Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, remade

The 1981 film shocked with its portrayal of child drug addicts in the heart of West Berlin. A new remake's director and producer explain why they took it on.

The new Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo: Lena Urzendowsky (Stella), Jeremias Meyer (Axel), Jana McKinnon (Christiane), Michelangelo Fortuzzi (Benno), Lea Drinda (Babsi) and Bruno Alexander (Michi).
The new Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo: Lena Urzendowsky (Stella), Jeremias Meyer (Axel), Jana McKinnon (Christiane), Michelangelo Fortuzzi (Benno), Lea Drinda (Babsi) and Bruno Alexander (Michi).dpa/Amazon Prime/Constantin Television/Mike Kraus

Berlin-It's been 40 years since Uli Edel's iconic film "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" hit West German screens, a dramatisation of the non-fiction 1978 book about protagonist Christiane F.'s descent into drug addiction and prostitution at just 13. Now an eight-part remake of the story of Christiane, her friends and the shady underworld at Zoologischer Garten station is coming to Amazon Prime on 19 February. 

The new series revisits the notorious locations from the original book and film: the concrete jungle of Christiane's neighbourhood in Gropiusstadt, Neukölln; Genthiner Straße's Sound nightclub, where David Bowie brought the original film's soundtrack to life; and Kurfürstenstraße, where the protagonists enter child prostitution to pay for their next hit. Previews have praised the performances of the series' young cast. Lead author on the new adaptation was Annette Hess, known for her work on the popular shows Weissensee and Ku'damm 56.

Still, taking on this iconic material, which is still widely read today and has been taught in schools, was a huge gamble. Producer Sophie von Uslar and director Philipp Kadelbach explain why they agreed to retell it now.

Berliner Zeitung: "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo", the book as well as the film, influenced a lot of people and shaped them too. Was it the same for you?

Sophie von Uslar: I read the book when I was 18 or 19, but I didn't see the film then. When I signed up for this project, I made a conscious decision not to watch it at first. Just so that I wouldn't have it as a reference point in my head - as the only reference point. There was always a point where we would ask ourselves: what was the story that was told then, what story are we telling, and why? I thought it was important to take a different view of it. 

And for you, Mr Kadelbach?

Philipp Kadelbach: I saw the film as a teenager. Back then I was one of these arrogant types that just rejected German films per se. So I didn't think it was particularly great. Now I see it completely differently - Uli Edel's film is really magnificent. But I only came back to it when I was offered this project.

It's amazing that you dared to take it on - these are iconic film images you're going up against.

Philipp Kadelbach: At first I said I wouldn't do it. Absolutely not. I'm not crazy. There's a whole legion of people who grew up with this film and see it as a monument, and can't separate themselves from it. And they condemned our series within the first few minutes. I can't relate to that. 

But in the end you did it anyway. Why?

Philipp Kadelbach: The subject matter is still highly topical, explosive, timeless. But in a different way to 40 years ago. Back then drugs was a new issue, people looked at it voyeuristically. But it's one that's still with us today. More people are taking drugs than ever before. But how are kids getting into it?

Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) and Benno (Michelangelo Fortuzzi) prepare heroin in a scene from the new series.
Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) and Benno (Michelangelo Fortuzzi) prepare heroin in a scene from the new series.Mike Kraus/Constantin Television/Amazon Prime/dpa

How are they, then?

Philipp Kadelbach: Many factors play a role. But right now, in these times when everything is just getting faster and faster and we have to achieve more and more, for example, perhaps people take drugs because they're trying to cope. People feel under pressure, and because of this pressure they take drugs. I think a lot of young people can't cope without using substances to help themselves. That's something that interests me, but I can do without dressing it up in 70s garb, because that creates a distance from the viewer. 

But the drug in your series is still heroin, like in the original book and film. Aren't there other drugs in the foreground today that people take to function, like cocaine or amphetamines?

Philipp Kadelbach: Statistically speaking, heroin is still a frontrunner. It's used more now than it was in the 70s. As a general rule, people take more drugs now than then. We spoke with drug counsellors, addicts, ex-addicts, and they told us that it depends on how you take heroin. People take it in order to function. They inject themselves with just enough so they don't go shooting backwards. It's an opioid, of course, but the main thing is that people feel they don't have any problems anymore when they've taken it. It takes the pressure off everything. The world works without any problems. If you take the right dose, the effect is great. And it's better than the alternatives, because it's quick. It's in your system within 30 seconds.

Infobox image
Photo: Imago Stock & People/Christoph Hardt
Philipp Kadelbach
was born in 1974 and studied at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ School and Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg. His work includes the celebrated ZDF Second World War three-parter Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter) and the ZDF-neo series Parfüm.

Did you try to find visual images for the highs?

Sophie von Uslar:  No.

What about the falling into the bottomless pit? Or the scene where Christiane's friend Babsi floats underwater with the DJ she idolises. 

Philipp Kadelbach: OK, those are two examples. Otherwise there's no visualisation of being high on drugs. What we do see are the exaggerations of the dreams the kids have when they haven't taken drugs.

Infobox image
Imago Stock & People
Sophie von Uslar
is producing the remake and oversaw TV drama "The Spiegel Affair", the ZDF series "Tannbach" and the trilogy "NSU - German History X", among other productions. Since 2018, she has been responsible for the development and production of new feature film and series formats for Constantin Television.

Sophie von Uslar: And the scene with Babsi has a second layer to it. With her it's always about longing for death. This floating in the water isn't just about being high, but also the moment when she lets herself fall into another element. She also encounters her dead father outside of her intoxification - that's us playing with levels of reality.

There's another image, when the needle hits the vein and the blood mixes with the cooked up heroin inside the syringe. You've blown that up to the full size of the screen in part, like an explosion, or a mushroom cloud.

Philipp Kadelbach: We freed ourselves a bit from Christiane - we're telling the story of the children at Bahnhof Zoo. And we see all of them, besides one, have their first experience with heroin. We wanted to set the scene for that too. It wasn't about celebrating the heroin experience for us. And you don't see any close up injections after episode four.

The iconic Sound club as portrayed in the remake.
The iconic Sound club as portrayed in the remake.Mike Kraus/Constantin Television/Amazon Prime/dpa

Let's talk about other visuals: the disco where they all meet, the Sound, looks very different to how we know it.

Philipp Kadelbach: I've already had to hear people tell me I've betrayed Berlin and all the iconic motifs. That is all because we were trying to translate the kids' emotional state into images. If we had filmed this club on Genthiner Straße as it was in the 70s, with this low-ceilinged basement atmosphere, the most modern club in Europe at the time, with kids lining up in front of it and being euphoric - it wouldn't have worked.

In your series we sometimes hear techno in Sound. Why? 

Philipp Kadelbach: Because we wanted this feeling of timelessness - and a connection to today. If we had "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd playing, that would have been a very authentic choice of music for the club at the time, but it wouldn't have had the identification potential for a teenager in "our" version of Sound.

Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) in Zoo station - reconstructed in Prague.
Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) in Zoo station - reconstructed in Prague.Mike Kraus/Constantin Television/Amazon Prime/dpa

But the Zoo station looks exactly as it did then.

Philipp Kadelbach: Yes, in detail. We reconstructed the interiors in a hall in Prague. It's a massive trick of the eye. I have a huge amount of fun with that, even if no-one else notices it. For example, we filmed at Christiane F.'s original front door in Gropiusstadt.

Your lead characters often look incredibly cool, but at the same time you can't glorify them as drug users. Did you find that a fine line to balance?

Philipp Kadelbach: That's largely because we wanted to represent our characters' inner lives externally, and we're walking on a knife edge there, no question. But by episode five or six they don't look as good as they do in episode one with their first cigarettes in their hands.

Sophie von Uslar: We go in relatively innocently and create an emotional closeness to our characters. We develop an attitude towards drugs together with them. For example, that at some point heroin becomes more important to them than friendship, and it's just about the next hit.

Philipp Kadelbach: We're telling a story over eight hours, and people shouldn't just throw in the towel after two hours and say we're aestheticising drugs and glorifying it all. That just isn't the case.

Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) in Gropiusstadt, Neukölln.
Christiane F. (Jana McKinnon) in Gropiusstadt, Neukölln.Mike Kraus/Constantin Television/Amazon Prime/dpa

At one point, Christiane's friend Stella stops prostituting herself, but has two addicts work for her. They set her up in a fur coat on an office chair on the curb-crawling area at Kurfürstenstraße. She tells one client, "I'm a capitalist." Is that a social parody?

Sophie von Uslar: It's just brutally hard. Stella is looking out for herself, as she always has done. It's an almost unbearable image. Many years ago I produced "Operation Sugar", a film about forced child prostitution in Germany. We did a lot of research and it's simply the case that the few women in this scene, if you can call it that, are usually victims themselves and know no other world beside one of systematic abuse. Often they can only save themselves by becoming perpetrators. 

Have you actually spoken with Christiane Felscherinow [the real life teenager whose story was told in the 1978 book]?

Philipp Kadelbach: No, but she knows what we're doing.

Sophie von Uslar: We were able to get hold of the original recordings of the conversations the journalists had with her. These 50 tapes were the nucleus that we built our interpretation of the events on. A lot of it didn't even make it into the book. And it was just great to hear Christiane speaking.