Theatre: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

On August 13, 1961, a wall was erected down the middle of the city of Berlin. The world was divided by a cold war, and the Berlin Wall was the most hated symbol of that divide. 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. Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is like that wall! Standing before you in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom! And you can try and tear her down...

Hedwig And The Angry Inch was a 1998 off-Broadway rock opera by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, adapted into a film in 2001. Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall won Tony awards for the spring 2014 Broadway revival, and the show itself took home the prize for Best Revival. Michael C. Hall replaced Harris in the title role through January 2015 after which John Cameron Mitchell himself returned to the role.

This article deals mainly with the movie.

The story follows Hedwig Robinson, who at first appears to be a male-to-female transsexual. She's the head of a not even remotely famous band called The Angry Inch. They play in dive bars to small crowds, stalking the much more successful rock star Tommy Gnosis, who — as Hedwig explains to her audience — stole her songs. There's much resentment within the band, particularly between Hedwig and her aspiring drag queen husband Yitzhak.

Hedwig retells her life story to her few fans. Born in East Germany under the name Hansel Schmidt, she was once the effeminate son of a communist German woman named Hedwig and a (possibly abusive) American soldier. When the wall was built, Hansel's mother took her son to East Berlin to live a simple communist life. Bored and alone, Hansel spent his childhood listening to American glam rock on his radio, and pretending to be one of the "crypto-homo-rockers" of the 70's.

One day, after being kicked out of university for delivering a lecture on the "aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll" titled "You, Kant, Always Get What You Want", teenaged Hansel meets a black American soldier named Luther. Luther instantly falls in love with the boy. He leaves him a candy trail of Berlin's symbol, colorful little gummi bears, seducing Hansel and introducing him to love. Hansel's mother, realizing that her son has no future in communist Germany, decides to let Hansel undergo a sex change operation in order for him to marry and leave the country. She leaves Hansel her passport — and her name.

The operation is botched, leaving Hedwig with partially formed genitalia, which she nicknames the "angry inch". Luther leaves Hedwig on the day the Berlin Wall is demolished. Stranded in the United States and stripped of her identity, she's forced to create a new life for herself. As Hedwig struggles to unite her male and female side — just when the city of Berlin is struggling to reunite itself — she discoveres there's much more to unite in what she considers her identity: the east and the west, the grownup and the child, the man and the woman, the old and the new. Keeping her head above water with odd jobs ("mostly of the type we call blow"), she meets the introverted teenaged military brat Tommy Speck and tries to fall in love again. Tommy is intrigued by Hedwig's music, and tries to make her part of his life...

Hedwig draws many comparisons to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and has garnered a similar (but smaller!) cult following. Although the story draws heavily from both classical mythology and from the glam rock cult scene, it's a very refreshing new take on gender and sex in pop culture, at the same time hilarious and utterly heartwrenching.

No relation to a certain snowy owl.

Contains the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents : Hedwig's father. His mother is somewhat better but makes him play in the oven and throws tomatoes at him, which becomes a bit of a Brick Joke later. It's implied that there is tension between Tommy and his father General Speck, but it's not elaborated on.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Tommy in the bathtub.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: The film is an adaptation, but the stage show was completely original.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Yitzhak is played by Miriam Shor, who makes a rather convincing man. Their biological sex is kept ambiguous in the movie; a scene showing that Yitzhak is biologically male was cut from the film in order to ensure Viewer Gender Confusion. The only unambiguous aspect of Yitzhak's gender is that they want to be feminine, but Hedwig forces them to dress as a man.
    • Just what gender Hedwig identifies as is debatable as well. The sex change operation was for convenience in escape, not because they wanted to be a woman. After getting the titular inch, they seem to go back and forth on whether or not they wish to be a man.
  • Anachronism Stew : The stage show started around 1998 and ran for several years Off Broadway. The film was released in 2001. The date of Hedwig's wedding and emigration to the US is 1988 and her marriage collapsed around the same time as the Berlin Wall in 1989. From there it becomes more vague. Hedwig's time in the trailer park takes place in the early 1990s, although (perhaps because they're homemade) the clothes seem to be straight out of The Eighties. There's also no mention of when she met her bandmates, including Yitzhak, although the deleted scene hits that it's around the time of the Bosnian War (early 1990s). Made even more vague with the Broadway revival, which updates the story to set it in a Broadway theatre the night after ''Hurt Locker : The Musical'' closes.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The German dialog in the movie is gramatically accurate but the actors have incredibly thick accents and they also have some trouble reciting their lines fluently.
  • Author Appeal: Mitchell is a Radical Faerie, and most of his works explore gender and sexuality as constructs. This movie in particular pokes the gender binary with a cattle prod.
  • Back-Alley Doctor / Easy Sex Change: Hedwig gets a fast, cheap, and completely illegal shady operation. But because of this, the surgery became botched, leaving Hedwig with the titular "angry inch".
  • Big Bad Friend: Tommy pillages all of Hedwig's music and discards him faster than you can say "plagiarist." He becomes wildly successful as an Alpha Male rocker while Hedwig is stuck playing in empty bars, igniting their feud.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Gummi" is German slang for condom. The gummi bears, as a symbol for the power of adulthood and sex, are extremely sexually loaded.
  • Canada Does Not Exist: The film was shot in Toronto, but the locations stand in for various places around the American Midwest.
  • Chekov's Gun: During a lame standup routine, Hedwig makes a throwaway joke about immigration, reassuring her audience that she has her East German bandmates' passports right on her person. It becomes a plot point when Yitzhak tries to leave her. Also the flyer for RENT auditions that Yitzhak pulls off the wall in the Laundromat. She gets the role of Angel in a touring performance, leaves Hedwig, and the band splits up, leading to the film's third act.
  • Crossover Cosmology: The Origin of Love features Zeus, Thor, Osiris, and some Indian god. They're all dicks.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hedwig.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Hedwig spends the entire stage play completely smashed drunk.
  • Epic Rocking: Midnight Radio.
  • Everybody Wants the Hermaphrodite: Hedwig becomes a Memetic Sex Deity in and out of world.
  • Fake Nationality : The cast is full of this, including the all American Angry Inch band (who are supposed to be from East Germany and the "Eastern Bloc" in general, with Yitzhak hailing from Czechoslovakia); British Maurice Dean Wint as the American Luther Robinson; Canadian Alberta Watson as Hedwig's East German mother; and Chinese-Canadian Sook-Yin Lee as the Korean war bride Kwangh-Yi.
  • Fanservice: John Cameron Mitchell appears naked at several points.
  • Food Fight: At least one gig devolves into a riot.
  • Gainax Ending: The last fifteen minutes or so of the movie have no dialogue, only music. The directors' commentary says that it is supposed to represent a concert and give a deeper look into Hedwig as a person. It also leaves the final scenes open for interpretation. They could be a musical number representing actual events or, if Hedwig is dead, it could be her dreams flashing before her eyes.
  • Gallows Humor
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Hedwig jokes about when she had to prostitute herself to survive. Later, she returns to the streets. "I returned to doing odd jobs. Most of these were the jobs we call blow. I lost my job at the Base PX and I also lost my gag reflex. You do the math!"
  • "I Am" Song: "Tear Me Down"
    "I'm the new Berlin Wall, baby! Try and tear me down!"
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Hansel delivered what he called a "brilliant lecture" on rock 'n' roll and East German philosophy entitled "You, Kant, Always Get What You Want." Apparently it was such a bad pun that it was the reason for his dismissal...
  • Jerkass: Hedwig again. Her treatment of Yitzhak is outright psychological abuse. She's a Jerkass Woobie if ever there was one.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?" "No, but I love his work."
  • Larynx Dissonance: The only thing that stops Miram Shor, as Yitzhak, from being a completely convincing male is that she has a distinctly feminine voice.
    • And body, as shown during Midnight Radio.
    • Averted in the Broadway production. Lena Hall actually sounds quite convincing - There's a reason she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Featured Role!
  • Limited Wardrobe: Yitzhak wears the same outfit throughout the movie, in stark contrast to Hedwig's elaborate and ever-changing wardrobe. Also a Running Gag in the form of a track suit, worn by several characters. And they have to strip down in the laundromat to do their laundry, as the band members have few extra outfits.
  • Medium Blending: The animated "The Origins Of Love" segment.
  • Magical Negro: Word of God claims that this was intentionally invoked with Luther.
  • Mind Screw: The ending.
  • Mondegreen: During the limo scene, Hedwig and Tommy are singing along to "The Origin Of Love." Hedwig hears Tommy sing "and the Cyrus" (or possibly "and the Sirens") instead of Osiris. Also includes a PrecisionFStrike when Hedwig says "There's one version of the lyrics and you fucked it up!"
  • Musical World Hypotheses: Most of the numbers are diegetic; however, the movie version of "Wig in a Box" is more Adaptation, and the Gainax Ending is such a Mind Screw precisely because it is not clear which hypothesis is at work.
  • Mythology Gag: In one scene, Hedwig and Yitzhak are talking while the television plays "Random Number Generation," a song from the original stage show.
  • Product Displacement : The bottle of Zima and another bottle of what appears to be some sort of citrus alcohol that Hedwig drinks are visible but not named or labelled. Likewise, the names of the stores in the Toronto Eaton Centre are blurred out.
  • Punny Name : Phyllis Stein (played by Andrea Martin).
  • Rage Against the Heavens: "Origin of Love" has a lot of elements of this.
  • Recursive Crossdressing : When Yitzhak finally gets her "dream" of becoming a drag queen. The role is traditionally played by a woman dressed as a man, who reverts to dressing as a woman/drag queen at the end of the show.
  • Reincarnation Romance: The subject of "Origin of Love", adapted from Plato's Symposium, is how men and woman (and men and men and women and women) were once joined together as one person and the gods cut them in half for hubiris; love therefore comes from meeting your past-life other half.
  • Sad Clown: In the stage play, Hedwig has a running joke going on where she asks her audience if she's laughing or crying. It becomes clear after a while that she's grinning so hard because if she'd ever give into crying, she'd pretty much kill herself.
  • Shout-Out
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: The main form of the musical numbers.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "My 'bishop in a turtleneck.'" Used once more in the stage show, after which Hedwig drunkenly congratulates herself on a successful running gag.
  • White Void Room: During the song "Midnight Radio".
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Several verses in "Exquisite Corpse." Some stanzas are coherent ("I'm all hollowed out, covered in a paper shroud and all the rest's illusion"), but then you get this verse:
    A random pattern with a needle and thread
    The overlapping way diseases are spread to
    A tornado body with a hand grenade head
    And the legs are two lovers entwined!
    • Of course, word salad is what an exquisite corpse is supposed to be. A coherent one actually ruins the point of the exercise.
  • Yum Yum: "And a giant sized Sugar Daddy named Luther..."

Alternative Title(s):

Hedwig And The Angry Inch