The Danish Girl (2015) is a fictitious story adapted from David Ebershoff's book of the same name, which is loosely inspired by real-life Danish artists and couple Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander). The film fashions itself as a love story between Einar/Lili and Gerda, who together must confront and evolve as Einar undergoes gender reassignment surgery to become a woman. Yet, as is often the case, the true story of Gerda and Einar/Lili* is more poignant than fiction.
Who was the real Einar/Lili?
Copenhagen, Denmark in the early 1900s had not yet seen the likes of trans individuals like Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) and Caitlyn Jenner, who have helped bring LGBT and transgender issues into the mainstream public arena. But Denmark did have Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener) who believed that she was actually a woman born into what appeared to be a man's body. Einar believed she was born with two individuals inside of her -- a man and a woman -- battling for supremacy. Eventually, Lili won. "I am finished," Einar wrote in her journal in February 1930. "Lili has known this for a long time. That's how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day." (Man into Woman: The First Sex Change. Hoyer, Niels (1933). Blue Boat Books Ltd. ISBN 0954707206). After Lili's death, her friend and editor Ernst Ludwig Hathorn Jacobson compiled her writings and manuscripts into a book published under the pseudonym Niels Hoyer in 1933.
Einar underwent one of the first recorded gender reassignment surgeries in 1930 in Dresden, Germany. After transitioning, Lili legally changed her name to Lili Ilse Elvenes ("Lili Elbe"). It is possible that she was a hermaphrodite or an intersex person, although this is not confirmed. (Meyer, Sabine (2015), »Wie Lili zu einem richtigen Mädchen wurde« – Lili Elbe: Zur Konstruktion von Geschlecht und Identität zwischen Medialisierung, Regulierung und Subjektivierung, p. 15, pp. 312-313).
Before the transition, Einar Wegener was a Danish landscape painter born in the late 1800s in Vejle, Denmark. Einar met and married fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb in 1904 while they were attending the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. After her transition, Lili no longer painted, claiming that painting was Einar's interests, not Lili's. Einar transitioned to living life openly as Lili for several years before undergoing reassignment surgery.
Unlike Einar, Lili was, as written in her journal, "a thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman," prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men.
Einar Wegener, the Danish painter; and Lili Elbe, Not a Danish Painter
Credit; The Wellcome Library, London
Who was the real Gerda?
Gerda was a successful Art Deco illustrator in the 1920s who created portraits of fashionable women for magazines such as Vogue and Le Vie Parisienne. She became famous for her paintings of fashionably-dresssed and beautiful doe-eyed women, as well as for her erotic illustrations like this one:
Gerda Wegener, Cuckoo, 1920.
Some accounts theorize that Gerda was a lesbian, particularly given the lesbian erotica that she drew. An additional supposition may be that Einar and Gerda agreed to get married because it was much more acceptable in 1920s Europe and would allow them to travel and work more freely.
In 1930, a year before Lili's final surgery leading to her death, Gerda and Lili divorced and led separate lives (more on this below). Following Lili's death in 1931, Gerda married Italian officer, aviator and diplomat Major Fernando Porta and moved with him to Morocco. The couple later divorced after Porta burned through all of Gerda's savings. Back in Denmark, Gerda tried to rejuvenate her art career, but her artwork was outmoded and she could not make a living selling her paintings. She made a paltry income by selling handpainted postcards. Penniless, destitute and without family, Gerda drank heavily and eventually died in 1940.
Gerda, Left. Lili, right.
Did Einar's transition really begin as a result of Gerda asking him to pose for her when the model didn't show up? In this way, was Gerda responsible for Lili's emergence?
Yes and possibly yes. According to Einar's autobiography, Man into Woman, when Anna Larssen, a well-known actress and friend didn't show up to pose for Gerda, Larssen suggested that Einar, who was thin-framed, stand in for her. Supposedly, Einar initially hesitated, but she eventually agreed to Gerda's pleas, putting on a pair of stockings and heels. At that moment, something inextricably awakened in Einar. She wrote, "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise." She "liked the feel of soft women's clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment." Einar began posing routinely for Gerda and, subsequently, began to regularly dress as a woman in public outside of Gerda's modeling sessions.
It seems that Gerda did hold herself somewhat accountable for Lili's appearance. Gerda is quoted in Lili's autobiography as saying, "In recent months I have felt prickings of conscience because I was, to a certain extent, the cause of creating Lili, of enticing her out of you, and thus becoming responsible for a disharmony in you which reveals itself most distinctly on those days when Lili does not appear." (Man into Woman.)
Why did Einar and Gerda flee to Paris?
Gerda's illustrations of the mysterious woman (who was really Lili) became very successful in Denmark. However, when the Danish public discovered that the "woman" in the paintings was biologically a man (Einar), the couple had difficulty making a living and selling their artwork in Danish society. They moved to Paris, France in 1912 where they felt they would be more accepted and their secret was still unknown.
How did Einar and Gerda explain Lili to the outside world?
After moving to Paris, Gerda accompanied Lili – or rather, “Einar’s sister” (in the movie, Lili is introduced as Einar's cousin) – to balls and watched as she flirted with the unsuspecting officers they met there. Lili would later write in her autobiography that Gerda was Lili's greatest advocate and for the next decade and a half, they forged on with their unconventional marriage. Horatia Harrod discusses in her article "The tragic true story behind The Danish Girl" published in The Telegraph.co.uk, that there "are suggestions that Gerda may herself have been gay; she certainly depicted women with women in her erotic drawings."
Lili Elbe, Copenhagen, October 1930
Was Einar/Lili actually the first known recipient of sexual reassignment surgery?
Unclear and subject to some debate. According to History vs. hollywood.com , "While most articles support that Elbe was the first recipient of sexual reassignment surgery, Biography.com states that Elbe was not the first recipient, but they don't state who was. According to The Danish Girl (2000) author David Ebershoff in an interview with LOTL Magazine, "None of this had ever been done before, this idea of accomplishing a transition through surgery. There are just no records of anyone even thinking about that before this, so in some ways [Warnekros] was experimenting on Lili." Since Lili Elbe may have been intersex and already possessed rudimentary ovaries, some don't consider her surgical transformation a true sex change. Harrod notes that Elbe suggests in her own memoir that when operated on, an existing pair of shrunken ovaries was found in her (Lili's) body. Lili and Gerda helped pay for Lili's surgeries by selling off some of their paintings.
Exactly how many operations did Einar endure to physically become a woman?
Unconfirmed. Reports vary as to the exact number of operations Einar underwent to become a woman, but most estimate about four or five (unlike in the film which were two). According to Harrod, the surgeries were carried out over a period of roughly two years, from about 1930-1931. The first surgery, removing Einar's testicles (castration), took place in 1930 in Berlin under the supervision of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld at the German Institute for Sexual Science. The remaining surgeries were performed at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic by Dr. Kurt Warnekros (portrayed in the movie by Sebastian Koch), a German obstetrician. They included operations to remove the penis (penectomy), create a vagina, and implant an ovary onto the abdominal musculature. The final surgery was to transplant a womb (uterus) into Einar's body, which ultimately proved fatal.
The real life Lili (left). Eddie Redmayne (right).
What was the status of Lili and Gerda's relationship by the time of Lili's last fatal surgery?
By the time of Lili's final fatal operation in 1931, Gerda and Lili already had divorced. Lili had begun a romantic relationship with Claude Lejeune, an art dealer. It does seem that Gerda and Lili parted amicably, and Gerda was distraught over Lili's death.
Lili Elbe with Claude Lejeune, Lili may have hoped to marry him
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
* This article will refer to Einar/Lili as "she" for purposes of consistency.