The Real Danish Girl

by Jeff Booth

You can now see the Danish Girl on HBO this month. The true story of Gerda and Einar Wegener is vastly more interesting than this film, which attempts to trap the characters in traditional roles and sexual mores with a heterosexual perspective that has little to do with the very non-traditional lives they actually led.

It is a well-directed film featuring a stand-out performance by Eddie Redmayne in a complex role playing a man, Einar Wegener, and then a post-transition woman, Lili Elbe. While it is billed as a true story, it is based on a novel by David Ebershoff that is admittedly primarily fictional. While being fairly true to the novel, the film itself has almost nothing to do with the real lives of Gerda and Einar Wegener, and in fact, does their real lives a true disservice.

I happen to know quite a bit about the couple, having researched them rather extensively for my upcoming book, Passion: Artists and Their Nudes. You can learn more about that book and CenterSEE’s other ventures with erotic art by visiting our Sexual Heritage Preservation Project page.

Einer and Gerda are one of the most interesting artist and model pairs in the entire book, which includes biographies of 750 artists. The art that Gerda created, which is included in the CenterSEE Western Masters of Nude and Erotic Art gallery, is distinct and beautiful. In the film, though, the art we feature does not even exist. It is not even mentioned. I suppose this is because it is incompatible with the extremely false impression that the film gives that Gerda Wegener was heterosexual. She was most likely bisexual, something reinforced by an examination of the art she created.

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The film depicts a few extremely tame female nudes painted by Gerda using the pre-transition Einer as the model. As you can see from the art included with this article, she also created art with very explicitly lesbian situations, some of which Einar as Lili was said to have posed for.

The main problem that I have about the Danish Girl is that it re-imagines the lives of a queer couple as essentially that of a straight couple. They live their normal straight lives until Einer tries on women’s clothes when substituting for a female model who fails to show up. From this experience he begins to realize that he is actually a woman. From then on, he pursues men and seems to have lost sexual interest in Gerda, and she seems to lose sexual interest in him. That is not even close to the truth of their lives.

One of the ways they make this work is by dramatically compressing the timeline. In the film, you are given the impression that they have been married for just 6 years when it quickly falls apart. In fact, their marriage lasted 26 years. Einer died at the age of 48, much younger than the 33 year old Redmayne. Gerda was 45 at the time of Einer’s death, but the actress playing her, Alicia Vikander, was just 26. They compress the events of two decades into just five years.

The movie does show them moving to Paris, but the reason they do that is because Paris in the 1910s and 20s was extremely sexually liberal. The scene in which Einer is beaten up after being mistaken for a lesbian was completely fictional. In the film we see a miserable Lili living a life of isolation and dispair. In fact, Gerda lived openly in Paris as a lesbian with Lili. In Lili’s diary, she writes “A few happy and harmonious years were now in store for Grete [Gerda] and me.” Not miserable, and not traditionally heterosexual at all.

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They also completely flatten out one of the most interesting personalities in Germany at the time, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. In the film, he is morphed into a composite of Hirschfeld and nazi party member and surgeon Kurt Warnekros, a character who guides Lili through her sexual transition surgery. Hirschfeld at the time was the most important sexologist in the world. He escaped Germany before the Nazi’s were fully in power, as they would not have appreciated the Jewish doctor’s unorthodox polyamorous relationship with a Chinese man. The library on our Erotic University virtual campus is named after Hirschfeld.

Another interesting tie between the Nazis, Hirschfeld , and Lili is that Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sex Research was specifically targeted by the Nazis. When you see the famous newsreel footage of Nazi’s burning books, they are burning the books and records from the Institute for Sex Research. Included in what was destroyed are all of the records of Einar/Lili’s case, including what is believed to have been documentation showing that she was actually intersexed, with female ovaries as well as testicles.

The film also really gets the transitional surgery very wrong. They turn a series of five surgeries into just two- one to remove the man parts and another to add female parts. It was quite a bit more complex than that. Gerda and Lili’s relationship in the film continues through this process and up to Lili’s death. By the time Lili died, both were in new relationships with men, and Gerda was living in Italy with her second husband, not at Lili’s side.

The film makes it appear that Lili dies from complications from the surgery to add a vagina, but in fact, she died from a separate and outrageously unwise experimental surgical attempt to transplant a uterus (which is mentioned in the film but incorporated into the second surgery). This procedure had never been done before, and was doomed to failure. Science was still a long ways off from the development of anti-rejection drugs for transplants. The first successful transplant of a uterus was done in September of 2016, a month when four were attempted and only one had successful blood flow. That is a full 85 years after the attempt with Lili. As of this writing, a month after that surgery, it has yet to be established that the uterus is fully functional.

The depiction of transgenderism in the film is also far off the mark. Sexual identity issues are not, as the film seems to portray, focused on lipstick and lingerie. Nor does it typically involve the almost multiple personality issues the film infers. The feeling is more generally described as of someone of one gender being trapped inside the body of a different gender.

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It is true that an actress friend came up with the name Lili. In the film, the actress is named Ulla Paulsen, a fictional character. In real life, the name came from the actress Anna Larssen, who went on to become one of the important early Pentecostal women preachers.

The film is billed as being about the first sexual reassignment surgery. That was actually accomplished first with Rudolph Richter in 1922. Magnus Hirschfeld was involved with that case as well. Lili was the second person to undergo vaginoplasty surgery, which is what the film infers was her second and fatal surgery. In both cases it was successful, and had nothing to do with Lili’s death. It was her fifth surgery involving a uterus transplant that was the inevitable cause of death.

There is much that is not known about the two. Were they both gay and married to cover that up, or were they bisexual? We don’t know, but it is almost certain that neither was typically heterosexual. The medical records of Lili’s case were lost, both in the burning of Herschfeld’s library and in subsequent allied bombings. What we do know, though, is much more interesting than the way it was portrayed in this film.