Director: Hüseyin Tabak (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Ben is rushed to the bedside of his heavily pregnant ex-wife Mira. She’s confined to hospital for a couple of weeks, and someone has to look after their 2 young kids. Mira says there’s nothing to worry about: her new partner Diego will do it. But Ben has more than one reason to distrust Diego – he hasn’t just taken away his wife, he’s also a Spaniard. Did I mention that Ben is a copper, with a less than progressive world view? You are pretty sure that it was Mira who left Ben.
Ben barges into Mira’s house and pushes past Diego, telling the kids to get ready to come back to his house. Daughter Erna is packed and ready almost immediately, but son Oskar is dawdling upstairs. After an eternal wait, Oskar finally emerges at the top of the stairs. He always wore his hair long, but is now wearing a yellow dress. It is not long after this scene that Oskar announces that he is not he. She is a girl, who would like to be called Lili from now on.
Ben’s immediate reaction is one of panic. While Mira has come to terms with her child’s sexuality very easily – changing her school and enrolling her as a girl, Ben gains “scientific knowledge” from the Internet, which tells him that “Trans is just a trend”, and Oskar is just going through a phase and in no position to understand his own sexuality. Although Ben is more Beta- than Alpha-male, he has fixed ideas about how the world works, and orders Oskar to just cut it out.
With this sort of build up, the film was only ever going to go one of two ways. It could have confirmed Ben’s transphobia and restored the old order. This would have been the less likely option, but there are enough German films about Islam which pour all the blame onto Muslims to make it a possibility. So it is something of a relief that the film takes the slightly more liberal, if wholly sentimental, tack that people are people and we should accept them for what they are.
Given the toxic nature of the current debate about Trans rights, we should celebrate the fact that Oskars Kleid’s message is not downright reactionary. Added to this, the film does contain some entertaining quirks, not least from Ben’s liberal vegetarian Jewish parents who are embarrassed that their son could have taken on such a shameful job. Ben’s mother is an atheist who still needs her religious belied, while his father infers antisemitism from every act of everyone he meets.
There is a lovely scene in which Oskar asks a genial rabbi whether God makes mistakes. The rabbi asks if Oskar wants the official answer or the true one. The true one, of course. Well, of course God makes mistakes, but he does it on purpose. Evolution works through mutations and the resolution of apparent inconsistencies. Life in the rabbi’s universe appears to be much more fun than in the worlds of much more earnest clergymen – or indeed in Ben’s reactionary paranoid world.
So, there’s a lot to praise Oskars Kleid for. It has deliberately taken on a subject which is currently causing a heap of political confusion, and decided not to be a dick about it. This is not to say that it handles the subject elegantly. It is a film about a trans kid which spends as little time as is humanly possible to even consider what the trans kid thinks or believes. This is seen as being less important that the shocking impact on transphobic adults who should know better.
The story that we see is shown pretty much entirely through Ben’s eyes. This is not unproblematic – not just because Ben is a cop, although this is part of it. We see Ben being sent to evict ane ecological protest and are expected to feel sorry for him because someone in a tree above him shits on his head. This scene is not played for laughs, but to show us how terrible Ben’s life is. It is almost as if Ben’s bigotry is excused because some people just don’t like cops.
Because Ben is not just a cop and our identification figure. He is also a macho racist transphobe who initially can’t understand either Oskar’s decision to become Lili, or his wife’s decision to hook up with someone who isn’t even German. And yes, for all this he is a slight figure of fun, we are expected to accompany him through his learning process with a degree of empathy. Empathy, that, I can’t stress enough, we are not invited to show for either Oskar or Lili.
When Oskar is attacked at school (as it happens by a kid who had fancied him when he thought he was a girl), Ben tells him to fight back with physical force. This is again something which is potentially interesting – pacifism alone cannot overcome oppression. But Oskar’s reaction happens off screen and we are not allowed access to one of his few attempts to respond to transphobia on his own terms. Once more, the implications for Ben are seen as being much more important.
Oskars Kleid is a film which sees potential conflict and runs away in the opposite direction as quickly as it can. It ends with every conflict happily resolved and everyone loving each other. There is even a thank you in the final credits to all the families who shared their experiences with us, and, indeed, all families anywhere. So, a film which champions people who’s very lives challenge bourgeois family norms sees it’s ultimate solution within the bourgeois family.
Summary: you always had the sense that it could become much worse, so there’s something there to celebrate, but there was something uncomfortable about the fact that the film itself was not comfortable with Trans identities. Maybe a step forward, but only a short one.