Revisiting seedy West Berlin with Christiane F. and Patricia Highsmith

christiane f

Every few years, Berlin newspapers run a where-is-she-now story on Christiane F., the onetime heroin-addicted teen prostitute made famous by the book and movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. This past week she’s been plastered all over the German media in advance of the October 10 release of her memoir Mein Zweites Leben (My Second Life). Christiane, now a remarkably well-preserved 51, has racked up plenty of memoir material since attaining celebrity status as a sort of real-life Go Ask Alice in the late seventies. In the early eighties she had a musical career with her then-boyfriend, Alexander Hacke of the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. She hung out with Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, and Billy Idol; went on cocaine binges with Van Halen; circled above Berlin with David Bowie in the Rolling Stones’ private jet. In the 35 years since Bahnhof Zoo she’s continued to struggle with heroin: she was last in the news in 2008, when she lost custody of her now 17-year-old son during a relapse. One interesting detail of her story is that for all this turmoil, she’s been far more financially stable than many celebrities: knowing herself to be a junkie, she invested the money from her first book in a way that blocked her from ever being able to access too much of it at once.

film

From the Gropiusstadt high-rise in Neukölln where Christiane lived with her mother to the Charlottenburg and Schöneberg street corners where she traded sex for heroin, the 1981 film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is steeped in West Berlin seediness.  In the late Cold War cultural imagination, the figure of the train station junkie epitomized a certain Western European urban seaminess much as the breadline beneath an overcast sky embodied Eastern Bloc bleakness. As in so many things, the divided Berlin offered a microcosm of these East-West tropes: glam-tinted sleaze is to the image of Cold War West Berlin roughly as oppressive grayness is to the image of Cold War East Berlin.

A few months ago, while working on a book review, I came across another striking depiction of sordid West Berlin and gray East Berlin in Patricia Highsmith’s 1980 crime novel The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Kreuzberg doesn’t figure very heavily in Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, but for Highsmith it’s the lurid epicenter of West Berlin sleaze. When Tom Ripley arrives on a “dismal-looking” Kreuzberg street, two “urchins” beg money from him, implicitly threatening to damage his car if he doesn’t fork over a few pfennige. One of the urchins, a ten-year-old girl in a pinned-together window curtain and messy lipstick, is a child prostitute; the other is her eight-year-old pimp. Filthy-windowed apartment houses smell of boiling cabbage; their denizens live, at best, from petty crime and welfare scams. I know that Kreuzberg circa 1980 was a far cry from the enclave of fair-trade espresso, wine bars, and organic Scandinavian children’s clothing where I live today, but it’s hard to imagine any place being quite as unsavory as the Cold War Kreuzberg of Patricia Highsmith’s imagination, and when I read the description I had trouble believing it.

highsmith

So I was intrigued when Christiane F.‘s recent slew of interviews in German newspapers mentioned her having spent time with Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland. Aha! I thought. If Patricia Highsmith was hanging around with Christiane F., no wonder she described West Berlin the way she did. Not exactly, as it turns out: Highsmith and F. met in Zurich around 1982, well after Highsmith wrote The Boy Who Followed Ripley. And as Christiane tells it, they weren’t the best of friends:  “Patricia was always giving me dirty looks when [Swiss writer Friedrich] Dürrenmatt chatted with me at dinner,” she told Die Presse.

The descriptions in The Boy Who Followed Ripley stem from notes Highsmith took during visits to Berlin in the winter of 1977-78. Biographer Andrew Wilson writes that she “was intrigued by the boy and girl prostitutes of Kreuzberg – ‘Turks, all made up and in curious period costumes’ – which she marvelled at with her friend.“ While in Berlin, Highsmith fell madly in love with a much younger German woman named Tabea Blumenschein. “One day they visited the zoo to see the crocodiles,” Wilson writes, “and in her notebook Highsmith wrote of how she would always remember the sight of Tabea pointing at the creatures’ wounds, a detail she incorporated into The Boy Who Followed Ripley.“

tabea blumenschein

West Berlin has changed less than East Berlin since the Wall came down: there are far more traces of lonely-capitalist-outpost Cold War era sleaze in Charlottenburg than there are of the GDR in Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte. Kreuzberg, however, has changed enough to render Highsmith’s take on it utterly unrecognizable. Perhaps more resonant is what she said about Berlin at the time: “Berlin is bizarre, producing a desperate desire in individuals to be more bizarre, in a curious effort to be ‘stronger’ than what is left of the city. The individual feels he must count for something, prove to himself that he is worth something, that he exists.”

Pictures, from top: 1. Christiane F. today; 2. film poster for English version of Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo; 3. Patricia Highsmith, perhaps in the late 70s; 4. Tabea Blumenschein in 1975, photographed by Ulrike Ottinger

3 thoughts on “Revisiting seedy West Berlin with Christiane F. and Patricia Highsmith

  1. Wow, I didn’t know about this Highsmith book. Berlin did not appear in the two Ripkey books I have read. I find the description of Kreuzberg, as you summarize it, hard to believe too… It sounds like Christopher Isherwood’s Hallesches Tor of the 30’s, especially with the cabbage smell.

    1. Yeah, I feel like the fact that it seems so unbelievable and over-the-top when it’s based on first-person observation in part reflects how extremely much Kreuzberg has changed. Re. Isherwood, you’re right, the description is kind of Bahnhof Zoo-meets-The Berlin-Stories. And what’s with all the cabbage smell in descriptions of Berlin? I never smell cabbage. Have Berliners recently stopped boiling cabbage all the time?

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