Christiane F., the teenage heroin addict and protagonist of the book (and film) Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, has become the symbol of those lost West Berlin youth who got swallowed up by the partying and drugs of the 1970s underground. Where are they now? We tracked down three of Christiane’s peers from the old heroin scene and found them still grappling with the consequences of their past.
As a teenage heroin addict and prostitute, Sabine’s life revolved around the infamous S.O.U.N.D. club in Tiergarten. Now it revolves around Kottbusser Tor, as the 57-year-old lives off welfare and struggles with disability.
For Sabine, it all started in 1975 at S.O.U.N.D. After growing up in an orphanage in Reinickendorf, the 16-year-old was living on her own in social housing in Kreuzberg when she found out about the Tiergarten disco. Frequented by David Bowie in his Berlin years, the club was known for playing the best of the West Berlin musical underground – and for turning a blind eye towards drug use and underage patrons, including Sabine and a young Christiane F.
Christiane and I used to be close, but we’ve very much grown apart – we barely even say hi to each other now.
It wasn’t long before Sabine’s social life revolved around S.O.U.N.D. – and, once she turned to prostitution to support her habit, so did her work. Her preferred post was right in front of the club. She used to wait for clients there, and visit the club during her breaks to have a dance, eat some food or buy more heroin. The place was mostly open on weekends, but she spent all of her time there during the week, too, as her friends hung around that area, and clients knew where to find her.
Shooting 70 percent pure heroin – these days, it’s more like two or three percent – took its toll. After developing thrombosis in her leg, Sabine entered rehab in 1989 and was put on the opioid substitute Polamidon, a therapy she still continues.
She kept working the streets for another decade after that. “It’s a shame the job wasn’t legal when I was at it,” Sabine says. “Otherwise I would have paid taxes and now I’d have a pension.” Did she ever think about trying to find another job? She smiles. “With another job, I would never have earned DM 1000 (roughly €500) a night. If only I didn’t squander all of it on drugs,” she adds.
Now Sabine receives unemployment and illness benefits from the government – the latter due to her severe vein thrombosis. She lives alone, close to Kottbusser Tor, Berlin’s current heroin hub. She has made friends with older drug addicts and newcomers to the scene, but has no contact with peers from the old times. Many of her friends have died, and those who are still alive often don’t want to be reminded of those years. Every so often, she bumps into Christiane F. “We used to be close, but we’ve very much grown apart – we barely even say hi to each other now.”
Sabine’s swollen legs make it hard for her to walk or stand, and she spends her days out on Kotti, one of the only people in the busy square on a chair. “Heroin completely destroyed my body,” she says. “During the last years of my addiction I would shoot cocktails, heroin and cocaine together, plus alcohol.” In addition to her government benefits, she sells some of her Polamidon to make a few euros on the side.
“To those who are now in the same situation I was in 40 years ago, I would say, try and think about your future. Try and save some money, even if it’s hard, even if you’re spending €100 a day on drugs. My life is gone. Sure, I had fun. But it hasn’t been worth it.”
A reformed heroin addict who dabbled in petty crime, Ralf is the only survivor of the six friends he started doing drugs with. Now 63 with a family and steady job, he’s a fervent religious believer and antidrug advocate.
Born and bred in West Berlin’s Charlottenburg, Ralf spent his rebellious teenage years between Ku’damm, Wilmersdorf, and Schöneberg. He entered the scene in 1971, at age 17, through his older sister. At first it was about smoking hash for a momentary escape from a tough family situation; then, it became a deliberate attempt to live a different life, shared with a group of close friends, emulating Woodstock idols, stealing LPs and spending time in West Berlin’s smoky clubs. Ralf drops now-obscure names like Club I, Park or Black Corner. And of course, there was S.O.U.N.D.
Teenagers like us weren’t technically allowed to be there. So we bribed the bouncers…
“The police used to come by at around 10 pm to ask for IDs,” he recalls. “Teenagers like me, and also Christiane F. and her friends, weren’t technically allowed to be there, we were too young. So we bribed the bouncers so we could stay inside the whole night without being noticed. Many of the staff at S.O.U.N.D. took drugs themselves. It was just about knowing the right people.”
By 1972, he had turned to the hard stuff . “I started shooting heroin and this thing called Berliner Tinke” – a notorious mixture of morphine carbonate and acetic acid often used in place of pure heroin.
“I spent three months in jail. I beat people, I broke into cars to get money to buy drugs. Once, me and my friend attacked a dealer to steal dope from him, and we were convicted. In the 1970s, you needed a lot of money to be a drug addict. Now things are different.”
In the midst of his addiction, Ralf was invited to spend some time on a friend’s farm. “It was a nice place, a little alternative. I stayed for a bit and had my first detox. During those two weeks I asked myself: am I going to determine the course of my life, or am I going to let drugs determine it?”
Back in Berlin, he found religion. “I started going to mass, made friends there, met my future wife. That was 1978. It became more and more important to me to listen to the needs of others, to ask that ‘how are you’ question so few ask.” He began working for the Christian association Teen Challenge, which provides free meals and drug counselling at hubs like Cafe SehnSucht at Kottbusser Tor.
In 1982, Ralf published his own autobiographical book (Spiegelbilder. Eine Antwort an die Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo), as a response to Christiane F.’s bestseller. He was critical of her portrayal of Bahnhof Zoo’s underage heroin users as hopeless, desperate youth, and wanted to spread the message that former addicts could and should strive to have a good life. Married with two children and working as an IT technician, Ralf is now adamantly against drugs – even marijuana. “The pro-legalisation movement isn’t aware of the consequences it might have on society.”
Part of the Bahnhof Zoo crew since age eight, Teddy spent his twenties partying, drinking and selling and taking drugs. Now he’s a Motz seller living on the dole.
Abandoned by his mother at a young age, Teddy started running away from the orphanage at around eight years old. That’s when he found himself in the Bahnhof Zoo area, where he was “adopted” by Christiane F. and her crew. “She became something like a godmother to me,” says Teddy. Christiane was 16 then, and living near the station with her boyfriend Detlef. It was convenient for Teddy to crash there, and it gave him a sense of freedom.
Thank god I didn’t have to sell my body to buy drugs… I simply begged, and it worked.
In his early teens, Teddy was adopted by a southern German family who gave him some semblance of a typical adolescence, but that didn’t stop him from developing what was to become a lifetime drinking problem. In 1991, at age 21, he returned to Berlin and immediately found his way back to Bahnhof Zoo. “It was a huge meeting point, everyone was there. I made friends with junkies and drifters, and also hung around S.O.U.N.D. – it still existed back then. Thank god I didn’t have to sell my body to buy drugs, unlike others I knew. I simply begged, and it worked.” He spent eight years there, homeless.
Teddy was never a heroin addict; his addiction is alcohol, and, for a brief time, prescription drugs. For him, Berlin will always be synonymous with cheap, easy drug use.
“Everything was and still is cheaper here. I used to stock up on pills in a pharmacy I knew here in town, and resell them in Hamburg where prices were higher. A pill used to cost two marks in Berlin and five in Hamburg.”
Now 47, Teddy lives with his dog Lola in far-eastern Ahrensdfelde, in an apartment paid for by the Jobcenter. He’s been selling the street newspaper Motz since shortly after its founding in 1995, and makes about €50 a day from it.
“During the Zoo era there was no such thing as Motz, and it was really hard for people on the street to earn their living. So you often saw 13- or 14-year-olds getting into prostitution. It was crazy to see boys pretending to be homosexual to be able to go with men, and 15-year-old girls infected with HIV.”
His longtime girlfriend died five years ago, and Teddy now spends much of his time around Nollendorfplatz, the square from which Motz copies are distributed. “I still bump into Christiane on the street, but she doesn’t want to talk about the past,” he says.
“Sure, I would have liked a different life, but I had no chance for it. I worked in a bike repair shop for a couple years, but it’s hard to get any job with no school degree. In any case, after my homeless years at the Zoo, my first priority was to have somewhere to live. The rest was always secondary.”
In 1978, journalists Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck published Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the true story of a young David Bowie fan growing up in the Neukölln suburbs turned heroin addict and child prostitute. Intended as a cautionary tale, the book and subsequent film, 1981’s Christiane F., ended up glamourising 1970s West Berlin as an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – and catapulted narrator Christiane Felscherinow into international fame. In 2013, she published the sequel Christiane F. – Mein Zweites Leben, detailing her years spent hobnobbing with celebrities in LA, the birth of her son and eventual loss of custody, and her enrolment in a methadone programme in the 1990s. Despite an initial wave of interest, the book flopped. Christiane is now 55, lives near Hermannplatz and can be seen around town walking her two Pomeranians.
Want more Exberliner? Why not subscribe?