Erik & Erika

Imagine a little mountain village in the sixties. The only TV that exists is in the parish hall next to the church. That is where little Erika Schinegger does what all Austrians do during the winter: watch the ski races. That is what Austrians are good at, skiing is a huge part of Austrian national pride. Little Erika, a tomboy, and her father’s favorite, practices the moves right there on the floor of the parish hall. Her parents gift her with her first pair of skis and she begins to teach herself, forcing her friends to shovel snow onto a hill when there is not enough and doing daredevil stunts. Ten years later the self-training pays off. She is drafted into the women’s national team and beats everyone’s time, including some of the skiers on the men’s team. She is a star. She is living her dream.

But that dream comes to a crashing halt when a blood test reveals that Erika is a man. She does not have female reproductive organs nor does she have anything but male hormones. She is prevented from going to the Olympic Games. She is crushed. And with the help of a urologist and a nun, she fights back.

Over a decade in the making, this story from the Austrian ski world is based on the book by its protagonist, but is not based on a true story – it is one. And it is told with the full support of its protagonist, now a living legend in his country and the winner of Dancing Stars, the local version of Dancing with the Stars. Schinegger told the film’s director at the Austrian premiere: “You looked into my soul. That’s exactly how it was.” Schinegger, the Austrian ski champion, shocked the world of competitive alpine skiing in the 60s. By racing faster than any other, including some of the top male skiers, she was the toast of her town, her state, her country. When it was discovered that, genetically, she was a man, what followed were lies, intrigues, bullying and attempted cover-ups that could have led to unspeakable tragedy. During a time when transgender issues were neither openly discussed nor clearly understood and transsexuals had to stay in hiding, Erika became Erik: “They wanted to send me off to an island, sweep me under the rug. I meant nothing and to them, because they feared for their reputation”, Erik Schinegger said years later about the Austrian Ski Federation

Directed by Reinhold Bilgeri (a four-time director and former Austrian rock star who made his first movie, A Breath of Heaven, in 2010) and starring Markus Freistätter as the title character, the gripping film also features performances by renowned German actress Marianne Sägebrecht (The War of the Roses), Ulrike Beimpold, Cornelius Obonya and August Schmölzer.

Erik & Erika is a story about taboos, corporate greed, cynicism and the triumph of humanity. Released to rave reviews in Austria and a box office hit in that country, the film comes at a time when transgender topics are finally at the forefront.