‘The Danish Girl’ and The Tragic Mistreatment of Transgender History
Now that we’re in the midst of Oscar season, it only seems appropriate to revisit one of the most high profile and highest grossing transgender films of recent years, The Danish Girl. Admittedly, I have been actively avoiding this film since it’s 2015 release. The film is officially classified as a “biopic” of Lili Elbe, but that listing is a bit generous as the film is actually a loose adaptation of the 2000 fictionalized novel of the same name by David Ebershoff. This retelling is based on the posthumous autobiography titled Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change, a compilation of letters, journal entries, and dictations from Lili herself. In that sense, The Danish Girl is true to life in the same way that playing a 12-person game of telephone in a crowded subway station is a good way of reading a eulogy. Because of this, my primary criticism will be on the film as a standalone piece, rather than how well it accurately represents the lived experiences of Lili Elbe. If the filmmakers’ heart is in the right place and they commit to focusing on the most significant details of their subject’s life in order to capture their essence, it is possible to make a quality film about someone’s life while fudging some of the details. This is where The Danish Girl gets…complicated.
[Because of the era the film is set and the way the characters refer to Lili prior to the existence of modern terminology, the following brief summary will contain instances of dead naming and some archaic references to transwomen that were commonplace at the time.]
Set in Copenhagen in the 1920s, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener are painters of some success that seem very happily married. One day, the model for one of Gerda’s paintings is running late and she insists on Einar helping her out by holding a dress to himself and posing in her place, so she doesn’t miss her deadline. This is a very important moment for Einar as it unearths long quashed feelings of what is described as having a woman living inside of him. He is jokingly given the nickname “Lili”, the name she would later adopt permanently.
Initially, Gerda sees Einar dressing up like a woman as a game, and enjoys having him model for drawings and paintings. Over the course of this so-called “game,” Lili becomes Gerda’s muse. The couple are invited to a formal social gathering out of the city, and Gerda coaxes Lili into attending, not Einar. At this point, the couple is treating “Lili” as a completely separate person. Nervously, Lili accepts. At the event, Lili is courted by a friend named Henrik and the two kiss without realizing Gerda had witnessed. This causes a fight between Einar and Gerda the following day, but Einar defends the kiss, claiming that he lost control because he felt like, just for a moment, Hendrik had seen her for who she really is. Henrik had seen her as Lili. In this moment, Gerda realizes that Lili is more than just a bit of fun the two were having. Lili is something bigger and Gerda believes the two need to stop letting her “exist,” but she needs to continue to make art of Lili as her paintings are becoming her calling card.
Shortly after, art dealers ask Gerda to exhibit her paintings of Lili in Paris. When asked who the subject of her work is, Gerda claims she is “Einar’s cousin” to avoid outing her husband because of their obvious physical similarities. At the same time, Lili begins going out behind her wife’s back and seeing Hendrik who admits to Lili that his interest in her is because he is homosexual and attracted to Einar.
Following an emotional breakdown from this betrayal of her identity and a growing sense of body dysmorphia, Gerda and Einar seek medical aid to treat him. The first doctor the two see orders an intense exposure of radiation that leaves Einar physically and mentally weakened, but ultimately unchanged. The doctors diagnose him as perverse and insane. Fearing Einar will soon be committed, the couple flee to Paris.
In Paris, Einar feels he cannot keep Lili locked inside any longer and sinks into a deep depression. Einar once again seeks the help of multiple doctors, all of which respond as negatively as the doctor in Copenhagen. Thanks to a connection set up by an old friend named Hans Axgil, Einar and Gerda connect with Dr. Kurt Warnekros. Warnekros is a German doctor who has experience treating patients like Einar, which he describes as, “women who feel they are trapped in the bodies of men.” Dr. Warnekros says he has been working on a set of surgeries that could permanently reassign Einar’s sex and let him become Lili, completely. The risk, however, is that a surgery like this has never been done before and any complications could be fatal. Einar agrees and travels to Germany.
The first surgery is a success, and Lili seems happier than ever in her life. She begins to make plans like finding a husband and maybe even having a child of her own one day. Gerda clearly still loves Lili and supports her as best as she can, but admits to missing the relationship she had with Einar. After several months, Lili returns to Germany for her second surgery and though the surgery itself is successful, a post-op infection proves fatal and Lili dies with Gerda at her side.
After watching and re-watching The Danish Girl for this write-up, I’ve struggled nailing down exactly how I feel about it.
As a complete work, I think it is a mixed bag, leaning substantially toward the negative. As a film on a technical and fundamental level, it’s reasonably fine. The acting is solid, and the art department and costumes establish the period effectively, (at least to someone who will fully admit that period piece dramas are not exactly my forte so I might be talking out of my ass) and it’s also shot well, but that is an expectation at this point in cinema more than it is a compliment. In terms of execution, it is a very competently made movie. My praise and criticisms are located with the screenplay and tone, which I feel like has a good foundation at one point but gets mucked up in execution.
Something that I cannot speak highly enough about is that there are many moments that are very real, at least for me. Experiences that Lili goes through are eerily similar moments that I have had in my life and early transition and Eddie Redmayne does do a really impressive job of selling the shock and joy of the character in these scenes. When Lili is first posing with the dress, there are little sparks that genuinely hit me. The sensation of a feminine garment or fabric held against your skin for the first time, scanning your finger tips over the hem, accents, and intricacies that don’t exist in men’s fashion, studying how it relates to your body and experiencing the comfort and confusion it brings are all moments that I can distinctly remember also experiencing.
Another example is when Lili examines herself naked and tucks her genitals between her legs and she sees her body as hers and not that of a man, that of Einar. I felt that. When she visits a peep show in Paris just to study how the girl she is watching moves and begins mimicking her in her own booth, I felt that. When she first wears a nightgown in front of Gerda and clearly thinks she is going to be met with anger and be rejected but is instead embraced and adored in that moment, I felt that. Good moments do not equate to a good movie, but these small scenes are so strong and sincere that it makes it even more disappointing that they exist in a film that has its focus centered elsewhere so adamantly.
The Danish Girl has a lot of faults. It cast a cis person to play a trans character in a major queer film (AGAIN). There are an abundance of historical aspects either changed (like Gerda most likely being bi/pansexual or a lesbian), or just straight up left out (like how Lili was allegedly intersex and died of a uterus transplant). These critiques are moot, however, because they wouldn’t have saved the film.
The issue this movie has is that it falls into the trope of exploited trans tragedies for cinematic drama. Lili is a wilted flower and the film never presents her as anything else. She is constantly fragile, timid, and crying in nearly every scene. Even in moments where Eddie Redmaybe is projecting pure euphoria, the score is melancholy and the lighting is still dull. It is like there is a dark cloud looming over the whole film until the penultimate scene where Lili dies in the garden at the hospital. I’m sure they made this thematic choice as a way of saying “she was finally whole and at peace,” but it reads more like she could only find relief in death. I realize that The Danish Girl is a drama and that Lili is a doomed woman by history, but never once do I feel like the film wants her to be happy. It doesn’t want you to root for Lili, it wants you to feel bad for her.
Perhaps this tone to Lili’s life stems from her journal entries in Man Into Woman and not the novel the film is based on. It’s hard to tell because the original book is very difficult to find. That still isn’t an excuse though, since plenty of changes were made even in the adaptation from the novel to film, that it did not have to be this way. This was the story they clearly wanted to tell and it is disgusting that Hollywood fixates on stories where transfolx suffer and die rather than how they live. The much better, but still cis-lead, Boys Don’t Cry being nominated for numerous Academy Awards the year that the novel version of The Danish Girl was released is a foreboding comparison.
I don’t need a role model but if I did it would not be the Lili Elbe that exists in this movie. What I do need is good writing and characters that feel real all the time and not just in select moments. If nothing else, now that this film exists, it means we don’t need any more joyless, Oscar bait films about how much the lives of people like me are nothing but pain and tears.
I already know how hard it is to be a transwoman and am already reminded of how hard it is every day. If this is supposed to be a form of “exposure” so that cis people can learn to be sympathetic to transfolx and our struggles, then something like this will only teach them to garner pity and add unnecessary confusion thanks to far outdated perspectives. From a trans perspective, I don’t want this film to exist, especially if it would give any young or early in their transition individuals the wrong idea about their lives. Being trans isn’t easy but it isn’t as bleak as this tragedy porn.
Lili Elbe was a much more complicated person than she is portrayed in her biopic. She was aged down, glammed up, and sanitized in ways that are common for transwomen so that they are more easily consumed. In the case of The Danish Girl, the film breaks what I think is the biggest rule of making a biopic…don’t betray the person you are portraying. Changing who Lili is goes against the core message of the film, which is about her becoming who she wants to be, not simply becoming a woman. That is what all queer people want. To be themselves. Above all else, that is where this film fails, because the film fails Lili Elbe.