‘We Children From Bahnhof Zoo’ Director on Giving Tale of ’70s Youth in Berlin a Contemporary Vibe

Leo Barraclough

Philipp Kadelbach, director and co-creator of the series “We Children From Bahnhof Zoo,” says his initial impulse when approached to helm the series was to steer well clear of what he saw as a fool’s errand, given the iconic status in Germany and elsewhere of Uli Edel’s 1981 feature film “Christiane F.,” which – like the series – is based on the book “Christiane F.: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo.”

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do this. I’m not crazy.’ Because it’s like a monument for so many people. And everybody would start attacking me because I’ve gone to tell this story again, and they really loved it,” he tells Variety.

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However, having read Annette Hess’ scripts, he saw how she had approached the material in a different way. The film felt like it had a voyeuristic approach to the subject, he says. He resolved to give the series a different visual style, and to “tell [the story] in a different way.”

Fremantle has near sold the world outside Asia on “We Children From Bahnhof Zoo” – thanks to a raft of sales that include a worldwide deal with Amazon Prime Video for the U.S., English-speaking territories and all Europe’s outstanding major markets. Taking in further sales to HBO Europe, NENT Group and Russia’s More TV, the series, produced by Constantin Television and Amazon Studios, has closed more than 40 territories.

Alongside the Intl. Emmy Award winner Kadelbach (“Perfume,” “Generation War”), and Hess (“Weissensee,” “Ku’damm 56”), the show’s creators include producers Sophie von Uslar (“NSU: German History X,” “Tannbach – Line of Separation”) and Oliver Berben (“The Typist,” “Perfume,” “Shadowhunters”).

The original book, published in 1978, is based on interviews with a then 15-year-old former teen drug addict and prostitute Christiane F. The book shattered cosy illusions of a post-war world that protected its children; it became Germany’s biggest non-fiction bestseller since World War II, and was published in 20 languages.

The movie “Christine F.,” produced by Bernd Eichinger, written by Herman Weigel and directed by Edel in a neo-documentary style, sold nearly five million tickets in Germany and was a major export hit.

When casting Christiane – played in the series by Jana McKinnon – Kadelbach says he was searching for a particular look. “I was looking for something in between warm and cold,” he says. “In between empathetic and arrogant.”

Christiane has a certain innocence, but appears to be searching for something, Kadelbach says. “She’s always pushing… she wants to be integrated in groups, wants to keep going and going. She’s driven by something,” he says.

Despite the central role played by Christiane in the series, it is far more of an ensemble piece than the movie, charting how Christiane, Stella, Babsi, Axel, Michi and Benno encounter together the first adrenalin rush, hedonism and kinship of youth, found first at a night club and then through drug use.

This focus on the six characters equally, rather than just Christiane, was in part due to the fact that Kadelbach, Hess and Berben had gone back to the original tapes of the interviews that two journalists from Stern magazine had conducted with the real-life Christiane F., and which formed the basis for the book.

These tapes “revealed so many more stories,” Kadelbach says, and that enabled them to fill the eight episodes. The series is able to focus on the “kaleidoscope of circumstances” that led the youngsters to take to drugs, and the group dynamics at work.

The group of friends unravels as they become hooked on heroin, paid for by prostitution. The friends’ individual traumas, as the series’ synopsis says, drag them into a tailspin, which some will never escape.

Although set in mid-1970s West Berlin, the series has a modern aesthetic. “Drug abuse is still a very contemporary topic,” Kadelbach says, so he set out to eschew a period feel to the show, and “make it more contemporary.” He decided not to give it a 70s look, which would make it look like “history,” and “would distance me from the topic itself.” It isn’t a realistic depiction of 1970s Berlin either. “I think people will actually be very mad with me – coming from Berlin – because it doesn’t look like Berlin at all,” he says.

He sought to tell the story from “the inner perspective of the characters […] I tried to visualize their emotional feelings.” This dictated the visual style. “That’s why everything looks maybe a little bit colorful, a little bit glossy, in the beginning. Obviously, if you’re dealing with drugs, you need to explain why people are taking them, and then you need to say what the consequences are,” he says.

As the drugs take hold of the young people, their perception changes, and again this is reflected in the visual style of the show’s later episodes. “If you keep watching, everything will change on the way. So the series will look totally different in the later episodes and feels totally different. So the whole thing merges into something way more sincere than in the first two episodes,” he says.

However, this mirroring of perception is subtle and restrained. Apart from in a couple of scenes, he didn’t try to visualize what it would look like if you were on drugs.

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