The Danish Girl and the True Story of Lili Elbe

The first reported transgender, who went through a sex reassignment surgery, Lili Elbe, has made it to the big screen. She has travelled through decades and reappeared in the form of Eddie Redmayne. A wonderfully told tale that is largely based on Lili Elbe’s true story, but is also partly fiction. 

I went to the theatre with a friend of mine last weekend and saw The Danish Girl. Although many critics believe Redmayne to play a rather annoying woman and were irritated by it throughout the film, I was completely captivated by Eddie Redmayne’s acting. The film lasted two hours, but it felt like half that time as I was completely sucked into the story. A beautiful film, truly. Yet, when I started reading about the real Danish girl that is Lili Elbe afterwards, I was a bit disappointed to learn Elbe’s real story was not entirely the same. 

Before it seems like I am decapitating the entire film, I want to emphasize that I thought the story was absolutely marvellous and believe Redmayne to be worthy of another Oscar. What bothers me a slight bit is that the producers have decided on basing the film mostly on the book The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. Although many parts of Elbe’s life have a place in the book, it is no secret, Ebershoff’s book is a work of fiction.

Ebershoff has been very open and forward about this. He has not made it out to be a biography of Lili Elbe’s metamorphosis. It makes sense the producers chose this book for the feature film rather than Elbe’s real story as it offers a Hollywood-suited storyline. Yet there was a very clear other choice they could have made. A choice that I personally would have preferred, no matter how much truth there is in The Danish Girl. Director Tom Hooper could have decided to depict Lily Elbe’s own account of her transition from man to woman. Lili herself has written the autobiography Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, which represents her real story in detail.

So how are the two any different? The general picture does not differ much. Lili Elbe was the first known man undergoing sex change surgery. He was also married to a painter named Gerda he met at Art School. Even the doctor that treated Lili Elbe was named correctly in the book and film. In many ways Ebershoff has kept very true to the real story.

Nevertheless, The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff has a number of fictional characters that have taken no place in real life and portray Lili Elbe’s thoughts, which are merely a product of Ebershoff imagination. Mostly, it seems that Lili’s wife Gerda Gottlieb (aka Gerda Wegener) is depicted quite differently. In the film you get the idea that Gerda is a straight woman, who suffers from her husband’s changes, yet loves him still. The true story discloses Gerda was very open-minded in terms of Lili’s struggle of turning himself into a woman and was likely bisexual or homosexual herself. Some may have found Alicia Vikander’s depiction of Gerda slightly bisexual or homosexual. Personally, I do not find that it comes across enough to make a clear point.

Although I would indeed have preferred Elbe’s own story to have fully made it into the script, there is no doubt the creators have done a great job at retelling this story. They stayed true to the topic, yet told it taking into account the sensitivity of it. It is wonderful that a story such as The Danish Girl has made its way to the big screen and I hope many facing a similar struggle can find some strength or recognition in it.


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