The Danish Girl

Update  23.4.2016 (Letzte Ehre… Grabstein in Dresden)

Aufgrund der teilweise heftigen Kritik, dass der „The Danish Girl“ auch auf dem 4. trans*film festival gezeigt wurde, haben sich sowohl der Veranstalter, sowie die alliance einige Mühe gemacht.

Nach einer Information vor dem Film [OmU], sowie einer politischen Erklärung (deutsch), und einer sachliche Erläuterung zu Gegebenheiten des Films (english) im Anschluss, ist man weit über das hinaus gegangen, was üblicherweise gemacht wird …

Üblichweise gibt es im Anschluss an jeden Film sachliche, emotionelle Diskussionen aller Zuschauer.


The Danish Girl. If you’ve gotten this far, you probably have heard critiques about the film—that it can’t possibly be historically accurate, that it perpetrates harmful tropes, or that Eddie Redmayne looks goofy in a dress. The critique about accuracy misses the point, while the latter two critiques are more relevant. The tropes are a problem, and Eddie Redmayne does look goofy in a dress. Nonetheless, the Danish Girl is a good, well-made, humane, sympathetic film; it’s good art, and it tells a good, somewhat accurate, story about Lili Elbe’s triumph over the circumstances. Therefore, I recommend seeing it. It’s showing at TraumGmbH at 8pm, Friday, April 15.

In order to understand how the film treats the historical reality of Lili Elbe’s life, I went out and found the book by Niels Hoyer (1933), “Man into Woman.” Hoyer is said to have compiled the book based on material provided by Elbe, including portions of her diary and correspondence. Hoyer’s book is the main source that we have on Elbe’s life, and this book provides some of the raw material used for the Ebershoff (2000) novel, “The Danish Girl.” The novel forms the basis for the movie. As a result, the movie is not a documentary, and it should not be judged on those terms. Still, comparing the movie with the Hoyer book can give some impressions as to where the movie deviates from or holds true to history.

The Hoyer book was a good read—a little bit uneven at the beginning, but I was able to finish it in a few hours. After about two thirds through, the book changed in tone. It developed a sense of humor and even joy at a life well lived. It got good.

While I wished for this not to be so, the uncomfortable parts of the film appeared in the book, meaning that they appear to be historically accurate. In fact, the film gets most of the important points of Elbe’s life right, though the film and the Ebershoff book take considerable artistic license, as artists tend to do. The historically accurate parts of the film include Lili’s awakening when doing some modeling work for her wife (criticized as “forced feminization”), a supposed intersex condition (somehow criticized as erasing or bungling trans and/or inter experiences), a conflation between gender and sexual orientation (she actually divorced her wife and then dated men), and her back-and-forth gender presentation, which would be called “bigender” in today’s lingo. All of this makes it impossible to cast her according to today’s ready-made, pre-packaged, rigidly enforced identity boxes.

To complicate things more, Elbe’s story was not politically correct by 2015 standards. She was a feminine woman with a complicated history, who did not adhere to a circa-2015 linear transition narrative. Nor should she have to. She seems to have been a person of her times, a bit of a 1920s party girl from the Lost Generation trying to find her way, without being able to rely on language that had not yet been invented by the postmodern queer movement. For instance, her letters indicate that she did not make a strong distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, that she thought that femininity implied submission, that there was some sort of essential maleness or femaleness that tied in to her anatomy. In fact, it’s a bit of a pity that this book seems to have set some of these tropes:

That transition as a rule has something to do with an inter* condition,

that sexual orientation and gender identity had much to do with each other,

that femininity or masculinity hinged upon any particular anatomical configuration,

that this in turn all hinged on “the operation”,

that the “operation” is some sort of quick cure-all (the “30-minute sex change”),

or that femininity or masculinity had anything to do with submission or dominance.

The latter point caught my particular attention. Some of these thoughts attributed to her in the book include,

“seeming as if she no longer had any responsibility for herself, for her fate. For Werner Kreutz (Kurt Warnekros) had relieved her of it all. Nor had she any longer a will of her own,” p. 170, and,

“Should I ask the professor [about her new operation]? It would not come easy to me. He has a strange way of making me submissive,” page 201. Apparently this attitude annoyed the nurses, in addition to annoying me.

These thoughts were at their peak during the earlier stages of Elbe’s physical transition, which coincided with her social transition. This coincided with a considerable degree of forgivable ignorance on the part of medical practitioners and possibly on the part of Elbe herself. Another entire book could be written about this—think of physically transitioning in a day when people did not quite know what organs and hormones and chromosomes did or did not do (or even were); language did not really distinguish among gay people, inter people, and transitioners; antibiotics were not readily available; and the concept of organ rejection was not widely understood.

It turns out that organ rejection—a rejected uterus (!)—is what killed her.

Before that happened, Elbe was able to live an entire life in the span of a year. This is what the film could have shown a bit more than it already does, her triumph. For instance, the book got into some of the details about what it is like for the first few months after coming out, but before really finding one’s way. (It’s like being lost in a large city.) The book mentions how Elbe feared getting “read” by old acquaintances (page 224), followed by relief at this not happening. The book mentions how Elbe held herself to a “high femme” presentation, against a fear that if things slip, everything can fall apart (page 236). She felt the need to subject herself to a particular double standard that is only now beginning to slip away. The book mentions how Elbe lost most of her male drinking buddies (page 238) but made more and better female friends. The movie hints at this. The book mentions how Elbe even took up painting again (page 270), as she regained her bearings, and as she found herself becoming more empowered rather than submissive. If anything, the springtime of Elbe’s short life was a particularly good one, even better than that portrayed in the movie. But, alas, Elbe’s marriage to her wife Gerda did not last in real life, as it did in the movie. The love story with lesbian undertones is an invention for modern audiences, even if I, as a modern person, enjoyed it immensely.

OK, now comes the airing of the grievances. The main thing that I did not enjoy was Eddie Redmayne in a dress. First of all, there is the politically-based critique that Redmayne’s performance furthers a harmful trope that trans women are men in dresses. I share in that critique. That critique aside, Redmayne tried to play the role of Elbe with compassion and understanding, and he’s got a certain delicateness, almost a prettiness, about him. But, compassion and understanding and a certain delicateness cannot overcome a wooden performance. When the clean-cut Redmayne dressed as Elbe, he came across as a delicate, fearful 1890s wooden doll instead of a tough 1920s party girl. Instead, I would have experimented with someone who does a different, more lively flavor of androgyny, more along the lines of Tilda Swinton, Kate Moennig, or Saga Becker. Someone who can bring a little more fun to the performance. Someone who could bring Lili Elbe to life.

-CBR, Kiel, 13 April, 2016.



„Letzte Ehre fürs „Danish Girl“: Auf dem Dresdner Trinitatisfriedhof wurde am Freitag das wiederhergestellte Grab der intersexuellen Trans-Pionierin Lili Elbe feierlich eingeweiht.“ (Beitrag Die Partenschaft des Grabes hat der Verein Trans-Inter-Mitteldeutschland e.V. übernommen (Bericht MH)