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.
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.
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.