Of all the standout moments in the Season 2 premiere of “Transparent” — notably two brilliant long takes and one epic meltdown — the most perplexing and intriguing is easily an evocative flashback to 1933 Berlin. As the Pfefferman family dances the hora at Sarah and Tammy’s wedding, an occasion that marks a signaling of the future of the family, showrunner and episode writer-director Jill Soloway decides to rewind the clock for a couple of integral seconds. Match cutting the present celebration to an equally festive Berlin-set party, the flashback weaves into the story like a memory and teases one of the season’s most daring new themes: the legacy of the past.
While the way the flashback is incorporated into the show makes for a noteworthy moment, the brief look at Berlin is truly memorable for the actress at its center: the beautiful and striking Hari Nef. The most prominent new addition to Season 2, Nef is a transgender actress and model who joins the ensemble after graduating from the theater program at Columbia University and modeling on the runways of New York Fashion Week. The premiere hides Nef’s true identity — offering instead only a tease of her unforgettable screen presence — but her story pays off effectively later as the past collides with the present in ways the characters may not even recognize.
Earlier this fall, Soloway and Nef sat down with Indiewire to discuss this integral Season 2 storyline and the importance of the latter’s character to the show’s ensemble and overall social reach. Mild spoilers about Nef’s character follow.
Hari, as someone who is new this season, I’m curious to know what your initial impression of the show was. Clearly you loved it enough to join this world, but what stood out most to you about the show?
Hari Nef: It’s a show about family, which means it’s a show for everyone. I think trans issues can be incredibly new and uneasy to a certain audience, but when it’s really just one element in this universal story about family and change, I think it allows it and all of the show’s issues to be taken very intimately, whether you’ve experienced these dynamics or not. The family is written so specific and the characters are treated with so much nuance and time. There is so much freedom in the process that people tend to see themselves in the Pfeffermans and in all of their issues, triumphs, dynamics in their relationships. It’s just so specific.
Jill Soloway: We thought we were making a smallish show for a smallish group of people that was going to resonate with queer people and maybe with Jewish people and feminists, but it resonates with everybody. I could have never imagined such a thing, but it’s really cool. I think what Hari is saying is why it has these legs we never thought possible.
How closely did Jill capture your own experiences transitioning?
NEF: It’s something I’ve gone through and it’s something the show deals with using so much honesty, especially in how when one person transitions, it forces everyone to transition, which I think is why it becomes so emotionally difficult for so many people. It’s less the physical transitioning on an individual level and more the emotional transition on a group level, and that’s what the show is really about. I feel like everything has to become reinvented when you transition. You’re sort of parsing through the aspects of your relationships with people that weren’t gendered and the “it’s still me” thing, but you’re also at the same time realizing that the parts of your relationships with some people were really just binary discourse holding you together in a script. When that rug is swept out from under you, it’s really liberating and it’s really destabilizing, especially when you have things like pronouns, which are so necessary to someone feeling okay and feeling safe but are completely at odds with the muscle memory with someone that you’ve known for years and years. It’s growth, evolution and change, and it’s beautiful and it’s painful. But, really, whether you’re transitioning or not, that’s just life.
It’s a very delicate dance when you’re a trans woman; you are presented opportunities to commune with these stereotypical, patriarchal, quasi-oppressive modes of femininity and those feel like prizes, too, and tokens. But at the same time, you’re participating in a system that values women less than men, and there’s a profound ambivalence there. If you want to say “fuck it” and be anti then your very womanhood can be questioned in a way that it isn’t for cis women and cis-identified feminists.
SOLOWAY: I love how Hari talks about it because it’s like threading a needle. A lot of people come out and will criticize someone like Caitlyn Jenner for being femme, but they are doing it from a cis-female perspective of having felt that femininity is something that they’re trying to not do and not understand, as Hari said, that for Catelyn it’s about being able to express herself and her femininity and have that be a reward and growth. The conversation is so evolving.
What did you see in Hari that compelled you to cast her?
SOLOWAY: My sister, Faith, who is a writer on the show, she was Hari’s camp counselor back in the day and all of Season 1 she wanted to get Hari on the show. We went to an event together in New York last year and I was like, “The camera loves this person.” We were going to write a character that took place in the past and the camera loves Hari, so it all happened very easily and organically.
Why was exploring the past such a priority for you this season?
SOLOWAY: Last year we dropped this idea of Tanta Gittel’s ring. It was just dialogue. We had this prop that was a ring and the storyline was that Josh found a ring and he used it to propose and maybe someone in the family had worn it and maybe that person had died in the Holocaust. We used those little details kind of just as dialogue in Season 1, so this season when we sat down all of the writers asked, “Who is Tanta Gittel?” When we started to look back at the time when this family might have emigrated from Europe, we found this place for sexual research where a queer Jewish doctor named Magnus Herschfeld was gathering people together to talk about diversity and to talk about gender. He was doing hormone treatments and everything at a time when nobody would ever think about such a thing, let alone discuss it. We all couldn’t believe this happened and that we didn’t know about it, or that really anybody didn’t know about it. We couldn’t believe that we weren’t taught this history, so this felt like a very opportune moment, and obviously a very opportune show and platform, to do it on.
Were you familiar about this period in history, Hari?
NEF: Not at all! I wasn’t even aware of the institute or Herschfeld — literally none of it!
SOLOWAY: Isn’t it amazing that she’s trans and she didn’t even know about this history? It’s amazing and even saddening that there was no one around to give someone like Hari this kind of information about her own history, you know? One of our writers, Lady J, she was so angry when she found out for the first time about this era in Berlin. She was like, “Wait a minute. I could’ve known about this for my entire life. Why did it take so long?” And she absolutely has a point there.
So what was it like uncovering this history for the first time?
NEF: It was beyond. Jill gave us a set of research materials so that we could kind of investigate early on about the period. There’s this amazing text with a lot of photos in it called “Voluptuous Panic.” There’s also some really cool components on YouTube. The parallels to what’s happening today vs. what was happening in Berlin at that point are just astounding, honestly. There was an underlying sense back then that the world was going to end tomorrow, which is something that I think we feel today and it’s something people definitely felt back in Berlin during the First World War. In that sort of half nihilism, half exuberant feeling emerged this amazing permissiveness and this experimentation and this collapse of binaries that was maybe holding the old world together but doesn’t really matter anymore.
SOLOWAY:And the way those people were getting blamed, too, was just fascinating and tragic. Fascism was using what was happening to create a War and to justify their actions, which is kind of exactly what is happening today in terms of fundamentalism and using what they call permissiveness but what we come to understand as modern thinking about identities as a way to start wars.
This storyline is very carefully integrated and edited into the season. We only get a glimpse in the premiere via a jarring and sensual flashback, and, for a while, that’s all we get.
SOLOWAY: So much about introducing this storyline in the pilot and then sort of hiding it until the end was to bring about these feelings of DNA and memory. All of the past is rooted in these present characters whether they are aware of it or not. They can all feel this gravitational pulse to the past, they know it’s there, they just can’t make sense of it or don’t know what it actually is. It’s that feeling when you can’t identify something, but you still know that you’ve inherited something and you know something belongs to you but you just don’t know what it is.
As people who had only recently discovered this part of history, what was it like to then recreate it on set?
NEF: When we were shooting the Berlin scenes, yes, we read a lot about this community where a whole bunch of amazing queer and trans people hung out and it was very fun and wild. But then you’re actually in the room on the dress set with all these amazing queer and trans people and there’s something happening there. There’s an energy and, dare I say, a spirituality. Just because we were all there honoring this story and this point in time, it felt like we were, I don’t want to say reviving it, but telling a story that needed to be told on a platform at this time in history. And this story hasn’t really been told before, like we have “Cabaret” and that’s it. That’s really bad! [laughs]
SOLOWAY: At its most elemental, this storyline shows trans people have been around forever. You look at Camp Camellia today in the present and see this conflict between trans women and crossdressers, but then you look at Berlin pre-WWII and you realize that gender and nonconformity has been around forever. It’s modern times that are really just catching up.
NEF: You really have to wonder, too. This was in Berlin, a western country in a world like this. Vaguely speaking, that world was not so far removed from this one today. Ideologically it was very different, but societal structure and values and technology and all that, it’s not like this was some ancient world we’re talking about here. Doing this storyline and watching it, I think it makes you have to wonder what might have happened if the Nazis never crashed down on this. What kind of information would we still have? They weren’t reviving — even the medical procedures — you didn’t hear about any of that stuff until the 1950s. So much of these stuff was lost for two decades, and I wonder how progressive we would have been if these gender issues could’ve been explored and not outlawed and burned.
SOLOWAY: The Nazis literally burned all the books and all the records. They burned Hirschfeld’s entire library! Every record and breakthrough during that time was lost, so it’s somewhat our obligation this season to bring it back and restore it. This storyline stays true to what it means for the characters in the show, but it raises all types of questions about the legitimacy of this period and what exactly was going. Hopefully viewers are inspired to take up their own research. This period is so wild and so beautiful.
“Transparent” Season 2 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.