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The Lingering Presence Of Christiane F, By Christiana Spens
Christiana Spens , September 21st, 2023 08:44

In this month's Low Culture Essay, Christiana Spens looks to Berlin and Christiane F, the cult film of heroin addiction and sickness, and how it haunted her own life

I remember first finding a DVD of Christiane F. in Fopp in St. Andrews when I was about fourteen, and because the label covered the last two letters of the title, I thought, "A film with my name in it! And she looks like me too!" (Christiana was not a common name in Fife, Scotland, so it was rare to see my name anywhere). Anyway, I turned it over to read the blurb:

“13-year old Christiane F. lives with her mother in a high-rise estate in Berlin. To get away from family troubles, she goes out with friends to the Sound, listening to David Bowie and experimenting with acid and hash. But then she switches to hard drugs and gets addicted to heroin, eventually turning to prostitution to afford her habit.”

I felt a little disheartened by Christiane's fate, and yet of course I wanted to watch it, too. I was drawn not only by the strange resemblance, but by the general, melancholic aesthetic, and the sense of danger. Christiane looked like me but she was doing things she shouldn’t be doing; she looked and acted how I felt and wanted to but could not. She represented a sad kind of freedom.

It is a grim film, though. After a Bowie concert, Christiane starts taking heroin, partly to be closer to her new boyfriend, with whom she is infatuated. They both become addicted, and quickly the glamour of Sound, the club they go to, and the music all fades away to the dissolution of dependency. They both resort to prostitution to pay for their drugs. They try and fail to go cold turkey, shivering together. Their friends start dying around them; one girl’s face is in the papers as the epidemic of addiction, and a particularly bad batch of heroin, becomes a news story. This is the panic that led, presumably, to Christiane F. being approached to tell her story in a memoir, which was then adapted to screen.

I read around the film, then, and what had happened to the real Christiane F. Christiane Felscherinow had a son, wrote a book, talked on German TV, spent some time in Los Angeles. Although the film says that Christiane manages to get clean after an overdose ,according to an interview in Vice in 2013, Felscherinow continued to struggle with addiction in the decades since. She is now in her sixties, and she has surprised many people by continuing to live, though she is sick with Hepatitis C. She has written one more book since. As the years have gone on, the film stayed with me, anyway, as the themes it raised also lingered in my life in various ways.


I first went to Berlin when I was twenty-one, towards the end of February, when it was cold and bleak. I was there to interview a war artist, George Gittoes, whose hellish scenes of Iraq, Afghanistan and Rwanda lined white walls in a Mitte studio. When I wasn’t talking to George about his experiences, I also ended up hanging out with the painter Lucy Stein, who created large bulbous, seductive figures in fantastical and yet horrific spaces.

After she showed me her work in her studio, we sat in one of Berlin’s low-lit little bars and ended up talking about Christiane F., and friends, and heroin. I told her how just before flying out to Berlin, I had been to visit a writer with whom I’d had a brief relationship the year before. It had happened around the time his memoir had come out, a book which in part dealt with his own struggles with heroin addiction. The most recent time I had seen him, he had taken me to his lawyer’s office, and I was the witness to his last will and testament. I signed my name next to his, and I found it eerie, even then. Lucy told me that people still bought heroin in Bahnhof Zoo, almost as if intentionally keeping the mythology alive, a morbid kind of tourism. It was not quite so rough anymore, of course. But we parted ways there, anyway, and for a moment I lingered in that strange space, before going back to the apartment I was staying in further west.

As I tried to sleep, I thought of that writer again, wondering if he had ever come to Berlin. It seemed strange that he would not have, and yet he never mentioned it. I might have emailed him to ask, but I didn’t, and I never saw him again. A few months later, in the June of that year, he died of a heroin and crack overdose. The coroner ruled ‘Death by Misadventure’.

This was also the official cause of death of my own grandmother, who had died from a codeine overdose at the age of 26, leaving my four-year-old father without his mother, and with a wound that would linger on through the decades, a sadness I felt my whole childhood. Perhaps this is one reason that Christiane F. resonated for me, or rather, haunted me. She had my name, more or less, and also the habit, which resulted in tragedy, of those whose lives had impacted my own so profoundly. And in some ways, Christiane F. and myself were also not so different. She came to represent a sort of shadow side of myself, albeit a very young one – a melancholic inner child, you could say. When I watch the film now, I cannot believe how young she was. When I think of my relationship then, I am also a little shocked. He was more than twice my age. He died at 46.

When I had first met him, people had warned me off him, including my own publisher. But for whatever reason, none of this really put me off. I liked him, there was a sense of joy, of being understood at last. Perhaps I liked that he was also not allowed, too. But mostly, he was just fun to hang around with, to talk to; he took me to the Colony Rooms where the owner would test out different cocktails on me and I would meet other writers and artists. I absorbed the atmosphere of Soho at that time, and I felt somewhat protected by him, however counter-intuitive or naïve that may have seemed. We were friends, I thought.

It didn’t take long for things to spiral, of course – though he had been sober for about eighteen months when we met, so he said, he started using again. At the end of the summer, which had become tumultuous, I left London and went back to university. I switched to Philosophy, began again. We stayed in touch, until just before that trip to Berlin. I sat next to my publisher at the funeral, wearing sunglasses and a black lace dress and crying as someone sang a Kate Bush song.


I went to Berlin again last summer with another boyfriend, aware once again how these stories continued to linger and overlap. In the years since that relationship, I had gone out with a string of men with similar issues; eventually I realised that for me, they were the habit, in this strange and yet compulsive codependency, and also a shared compassion, a familiar pain. At first, I would assume I was replaying the trauma of that writer’s death, but really it went back to my own father, too.

He had had cancer most of my life. Interferon, the medication that kept him alive – but also made him very sick – was injected every day, a week at a time, for about fifteen years. He would spend long periods too sick to leave his bed, and others writing books and getting on with his life. This all set a precedent; I knew life to be on the edge of this realm of the sick, and also to contain this duality, a containment of the illness. I accepted it in other people quite readily, too. I loved them regardless of their sickness. I wanted to make sure they stayed alive, made their deadlines. When my father died, this determination only intensified. I became strangely dependent on this dynamic,or at least desensitised, but it made me sick, too.

It wasn’t until I was in Berlin last summer that I really slotted other things together regarding my father, though. It was only after he had died that I found out he had lived in Berlin in the 1950s and then 1970s, first as a conscripted army officer, and then as an editor working for a German publisher. He had a girlfriend called Marianne whom he smuggled from East to West, who later married a war photographer and moved to Florida. As I sat in a sublet Berlin apartment, full of the mid-century furniture my father had also loved, I felt his presence very much. I began to understand that Berlin had been part of his life before I arrived, that the city had shaped him in some ways. It was as if the city was proving this point over and over again; I felt as if I were visiting him there. I was putting on a book reading at Shakespeare and Sons, for instance, and I was telling the others about this, because it happened to be Father’s Day and then as I mentioned his name, a car – a Saab, the exact one he had driven – came careering round the corner, going way to fast, just as he always had. ‘That’s his car!’ I said, and everyone saw it, and then it was gone. And we went inside and the readings began.

Another evening, we went to a little bar in Kreuzberg, near where we were staying. ‘This is the place he took me to in a dream, after he had just died,’ I told my boyfriend. It must have seemed weird and unlikely, but there it was. ‘He took me to lunch, and then when he had finished eating, he said, “I’m going to retire to bed”. And then he just died. But it felt like he was saying goodbye, because he didn’t get to do that in real life.” Perhaps this was a typical dream of wish fulfilment, and yet the bar in the dream was just like this one.

Those few days in Berlin I might as well have been in a dream, anyway; the past, and these people, mostly my father, but also other memories, pulled me into a parallel world. It was 38 degrees every day and sweltering; we took pictures that looked like we were staying in the most beautiful, mid-century hell. But I didn’t mind the heat, I didn’t mind that it was unbearable, because I felt closer to him there. In the hell, I felt at home.


Christiane F. is a strange film. There are some beautiful, mesmerising scenes, but mostly it is very young people chasing oblivion and songs with one another in this netherworld, because they are sad and then sick – losing themselves to a feeling, chasing it and losing it again, nearly dying, trying to come back, dying. Over and over again. Nothing else happens. It is a grim, cautionary tale, and yet it is one that has tempted many people to chase a similar feeling and compulsion, whether through music or drugs or a kind of soporific, melancholic aesthetic.

When I rewatched Christiane F., for the first time in years, I questioned the ethics of it, and I found it very hard to watch. Perhaps because I have my own son now, I wondered if it was actually a good idea that this film was made. This was an emotional reaction; simply, I felt sad to see these children live so precariously, to be so unhappy and ill, for it to seem glamorised and fetishized.

But perhaps there was another level to this new feeling — one of my own regret. Why had I watched this and wanted it so badly, despite how bleak it was? Why did Christiane F. still live in me? What if she always would?

Well, what if? It is uncomfortable to face your shadow, your sickness, whether in a film or in other people, or merely in your own memories and actions. And yet it is part of us too, and repression will not make it go away, only strengthen the tension against it, deepen the fury. I now let Christiane F. be, I watch the film affectionately and then the film ends and I move on. My demon, it transpires, is this melancholic teenager in Berlin, haunting the subway, a chasing of brief elation, fleeting escape. A sad romanticism of the wrong things.

That writer once told me, “You can’t drink and write, not really. You can’t do drugs and write, for any length of time. You have to choose one.” While it’s clearly not quite that simple, there is at least the necessity, the requirement, to reign things in, to not fall apart entirely, to not lose everything. “You cannot serve two masters,” another memoirist told me, more recently, this time quoting the Bible (and indeed, his own book).

Christiane F. is a film that showed me my shadow side, and I’m sure many people experienced it similarly – it shows the darkness to the light, which is impossible to repress entirely, but must nevertheless be acknowledged, reigned in, balanced out. The sadness must not overwhelm, the escape must not be allowed to eclipse life itself. These are lessons that must be learnt and relearnt over a lifetime.

I did tell that writer, all those years ago, that I chose the writing, and this decision was compounded by his own early death. I promised him that, and I did mean it. Not Christiane F., but Christiana S, the yin to the yang. Writing is reigning in, but it is riding, too. There must be some wildness to contain, some life to enjoy, some dreams to live out or live in – but most importantly there are people to live and write for too. And perhaps precisely because there have been so many times I have felt abandoned by people due to their sicknesses and melancholy, the slow reach of their deaths, I remain determined not to treat anyone else that way, but to be present despite the shadows – these circular stories and sad endings. I remain determined to write differently, not merely to dwell in the empty shadows of the past.