Christiane F. & The Gropiusstadt

Sanna Akehurst visits Gropiusstadt to pay tribute to Christiane F’s Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo…

There’s a German author and cabaret artist by the name of Horst Evers who once suggested that if any of your acquaintances outside Berlin has the audacity to take your invitation to the city seriously and then insists you show them the sights, you should show them the view out of your flat window and ask them to kindly keep quiet so you can sleep off the rest of your hangover.

I wouldn’t be that mean personally, and I like visitors—but the usual sights are getting tired and some of my visitors insist on coming back again and again. So I had the idea a while ago that I could show them a DVD of a film made in Berlin and then go check out the location where it was filmed.

2011 will be something of a jubilee year. I will have lived in Berlin for ten years come the summer and it’s also thity years since Uli Edel’s film version of Christiane F. – Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo (soundtracked by one David Bowie, who also appears in the film) opened up at the cinemas. It caused a scandal when it came out for its socially critical attitude and its brutally graphic portrayals of the drug scene in 1970s Berlin.

Christiane was born in Hamburg but grew up in West Berlin when that term was still a distinct geographical location and many West Germans were moving there to either a) escape military service and/or b) take advantage of the subsidies made available to ensure ‘the island’ remained in the hands of the west.

Christiane and her family settled in Gropiusstadt, which is where much of the movie is shot (along with Bahnhof Zoo, where most of her daily life as a prostitute and junkie was lived out). The area – a newly created satellite town in the middle of nowhere, an almost no man’s land south-east of Berlin – was constructed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who was commissioned to design practical and fast-to-erect housing blocks for the influx of families.

Image by Sanna Akehurst

You may have seen it from a distance as you came into Berlin on the S-Bahn from Schönefeld airport. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another part of the city’s infamous Soviet Style architecture. But to quote Christiane F., who knew it as home…

‘piss and shit all over the place…

…however fine it may look at first sight with its lawns and shopping centres, stinkiest of all are the housing blocks in their staircases. What are the kids to do when they are playing outside and need to go to the loo? They’ll shit themselves waiting for the lift, so they go in the lobby.’

‘Just take a closer look at it,’ she suggests. And that’s exactly what I did.

The U7 took me there—and provided an escape afterwards. As I walked around, I reflected on how the twentieth Century was a time of absurd housing projects. In order to create a fine society and do away with the slums, one lot of bleak housing was hastily thrown up to solve the problems created by the previous lot. In the twenty-first Century we are doing our best to romanticise all of these; who doesn’t want an Altbau hinter Hof – 2Raum Wohnung or even a nice renovated Bauhaus?

Maybe the film in that sense begs a question: have we learned from twentieth century urban developers’ mistakes? The Soviet countries saw the situation described in the film as proof that capitalism was dangerous. Sociologists in the west argued in retrospect that these particular housing projects were a recipe for juvenile delinquents—soulless structures creating nothing much more than uninspiring wind tunnels.

Friends of mine love the ‘brutalist’ style, although I note that none of them live in it. Despite having grown up in the idyllic English countryside some ten years later, I must confess to sharing those dreams of first escape, then understanding and of course love, with Christiane F. She gets follow up interviews from time to time and is apparently still struggling with addiction issues.

Image by Sanna Akehurst

On the way back I saw a sign that read:

‘Welcome to Gropiusstadt, where ketchup is handed out as tomato sauce made according to the family recipe.’

Neukölln, the district of Berlin to which Gropiusstadt now belongs, has an appalling reputation for education standards, a point that does not go unannounced by the young participants in the Sprach- und- Lesewoche 2010.

It seems that Gropiusstadt still has a long way to go before it can shake off its antisocial image, despite coded entrances and even fancier shopping facilities—jump off at U-bahn stop Johannistaler Chaussee and check out the Gropius Passagen.

So what to do?

1. Watch the film.

2. Take the U7 to Blaschkoallee. Get out your camera and snap all those bright and cheerfully renovated Bauhaus complexes until you get back in the underground at the next stop east, Parchimerallee.

3.  Now travel eastwards again. Get out at Wutzyallee. Get out your camera again and snap the teetering tower blocks and other jagged concrete structures between there and Zwickauer Damm.

4. Go home and upload your pictures.

5. Maybe look up Walter Gropius—his great uncle was Martin Gropius  (of the art gallery fame) and Walter himself was one of the founders of the Bauhaus movement. Perhaps like me you’ll find it hard to understand how he got from one style to the other.

6. Last but not least (together with similar aged friends) get your old building bricks out and build yourself the housing plan of all housing plans. Drink a glass of wine or cup of cocoa and argue about what taste is and reminisce about your teenage years.

 

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Comments

  1. When I first saw the movie, years ago, the buildings dispayed in the movie facinated and scared me. It seems odd that these buildings are still very clear in my head even years later.
    When I moved to Berlin I made a list on things I want to do and see. Gropiusstadt is quite high on that list. I still havent made it there. With this article I got a new motivation.
    I tried to find guided tours but so far without success. Do you know a company or someone doing guided tours around Gropiusstadt?

    Keep on the good work. I love reading your articles.

    Karina

  2. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the comment Karina and thanks for reading…

  3. Sanna says:

    Hello Karina,

    I just wanted to reply to your question. As far as I know there isn’t any organisation or person offering tours. I am amused that the buildings seemed to haunt you in the same way they do me. Actually because of the U-bahn 7 route, it is very easy to find your own way around with a camera on a field trip. Most of the back ground information I had was from the usual online research. Maybe you can become an expert and offer tours yourself 🙂

    Sanna

  4. kristin says:

    Good article. However, I still dont understand: at what subway station to get off to see the area / buildings where Christiane F grew up? I just wanted to take a quick look, not stop at several stations… So is it Johannistaler Chaussee, Wutskyalle or Blaschkoallee?

    I am travelling to Berlin for the second time this summer – and as I was a big fan of the book, it would be interesting to see the loactions where it took place.

  5. Hey Sanna,

    thanks for the Tip. I hope the weather will be better soon so I can start my Photo safari. Did you take any good pictures? Dont you wnat to share them with us? I’m pretty sure bw shots or even pictures taken with a Lomo camera would look amazing.

    Karina

  6. Sanna says:

    To Karin,
    I would suggest you get out at Zwickauer Damm – That is pretty much guaranteed instant Christiane F horror housing gratification.

    And to Karina,
    There is this guy called Paul Sullivan who is an awesome photographer and also happens to be the person who started STB. I think he is the man to speak to about your excellent photographic ideas. I am merely a handycam owner with a few ideas about what others could do much better 🙂
    If you wish to view my extremely amateur pictures then please ask the ed. for my email address.
    cheers
    Sanna

  7. kristin says:

    Thanks, Sanna 🙂 Have you got any idea of what house / street that Christiane lived in? I am so fascinated by that story.

  8. paul sullivan says:

    Hi Karin, sorry for the late reply. I have actually just started doing photo tours and workshops here in Berlin and would love to chat about your ideas. Drop me a line at paul@slowtravelberlin.com if you’d like…

  9. Sanna says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13979860
    found this interesting slide show about housing projects in the UK

  10. bix says:

    hello,
    might be a little late but just read this. there are definitely tours through gropiusstadt as i had one a couple of months ago. and – what you see in the movie is NOT gropiusstadt but märkisches viertel. the movie wasn’t shot in gropiusstadt at all.

  11. Paul Sullivan says:

    Hi, interesting comment, thank you. Do you have any more info or links on this, or is it just hearsay?

  12. Sanna says:

    ah hah. I was sure I checked my sources, but you have got me looking again. I checked the book again first and it certainly says at the beginning of the first chapter that she lived first short term on the Paul-Lincke-Ufer, then moved to the Gropiusstadt.

    But you were referring to where the film was shot. Various sources agree with you whilst others say it was shot in Gropiusstadt too. I suppose it didn’t occur to me to question it since I could not imagine why they wouldn’t film it in the place that the book describes.

    Do you know where in Märkisches Viertel it was shot? I am sure some people would be curious to check that out too. Thank you for your information 🙂

  13. Jan says:

    Gropiusstadt still 40 years later looks like something that fell down from the moon……

  14. Robert says:

    When this movie was released in America in 1982, I saw it as a teenager and found it fascinating. To be honest, I went and saw the movie because Bowie was in it. I really had no idea what the movie was about or that it was based on a huge international bestseller (but after seeing the movie I noticed the book in bookstores and read it). In 1982, I had not been to Germany and was riveted by the film and went back to the theater and watched it two more times. I really can’t say why I was such a fan except that the movie showed a world that was totally different than the American suburban world in which I had grown up. I bought the soundtrack record and then CD and eventually I owned the movie on VHS then DVD. For some reason, I named my dog Babsi (after Christiane F’s friend) which may or not make sense now looking back on it. Babsi was a good dog and she lived to 18 but Babsi in the book/film only lived to 14. I have now been to Germany many times (a couple dozen) and to Berlin a couple of times and as a fan of the film/book did the obvious things like explore Bahnhof Zoo (while on my way to visiting the zoo with my wife and daughter). I will have to visit Gropiusstadt next time. Thanks for the great article.

  15. Paul Sullivan says:

    Wow great comment Robert…you’re really a fan! Always inspiring and interesting to hear how these stories/films have so much impact on people from other cultures etc. Gropiusstadt is a very residential area but its history is fascinating of course…

  16. Lukas says:

    Despite of Kristin’s 2 comments, nobody actually disclosed the exact house/address where Ch. F. lived (unless I’m blind)… 🙁 I’m finally going to visit Berlin 2 days from now and I will be totally sad visiting Gropiusstadt but not really knowing what exactly I’m looking for 🙁

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