Tear Me Down: Why Hedwig still Rocks Twenty Years after the Wall

Check out Richard Lindsay’s review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch after the jump.

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

“No, but I love his work.” – Tommy and Hedwig

The recent celebrations over the anniversary of the downing of the Berlin Wall left me thinking of the most important figures in the revolution in culture of that historic event. Reagan and Gorbachev, yes. But mostly an East-German punk rock singer with a botched sex change operation named Hedwig. Based as it is on American global politics of the late nineties seen through the personal trials of its main character, Hedwig and the Angry Inch would seem to be a post Cold-War relic. But re-viewing the film against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall anniversary, and nearly a decade of post-9/11 politics, this fiery rock musical still has the ring of truth, and maybe even the makings of a classic.

The story of Hedwig is of a “slip of a girly boy from East Berlin” who fell for an American Sergeant named Luther the year before the Wall fell. Hansel, as he was known, had to marry Luther in order to cross over to the West, where he could indulge in the material and social freedom he heard in the punk rock blaring through Armed Forces Radio. He was sent to an East German doctor for a sex change operation and took his mother’s name, Hedwig. As Hedwig later sings, “Two days later, the hole closed up. The wound healed and I was left with a one inch mound of flesh…” (Hence, the “Angry Inch,” the name of Hedwig’s band.) One year later, Luther moves on to another girly boy and Hedwig is left stranded in a trailer park near an army base in Junction City, Kansas as he watches the Berlin Wall fall on TV.

She takes up several jobs, including looking after the little brother of a teenage Army brat named Tommy Speck. Teaching the religious but curious Tommy the ways of “crypto-homo” rock, together they create a rock persona named Tommy Gnosis. Tommy proceeds to steal Hedwig’s songs and become a rock star. The film shows Hedwig and his band of illegal Eastern Europeans stalking Tommy’s tour by playing in a chain of seafood restaurants called Bilgewaters while Tommy rocks out at stadiums and arenas in the same towns.

The film has terrific supporting characters including indie hottie Michael Pitt as Tommy, Miriam Shor playing a drag king Yitzak, Hedwig’s husband (who really wants to be a drag queen) and Andrea Martin as the band’s irrepressible manager.

The songs, written by Stephen Trask, Mitchell’s collaborator in developing Hedwig, are beautifully crafted, with the wit and wordplay of a punk rock Cole Porter. A favorite line with a Biblical reference from Wicked Little Town, a song that Hedwig sings to Tommy, goes:

And then you’re someone you were not

And Junction City ain’t the spot

Remember Mrs. Lot and when she turned around.

But it’s John Cameron Mitchell who makes the show. Hedwig starts out as a ridiculous premise with hairy armpits, acid-washed jeans, glam rock glitter makeup, and a massive blond wig. Over the course of the film, she becomes a metaphor for post-Cold War America, a standard-bearer for sexual freedom and gender nonconformity, and finally, a whole person.

Hedwig names the unease created by the end of the Cold War by recognizing that an essential part of American identity was caught up in the dichotomy between the Eastern Communist and Western Capitalist systems.

As Yitzak shouts in the opening number, “Tear Me Down:”

Reviled, graffitied, spit upon,

We thought the wall would stand forever.

And now that it’s gone

We don’t know who we are anymore.

Just a few weeks after the broad release of the film in late summer 2001, this unease seemed to be resolved through the attack on the World Trade Center. The planes smashing into the twin towers brought shock and horror, but politically, almost a palpable sense of relief. Americans could once again go about the business of hating a distinct group of people and supporting the permanent war footing of our military industrial complex. In the adolescent fantasies of the ex-Cold Warriors in the Bush administration, the attack took place as part of a centralized global Jihad movement, which included the Medievalist Taliban, the loosely-networked Al Qaeda, and the pitiful Stalinist regime of Sadaam Hussein. In imagining the opponents of “freedom” to be a united band of “evildoers,” Bush created an enemy far more powerful in scope and unified in ideology than had existed before the attacks.

It didn’t work. Even with the Taliban (initially) routed, Al Qaeda scattered, and Sadaam captured and killed, there was no sense of triumph over the “global Jihad.” There was no concrete symbol of division to hate and no leader our cowboy president could order to “tear down this wall.” We are still in the Age of Hedwig, uncertain of who we are or what our position is in the world; her androgyny a metaphor for a permanently complex and multilateral world. As she sings in the opening number:

Ain’t much of a difference,

Between a bridge and a wall,

Without me right in the middle, babe,

You won’t be nothin’ at all!

In a deeper layer to the global political situation, the film captures the revolutions in gender and sexuality embodied by the queer punk scene of the 1990’s. The character Hedwig started as a running performance with Mitchell and Trask’s band Cheater at “Squeezbox!” a New York drag rock show in SoHo, before becoming an off-Broadway show. At the height of the queer theory boom in the academic world, the Wesleyan-educated Trask helped supply some philosophy to the gender-bending ethos of punk and glam rock. Perhaps the most striking song in Hedwig is “The Origin of Love,” which explains Aristophanes’ theory of sex and gender from Plato’s Symposium: it seems some people started out as two women bonded together, some as two men bonded together, and some as part man and part woman. The jealous Zeus broke us apart, and we spend the rest of our lives looking for our other half. It sounds like heady stuff, but Trask’s flowing acoustic melody and epic power chords along with Mitchell’s musical storytelling make it completely followable.

In addition to this mystical description of love, Tommy’s stage name suggests the Christian Gnostic influences in the story. Early in their relationship, Tommy asks Hedwig in almost a rote fashion if she has “Accepted Jesus Christ as [her] personal savior.” Hedwig’s sarcastic reply: “No, but I love his work.” But then Tommy starts asking questions that reveal a more heretical take on the idea of sin and salvation. Tommy asks why it was bad for Adam and Eve to take the apple in the garden and compares his own “pathetic dictator” of a father to God’s ban of the fruit of knowledge. “I mean, he was so micromanaging.” Tommy asks Hedwig to introduce him to the “knowledge” she holds, making her androgynous spirit a sacred figure of wisdom in the Gnostic mold.

Hedwig, living on the line between male and female, is unsure where to look for her other half. She tries to find meaning in material goods, captured in the rousing sing-along songs, “Sugar Daddy” and “Wig in a Box.” She believes she’s found wholeness in Tommy, but, as she says, her young lover and protégé “took the good stuff and ran.” Finally, in a strange turn of events, Hedwig becomes famous, leading to the deconstructive punk of “Hedwig’s Lament”:

A collage!

I’m all sewn up!

A montage!

I’m all sewn up!

Hedwig’s realization that she is an “exquisite corpse” is the frightening realization of many of us in the fractured celebrity and self-help culture in which we live. Namely, if we were to help ourselves, which one of our selves would we help first?

We can try to use commercialism, relationships, celebrity, or blind jingoistic nationalism to tell us our identity. But ultimately, as Hedwig discovers, the truth about who we are must come from within. The Berlin Wall becomes a symbol of the dichotomies that divide our lives and keep us from being whole: “East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom.” Hedwig is right; we can’t live without something in the middle.