Friday, March 01, 2019

I, Christine F., 13, Junkie, Prostitute…

I, Christine F., 13, Junkie, Prostitute…*, Ulrich Edel  
Drugs kill, so does sociology. 
A cliché is neither true nor false. It’s an image that doesn’t move, no longer makes anybody move and generates laziness. There is no shortage of clichés when it comes to drugs. All of them are in I, Christine F., 13, Junkie, Prostitute which is filmed in the grim and flat style of the new ‘new’ German cinema. The title raised the fear (or the hope) of a pornographic film but it appears to be nothing of the sort: we are witnessing a raw and unvarnished spiral of a collapse. Nothing will really surprise us but everything will appal us: the gory details, the syringes cleaned in the toilet tanks, the asphalt and the apartment blocks, the pale faces and the unfathomable sadness of the children lost on the pavements of Berlin, between the Sound, ‘Europe’s biggest night club’ (where David Bowie performs one evening) and the Am Zoo station**.  
We are told (it’s the essence of the advertisement for the film) that Christiane F. has existed, still exists, that she’s clean now and that she has spent hours talking to two journalists, that a best-selling book followed (in 1978), whose film rights were quickly acquired (in 1979) before a certain Ulrich Edel started shooting (in 1980) and the film was released in Paris (1981). But once the film is over (ending on this improbable image of recovery), we wonder: what’s the point? What’s the point of this guarantee of reality, this slice of true life, what’s the point of the real Christiane F.? It was enough to enter in a computer all the literature on the topic, from confessions of former junkies and dealers, to police and medical reports, to obtain Christiane F., the inconspicuous 13-year-old little girl, the facial composite of a fallen child, the sociological sample that we needed to illustrate the typical scenario, the composite scenario of the film. That a filmmaker embarks on a detailed investigation of one topic is one thing (even Hollywood has done that), that he uses the results of the investigation to protect himself is another. Unless his goal is to disarm the audience, to make us feel even more guilty, to prevent us from criticising the film. How dare someone say that such a film is grim, flat, lurid and comfortable? The one who does will be criticised in return: only a drug addict, a pervert or an aesthete would refuse to walk into this ‘real life blackmail’. 
And yet, what do we see in I, Christiane F.? Close ups of fake injections, ravaged faces filmed too closely, the dire spectacle of teenagers aping trips, withdrawal symptoms, prostitution and death for the camera. And what are we told? Some true, sad and irrefutable things, clichés precisely: that one takes drugs because of conformism (or worse, after a heartache), that the spiral is terrible, unstoppable: the joint leads to the fix like soft leads to hard, the fix leads to prostitution which leads back to the fix, and this until the final overdose. The causes of this spiral are vague but known: indifferent parents, broken families, a lover living with mum, uninhabitable cities, omnipresent sex, the lack of true love. All this must be true. But a true thing, when it becomes a sociological sample, begins to sound false. Because there is also the truth of cinema, of the gaze of the filmmaker. And an observation, no matter how brutal (and this one certainly is) is not necessarily truth. Otherwise, we should abandon film criticism and jump to the Society pages.  
Drug addicts are unlucky. They already suffer in life (“there are no happy drug addicts” repeats Dr. Olivenstein after having seen the film). And it’s not much better on film. The drug addict – and especially the child drug addict – is not a character, but a case.  One is not interested in a case, one examines it, especially since examining carries no risk for oneself. A filmmaker, when filming drug addicts (or any other fringe character), transforms himself into a care worker, a doctor, an understanding cop, a repressed punter, a murky journalist, a shrink: never into a filmmaker. Error. Abdication. The drug addict ‘character’ doesn’t exist in cinema: banned from fiction. Only the case counts, the statistical victim, the problem of civilisation. The bath water counts for more than the baby. This is why a film like Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, another story of very unhappy fringe characters, or even a film like Neige (Juliet Berto, 1981) with the transvestite character in withdrawal, moves us and teaches us much more than the little Christiane F. The true Christiane has been a victim of drugs, the false one (the actress Natja Brunckhorst) has been a victim of the sociological gaze. 
There are two types of films: those that involve the audience (they’re the best ones) and those that only concern the audience. The two are fundamentally different. In the first case, the audience is involved as individuals, as subjects, in each spectator’s troubled solitude as a ‘paying pig’. The spectator is involved by what we shouldn’t be afraid to call the art of the filmmaker: what he wants to say, his know-how, his moral. In the second case, the spectator is concerned as a citizen, belonging to a community considered normal, and who votes. What to do with the problem of drugs? If I’m a bit cowardly, I demand more funds for rehab centres. If I’m a member of the French Communist Party, I will denounce a small Arab drug dealer from the suburbs (that was before Mitterrand!). If I am soulful and sensitive, I will be appalled by this lack of love. But it’s too late. Love should have come before, before the spiral began. Love comes with fiction: we can love a character, but we can’t love a case.  
I, Christiane F., 13, Junkie, Prostitute is a film only in name. It’s something different altogether: an audio-visual simulation that, to be operative, should be broadcasted on prime-time TV, before a debate among experts who would seriously make us forget that for two hours we have been nothing but voyeurs. It’s a pornographic film after all. 

First published in Libération on 24 July 1981, reproduced in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, pp. 18-20. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector. 

* The film was released in France as Moi, Christiane F., 13 ans, droguée, prostituée… I translated the French title in English as it is relevant to Daney’s argument. Daney uses both ‘Christine’ and ‘Christiane’ randomly in the article (in the 1986 edition of his book Ciné Journal); I don't know why so I kept them as they are. The original title is Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, a film by Ulrich Edel.

** In French Daney writes ‘La station Am Zoo’ which seems a mistake. Daney refers to the Zoo train station - the Bahnhof Zoo in the German title. ‘Am Zoo’ means ‘at the station’ in German if I’m correct.

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