Berlinale Success Story "The Transsexual Is a Symbol for the Gender Confusion We all Feel"

"A Soap," a film about a straight woman who falls in love with a transsexual man, came away with two prizes over the weekend. But what's the fascination? SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the film's director Pernille Fischer Christensen about the gender confusion in all of us.

Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen upon winning a silver bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen upon winning a silver bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

At the beginning, the film feels direly conventional. Kristian and Charlotte are young lovers who live together in a happy, devoted partnership. But from there, Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen takes the viewer on a trip through the maze of gender identity. Charlotte dumps Kristian and moves out. She then meets her new neighbor Veronica, a male transsexual who is on the cusp of having a sex-change operation. And one of the most bizarre love stories to appear recently on the big screen unfolds.

Successfully too. Christensen's film, "A Soap," was awarded a Silver Bear by the Berlin International Film Festival jury over the weekend. The director also won the €25,000 award for best first feature for her debut movie. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Christensen about modern gender roles, transsexuality, and about how much man is in every woman -- and vice versa.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What inspired you to make a film about transsexuality in the first place?

Christensen: I met this transsexual guy and I found myself sitting in front of a human being whose gender I couldn’t define. It was not so much him; it was me that I was intrigued by. I didn’t know how I should be talking to him. And that just got me thinking: Who am I as a human being? Am I first a woman, then a human being? Or am I human being and then a woman? Am I also a little bit a man? The film is my own private and personal exploration of that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were you able to find the answers you were looking for? Or does the film move beyond transsexuality to become a story about wider societal issues?

Christensen: When I watched the film at its premier at the Berlin International Film Festival, I noticed that I was still discussing it with myself. People want me to explain what this film is about, and say in short sentences what it deals with. It’s actually very difficult; this film is very much an exploration of love and gender. We measure our success of love in the images of love. But those images are static. And it’s a hopeless project, because our love will never be like that image. The actual reality of love in our lives is much more chaotic.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The reality of love in your film is likewise chaotic. And even Kristian, Charlotte's boyfriend at the beginning of the film, seems to be the anti-macho. He's very sensitive and likes to talk about his feelings. To what extent are you making a comment about how men are today?

Christensen: A lot of men these days are insecure in front of women, because women have become so strong. Men are very frustrated because they don’t know what women want. You see this in the film when Kristian says to Charlotte “I can be anything you want me to be.” But actually she wants someone who has integrity and isn’t molding himself to her wants.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The primary focus of the film comes after Charlotte and Kristian break up and Charlotte begins falling in love with her neighbor, a transsexual man who is preparing for a sex change operation. There seem to be a number of films dealing with transsexuality and gender questions at this year's Berlin film festival. Why?

Christensen: I grew up in the 1970s and I am a product of women’s liberation. My generation is really the first one to fully benefit from the movement. It’s the same for homosexuals. We are the first generation to really accept that someone is gay. I work with people who are gay and of course I don’t think about it. I don’t care if someone lives with a man. Twenty years ago it was an issue. Now it’s not.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It sounds like you're saying that homosexuality, as a topic for the big screen, is no longer interesting. Do we now need to go beyond merely having a character who is gay?

Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm) and Veronica (David Dencik).

Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm) and Veronica (David Dencik).

Christensen: When you look at "Brokeback Mountain"-- which was the most beautiful cinema experience of last year -- and you look at "Capote", they are both films set in the past. It’s very difficult to set such stories in the present day, because homosexuality is no longer a problem. They need to be set in the past to get a drama out of them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So your solution is to have a man who is becoming a woman fall in love with a woman who is only interested in dating men?

Christensen: Yeah, you could say that. This is a film which tends to intimidate people, and they are often moved by it. But they are a little bit shy that they are moved and they don’t want to admit it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it about the zeitgeist right now which allows gender issues to be discussed so openly?

Christensen: It’s very much to do with our modern lives. As a woman, for example, I live and work very much like a man. I take a lot of things from the man’s world and I have to do that if I want to survive modern life. Conversely, men have to take things from the woman’s world to survive. It’s a very beautiful thing that you have to mold your own gender nowadays. But it’s a very stressful thing for us. A lot of people are very frustrated. On the outside I am a woman, but how much am I also a man inside? And how much is the man that I meet actually a woman inside? The transsexual is a symbol for the confusion all of us in the Western world feel about this right now.

Interview conducted by Damien McGuiness


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