The last few years have seen an influx of biographical films focusing on popular figures who have had to navigate around a rapid rise to stardom. Perhaps, rather ironically, it is in these biopics wherein the public is given insight into the toxicity and pressures that accompany fame, especially when entangled with life’s complexities. From Alan Turing, Colette, and Elton John, the telling of these stories are also becoming a way of reviving suppressed queer history. Austrian musician and filmmaker Reinhold Bilgeri explores the fascinating story of Erik Schinegger, a man who was once a world champion female skier in Erik & Erika.
While Schinegger’s story may ring a bell to some, it is the perfect example of a film being an opportunity to amplify real-life stories that risk being forgotten. Schinegger’s transition from a woman is established from the start. As a hopeful young man drives back to his family home, a father calls for ‘Erika’ for which he replies with ‘I’m just Erik now’.
When Schinegger was born in Agsdorf in 1948, the midwife looks at the newly born for a held beat before pronouncing ‘a girl’ had been born – much to the dismay of Schinegger’s father who had been hoping for a son. Despite being assigned female, young Erik (Erika at the time) was determined to acquire the same opportunities as her male counterparts, quite literally fighting for her conventionally male interests, punching a playmate after being told she couldn’t drive a soapbox.
Erik, even during his childhood as Erika, was always surrounded by people, in one way or another, dictating or swaying his decisions. Glimpses of precious, innocence, and freedom when he can spend time alone make for some of the film’s most poignant moments – a longing for self-discovery which Bilgeri makes a constant throughout the film. From a young age, Erik/a relishes the stunning scenery and nature her Austrian town has to offer, often running off into the wilderness when pressures from others became too much; finding comfort in the stillness of the vast landscape and one’s self.
Naturally, growing up in a southern Austrian state, Erika develops an interest in skiing – even using it as a possible way of reconnecting with childhood friend Christa after her expression of young love gets turned down. Inspired by the female skiers she watched on television, Erika handmakes a wooden pair of skis in her father’s workshop. Despite the agony of her first heartbreak, Erika found her new love.
Bilgeri shifts the film’s tone when covering Schinegger’s teenage years; the relative serenity of her childhood replaced with a more funky and upbeat tone with the musical score to match, the filmmaker’s focus on the musical aspect is glaring and nearing excessive. The more Erika felt lost within her identity and place in society, the deeper her love for skiing grew, like her ventures into the wilderness, the thrills and up and downs of the fast-paced sport become a refuge. But her time at the top was threated to reach its halt.
After the exhilarating wins, for which the film incorporates real footage, controversy hits just as Erika prepares to hit the slopes for the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. The medical tests reveal Erika is intersex, possessing both X and Y chromosomes. While the intimidating clique of old men in charge of her career assure her she is perfectly healthy, they threaten the end of her career and essentially decide for Erika to undergo procedures to ‘become a woman’ – sending Erika away to a ‘safe… lovely island’. The film paints Schinegger’s parents equally as controlling, agreeing to the procedure without Erika’s consent despite being nineteen years old.
Schinegger eventually realises that becoming a man was what he wanted to do. Through the help of two new female figures in his life, he manages to transition, delivering an iconic line, ‘I hate men. How do I become one?’ along the way. The film doesn’t hesitate to show the gruelling process Erik went through to transition, traversing from one tonal style to another to become more immersive. While jarring at first, the stylistic changes grow charming, you grow to embrace the film’s surreal tendencies.
A relationship that rekindles due to the halt in Erik’s career is his childhood romance with Christa. Their palpable attraction to one another is presented several times throughout the film but was not explored to its full extent until the film’s end. As Erik’s career nears an end, another love is reignited; Christa becomes the catalyst for Erik’s new life to motion.
While based on real-life events, the result of Schinegger’s transition to his career remains heartbreaking to watch. Despite winning the right to ski again in court, his professional career ended soon after. Bilgeri’s take Schinegger’s fascinating life is both playful and empathetic, encouraging the much-needed conversation on intersexuality and transgenderism.