Becoming a Woman at Any Cost

Director Tom Hooper spent eight years creating 'The Danish Girl', a story of a transgender awakening in 1922. Does her story still have relevance today?
November 11, 2015, 8:40pm
Image via the Danish Girl

The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe (aka Einar Wegener), a popular early 20th century painter and the first documented human being to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is also a love story between Elbe and her wife, Gerda Wegener, another painter. A century ago, healthcare for trans people barely existed. Elbe underwent an experimental procedure in Germany that had never been performed before. She kept a diary of her life, which was published as Man into Woman in 1933, and novelized as The Danish Girl by American author David Ebershoff in the year 2000.

The film is released on November 27th, but Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) screened The Danish Girl with the film's lead, Eddie Redmayne, for the first time in New York City last Saturday. There were two VIP showings: one at The Paris Theater near Central Park off 59th Street, the other downtown at The Crosby Street Hotel. Before the 8 PM screening uptown, light fare and drinks were served to guests at the Paris Theater's neighboring, swanky subterranean bar, Beautique.

Kathleen Turner bumped elbows with generic film industry fabulosos. A young man seated on a leather bench swirled a glass of red wine. "I'm a journalist," he said, in answer to the curious older man seated beside him. Hors d'oeuvres platters flew by on bent wrists; the skewered steak with peppers and fried crab cake balls were rich.

To not identify with the gender you are assigned at birth is surely the most profound of blocks that a human being can face.

At eight we moved into the theater for the show. There were several rows quartered off for the most famous: Katie Couric had a seat reserved in her name, as did Barbara Walters. Various glamorous Trumps took up a row of their own. One unnameable, blond Trump matriarch descended the aisle in a cropped leather jacket, which was splattered in white graffiti. Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne appeared from a side door near the front of the auditorium.

"This is a project that is very close to our heart," Hooper said, standing beside an ever-dapper, squinting red-haired Eddie Redmayne who said very little but smiled handsomely. "To me [The Danish Girl_] speaks to a theme that I think is very important. We all have blocks between us and the best version of ourselves, or the true version of ourselves—whether it's shyness, insecurity, addiction, depression, anxiety, or stammering in _The King's Speech."

"But to not identify with the gender you are assigned at birth," Hooper said, "is surely the most profound of blocks that a human being can face. You'll see in this film that at the center is this love story. I feel that if you have the luck to be truly loved or truly seen, it opens up the space where transformation is possible. I hope you enjoy the movie."

The Danish Girl opens with a series of timeless, ancient Denmark landscapes: light breaking through clouds in a cold sky, rock crags, hills of golden grass, and four black trees against a vast sea. These are the places of Elbe's youth, the parts of the earth she will spend her male life painting, and re-painting, over and over. The film ends here too, with Lili dead and her scarf stolen from Gerda's hands by the wind, taken to the ocean.

At first, Gerda naively encourages her husband's intermittent, playful cross-dressing. Unlike her husband, she is unsuccessful at art. Her work only becomes relevant when she paints portraits of Einar as a woman, whom they name Lili. What Gerda does not anticipate is that once Lili is realized, Einar falls away. Gerda comes home to find Lili more often than she finds Einar, and then, in one moment of total desperation, she begs to see him again. Lili refuses.

Objects are frighteningly powerful; a stocking is intoxicating. Elbe traces her finger over the metal wiring in a corset bound in pale yellow silk and her eyes shake like she'll faint. This is her becoming, but you feel a sense of frantic loss for Gerda: Where did her husband go?

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Lili, surrounded by paintings of her own bog landscapes, says to Gerda, "Don't worry, I won't disappear into the bog," though she already has. "The bog is in me, isn't it?"

In an interview with Think Progress, transgender historian Susan Stryker, who consulted on The Danish Girl, explained the dissonance between the diaries and letters between Lili and Gerda, and the novelized version of their lives. The novel makes Lili tragic and spells out a sense of loss that the real Gerda may not have experienced. Stryker described Gerda as "trans-friendly," adding, "She's bi. I don't necessarily think that she was, perhaps, expecting the life that she had with Lili, but she seemed incredibly open to it." Gerda is open to it in the film, too. Ultimately, she is very supportive, but there is a definite grieving period.

Elbe attributes painting to her former, male self, so when she transitions, she stops working. It feels odd that Elbe loses touch with her artistic nature. Why can't she keep it? Einar was a respected painter, but Lili gleefully becomes a shop girl. She's also a voyeur. Her femininity is learned behavior. She observes women at the theater, the market, and a peepshow, studying their movements and expressions as if womanhood is outside of her. That's hard to relate to, like something the cisgender audience would expect more than a real part of transition. And yet, society tries to teach all women how to be the right kind of lady.

Lili Elbe is rightly portrayed as a rebel, though her storyline is too pitiable. She is sad, tragic, nothing can save her. Redmayne is magnificent at that. His performance is compassionate, well researched, and masterful—the horror of being imprisoned in a body crashing against the hope of becoming a real person. In the 1920s, being transgender was pathologized through a medical lens. The Danish Girl perfectly captures both the perversion of medical science and a certain futility for gender variance in an earlier time.

This is not my body, professor, please take it away.

Again, from her interview with Think Progress, Stryker explained that the 1920's weren't exactly "the dark ages" in terms of transition. According to her, the feeling was more like, "'This is Rome before the fall.' This was, in some ways, the height of modernity. Before fascism, really, gained political power. In some ways I see it as being very easy. It's more like a precursor to the contemporary period, rather than something that was almost a century ago."

The Danish Girl gets that, but, again, Elbe's quest for self-realization is overwhelmingly tragic. She goes to the library and finds evidence of her own kind in a text titled A Scientific Study of Sexual Immorality. Then she journeys across Europe to find someone to help her. But the doctors cannot help: They scribble notes diagnosing her with schizophrenia, attempt to commit her. In one horrific scene, Lili is strapped to a slab with a radiation machine towering over her, pointed toward her crotch. She pleads to Gerda to get her out of there, but the physician insists it will help him.

Lili believes that God made her a woman. Transition, she says, is, "curing me of the sickness that was my disguise."

Eventually, she finds a sympathetic and revolutionary doctor. After she undergoes the first of two surgeries to complete her sex reassignment, Lili comes to life. She is joyous, living full time as a woman, and free. She hurries back to Germany sooner than Gerda would like, but she can't help it, she must finish what was started. At the hospital, she is surrounded by life, by women giving birth. Lili becomes the symbol of death. "This is not my body, professor, please take it away."

The Danish Girl is the best film to document the thrill, brutality, and loneliness of the early 20th century transgender awakening. Politically, it is two years too late, but artistically it is a masterpiece. Importantly, the people behind this story have been committed to it well before the transgender movement was popularized. In his opening statement, Hooper said, "This film has been a seven year passion project for me." And, he explained, that makes him a "relative newbie" to the project, as producer Gail Mutrux first optioned David Ebershoff's novel in 2000.

The game has changed for transgender media since then. We want narrative triumph and transgender actors, writers, directors, producers. Lili feels like a man whose dream is to become a woman, at any cost. When Gerda asks her to take up painting again, Lili proclaims she wants to be a woman, not a painter. However personally true, or untrue, that unfortunate statement is in regards to Lili Elbe, it sounds weird amidst the contemporary transgender movement. And yet—my judgement of that tired, sexist perspective on sex change reflects more about the cultural landscape and political climate of 2015 than about the life of Lili Elbe in Denmark, 1922.