We Children from Bahnhof Zoo is perhaps the strangest reimagining I’ve ever seen. It’s “based on” the life of Christiane Vera Felscherinow, better known as Christiane F., who conducted a series of interviews with two journalists who were ghostwriters of the memoir Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. It was adapted into a fantastic 1981 film Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo by director Uli Edel, which was made soon enough after the events that Berlin looked almost exactly the same. Edel used unknown actors who were more of less the correct age of the kids depicted, who were around 13 to 15 years old.
This new take sets it in this weird phantasmagoric version of Berlin in the ’70s that never existed, it’s very obviously shot in contemporary Berlin, which has been gentrified enough in the last few decades that the Berlin Christiane knew is no more. There is not even a mention of the wall or that there was even an East or West Berlin. However, there are enough signifiers that it is indeed meant to be the ’70s from some of the fashion and a young David Bowie, who Christiane was a huge fan of and who actually appeared in the original 1981 film. Even the music is mostly contemporary, except for obviously using some David Bowie hits—it’s a mixture of pop, indie, electronica and even hip hop. According to the makers, the idea was to give it a “timeless” feel, but yet they use Bowie various times, which is time-specific, and there even a actor who appears as the Thin White Duke twice in the eight-part series… although I think almost everybody would agree that David Bowie’s run in the ’70s is about as timeless as you can get. Christiane and her friends at the time went to clubs that played glam, Kraftwerk, some of the better disco stuff, and eventually the first wave of punk, which is all pretty “timeless”.
Philipp Kadelbach directed all eight episodes. Healso directed the highly respected mini-series Generation War; and for the BBC, SS-GB; and directs We Children from Bahnhof Zoo with some serious flare. The show cost around 25 million euros, and every penny is pretty much on the screen—except for any attempt to make Berlin look dirty, other than some of the flats the kids live in. Given the cost, they could’ve made the discotheque the kids go to look like the dingy seedy club it was in 1975 instead of looking like this superclub that rich twats go to so they can do lines in VIP rooms. It takes some pages from the visual look of Trainspotting in its depiction of heroin use—and in fact it completely glamourises heroin use and teenage prostitution, something the original film tried its best not to do even though it does to a extent.
The performances from the cast are all technically good even if the reality are upwards of a decade two old for the roles they are playing. Jana McKinnon plays Christiane and is perfectly decent, but you never get a sense of danger in the situations she finds herself in, and even the prostitution is toned down considerably from the original film. Natja Brunckhorst, who played the original Christiane, you actually feel for—which is undoubtedly helped by the fact she was more or less the same age as Christiane and was a dead ringer for her real-life counterpart. The real standout in the cast is Lea Drinda as Babsi, who has a real innocence about her. That is probably due to the fact she is one of the younger actors in her group of friends. She also lives in this version, but in real life and the film version she dies, in one of the original’s real heart wrenching moments. Her boyfriend’s name is changed for the TV adaptation and the storyline is considerably watered down—he does turn tricks with older men, but it’s almost an afterthought except for some sequences in this flat that looks like it belongs in the orgy scenes from Eyes Wide Shut. The original film is very effective and showed just how much underage prostitution was going on around the Bahnhof Zoo at the time, and how it was pretty equally split between the boys and girls. In the TV version, it seems to be mostly the girls.
Despite these criticisms, We Children from Bahnhof Zoo is technically very well made. The performances are good, even if the actors somewhat miscast, and if you want to see a truly baffling take on a true-life story, it’s worth seeing. I certainly enjoyed the debauchery on display, but it had none of the substance of the original. It’s a real missed opportunity, because although Christiane acknowledged the authenticity of the original film, both left out the fact that her father abused her and her sister, while her mother was far more invested in an affair she was having with another man. Given that you have more time with an eight-part mini-series, the writers could even have gone into her time in Zurich, where she tried to escape her celebrity in Germany and befriended people like Patricia Highsmith, and also short-lived music career with her then-boyfriend Alexander Hacke of the Berlin based industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. They could’ve even included the ill-fated press tour she took in the US to promote the film where she got kicked out of the country for drug possession. The TV version ends on a completely phoney positive note of Christiane, which is just a lie and a disservice to Christiane, who is still alive.
The series is spread over two DVDs, with a photo gallery as the only extra.