging in certain activities. A movie like Reefer Madness falls into this category, an ignorant to the point of farce examination of smoking weed. You could even throw something like America’s Most Wanted into this mix too. I can remember the way homosexual men were portrayed on that show was always in the context of being child molesters. Needless to say, scared straight media rarely presents a solid foundation of facts, instead opting for reactionary panic. In America, the book Go Ask Alice was published as the “real diary” of a teenage girl who succumbed to drug addiction. It’s much less well-known now, but when it came out in 1971, it fueled a lot of parents’ and teenagers’ minds with horror movie-level fears about drugs. That isn’t to say movies about the dangers of drugs are all bad. In the same way, not all drugs are harmful to you. I’m highly progressive in my views on drugs and their use, but there is one drug that scares me; maybe I’ve just been successfully brainwashed, or maybe not. The one that I would never touch is heroin.
Christiane Felscherinow got caught up in heroin addiction and was a witness in the trial of a man who solicited underage girls for sex in exchange for the stuff. A pair of journalists attending the trial met her and were impressed with how she so articulately shared her experience in the heroin lifestyle. Eventually, those conversations became a book that chronicled her descent into heroin addiction starting at 12 and up to when she was 15. The book was a bestseller, so it got optioned quickly for a movie.
In the film, thirteen-year-old Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) lives in a tiny West Berlin apartment with her mother and sister. Her mother is often out of the house, leaving Christiane alone most of the time, so she seeks attention where she can get it. She and her friend Kessi begin sneaking into a new trendy nightclub where they pop pills and dance the night away. There, she meets Detlev, a little older, who uses a cocktail of drugs with his friends. Christiane notices many of them begin shooting heroin and watches them slip into numb euphoria. She wants in, but they discourage her, and she eventually snorts it. Christiane falls in love with Detlev, and part of their time together is spent using heroin until they are both full-blown addicts.
At age 14, Christiane began prostituting. She initially learns Detlev and his friends take money from men at the train station and have sex with them. When money gets tight, even she succumbs to doing the same thing. The addiction is so strong. Eventually, she overdoses at home, and her mother discovers the unconscious girl on the bathroom floor. Detlev agrees to detox with her, and together they go through the multi-week experience of cold turkey, their bodies making them feel like they will die. But like with most addicts, the first detox worked but didn’t last; they are far too confident and start taking again, convinced they can get off whenever they want. Friends begin to die, overdosing after using alone in an apartment squat or a dark corner of the train station. Text at the end of the film tells us Christiane got clean eventually.
It’s not a poorly made film and doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth of what heroin does to people. However, it doesn’t feel as skillfully crafted as other German films we have watched. It is a movie for a broad audience, so it feels like a really well-made Movie of the Week or Afterschool Special. If either of those could produce R-rated material, you’d have Christiane F. The director Uli Edel doesn’t have an extremely rich filmography. He directed the Canadian-produced film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and the critically acclaimed tv-movie adaptation of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman. Edel doesn’t have any significant achievements (or at least nothing that really stood out to me) on his list, but he does consistently good work.
One thing that stood out to me that the film didn’t spend much time acknowledging was the total absence of any adult presence in Christiane’s life. I would have appreciated it if that absence had been directly addressed in the film because it was clearly one of the elements that led the girl down the road of addiction. That was in fact one of Christiane Felscherinow’s complaints about the film. She said she didn’t like the movie that much, and “it doesn’t describe how I grew up, how I was neglected by my parents. My father was a drinker, and he abused my sister and me. He was choleric, and my mom just did nothing; she was more into her affair with another man and her beauty. I was so lonely when I was a kid. I just wanted to belong; I was struggling with the world.” I think the loneliness is there, but the passive rejection from her parents is always on the fringes and never directly commented on. I can’t really think why that may be other than a desire not to upset those parents who like to view their children’s addictions as a fault in the child or some other element in society, a refusal to accept that it’s their responsibility to make sure their kids feel loved.
The film was very popular, and dressing like Christiane in the movie became popular for girls for a time. However, some child psychology experts worried that the movie unintentionally glamorized Christiane’s life and would encourage young people to experiment with heroin. Christiane lived with the family that owned the publishing house for her book throughout the early 1980s. She dated a guitarist in an industrial band and met many famous writers and musicians, even recording some herself. Unfortunately, the heroin use didn’t stop, and she relapsed repeatedly. In the late 1980s, Christiane contracted hepatitis C from an infected needle and, while still alive today suffers from cirrhosis of the liver.
While her book and the film were meant to ward people off of using drugs, when has that ever really worked on a mass scale? I would argue there isn’t a way to effectively scare people into just not using drugs as a whole society. At some point, the scare tactics do create an air of mystique around the substance. You also have the fact that many people are incredibly arrogant about what they think they can handle, even if you educate them. I guess you could show them people who are dying due to addiction in their last days, but even then, you have the arrogant people who will convince themselves it won’t be them. I think it’s also irresponsible to lump drugs all into one umbrella category. There’s a vast difference between magic mushrooms and heroin. Psychedelics do very different things than opioids, and it is dangerous that drug education often puts these all under the same label. Ultimately a film like Christiane F. does a decent job of showing less the problem of drugs and more the outcome of capitalism’s demands on parents to be working all the time & how it causes people to feel a lack of solidarity with anyone other than themselves. Because communities aren’t cohesive, youth like Christiane simply float around until they find someone who shows them what resembles love.
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