Lili Isle Elvenes, better known as Lili Elbe, was one of the first known recipients of a gender reassignment surgery. In 2015, her life was brought to the forefront of many people’s minds when Alicia Vikander won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film. Despite the film’s success at the Academy Awards, there was a fair share of inaccuracies in the story on the big screen.
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie begins at an art exhibition for Einar Wegener who, at the time, is one of the top landscape painters in Denmark. This is in contrast to Einar’s wife, Gerda, who we learn early on in the movie paints portraits.
The movie picks up in 1926, when Lili—then still known as Einar—was in her 40s and a successful artist. This backdrop for the story is true.
While the movie doesn’t show much of her younger years, Lili was born as Einar Wegener on December 28th, 1882, on the eastern coast of Denmark in the city of Vejle. Einar’s love of art started as a teenager when she traveled from her hometown the 140 miles to Copenhagen where she studied art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In fact, that’s where she met Gerda Gottlieb, another aspiring artist.
The two loved painting together, and soon fell in love. Although the movie claims the couple was only married for six years, that’s not true. The couple was married in 1904, when Einar was 22 and Gerda only 19, and since the movie starts in 1926, they’d already been married for 22 years by the time the movie starts.
Gerda had moved to Copenhagen herself from the small Danish town of Hammelev, about 125 miles from Copenhagen, but only 90 miles north of Einar’s hometown of Vejle.
Although many at the time considered Einar to be the better of the two artists, Gerda’s work began to get noticed as well and shortly after their marriage, she began showing her own work in galleries—even winning a sketching contest in the Danish newspaper, Politiken, in 1907. It was because of this contest that hurdled Gerda into a career of illustrating for fashion magazines.
Before long, Gerda found her niche and became well-known in the fashion industry for her Art Deco style paintings in books and magazines such as La Vie Parisienne and Vogue. Her work featured a variety of beautiful women dressed in fashion-forward clothing.
In the movie, there’s a scene where the Gerda, who’s played by Alicia Vikander, is working on a portrait but her model, an actress by the name of Ulla Paulson, who’s played by Amber Heard in the film, is nowhere to be found. Gerda asks Einar, who’s played by Eddie Redmayne, to dress up in stockings and shoes so she can finish part of the painting. According to Gerda, Ulla canceled because she has an extra rehearsal, but she insists Einar dress up since she’s “so behind”, as she tries to finish the painting. Einar capitulates and puts them on. Another pivotal moment is when Ulla hands her the flowers she’s carrying—a lily—and suggests that be her name.
Much of this is actually true, although there are some significant differences between the movie and the true story here.
While it’s true that the first time Einar dressed up as a woman was by chance, the character Ulla Paulson in the movie isn’t a real person but was based on Anna Larssen, an actress who modeled for Gerda’s paintings. The truth is we don’t know why Anna couldn’t make the session.
So while the first time did happen by chance, the biggest difference between the movie and the true story was the timing. In the movie, this took place in 1926 while, in reality, Gerda started her career painting fashion shortly after winning the newspaper contest in 1907. Most historians believe the first time Einar dressed up was about a year later, in 1908, and not 20 years later as the film seems to imply.
And yes, it was Anna who suggested the name Lili.
The movie tells the story of the first public appearance for Lili, an artists’ ball hosted by Ulla. But Einar doesn’t want to attend for fear that people will make a big deal out of her attending. She was, after all, considered one of the best landscape artists in Denmark.
Remembering just a few days before when she dressed up for her painting, Gerda suggests that she go in disguise, as Lili. While at the party, Lili kisses Henrik, who’s played by Ben Whishaw, something Gerda walks in on.
Here, according to the movie, is a pivotal moment where Einar starts to realize she’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. It was Lili who wanted to kiss Henrik. Gerda says that they were just playing a game, and that Einar needs to stop.
While there’s no documentation to back any of this up at the party, it’s not likely to have been an actual event. The character of Henrik never existed in real life, and was one made up by the author of the novel that the movie was based on. In fact, the book’s author, David Ebershoff, readily admits that while his book, also called The Danish Girl, was inspired by Lili’s life, doesn’t try to tell a true story.
And there’s more that was fictionalized for the film, like the scene where Gerda meets with an art collector, who suggests they move to France for her career. That’s not what happened.
So what actually happened?
After Lili made her first appearance, by chance, Gerda continued to use Lili as the model of her paintings. While the party in the movie was fictionalized, it was based on the fact that Gerda would attend artists’ balls and events together. Although Lili wasn’t introduced as Einar’s cousin, but rather as Einar’s sister. And while Henrik wasn’t a real character, Lili did flirt with men at these events.
None of them continued on as a relationship like they did with Henrik in the movie, though.
While we don’t really know what Gerda’s initial reactions to Lili were, she was the one who encouraged Lili. It’s impossible for us to know what her reasons were. Most of this was fictionalized in the film, but there’s a few reasons that historians have speculated.
The first of these is that Gerda was a lesbian. There’s never been any proof of this, though. And actually, after Gerda and Einar were separated, Gerda would go onto marry another man later in life.
Another possible motivation for Gerda’s encouragement of Einar’s transition into Lili could’ve been for her own career. The art community loved the subject of Gerda’s paintings and, by extension, Gerda’s career started to rise. As it did, Lili spent more and more time being a model for Gerda’s paintings. As a result, Einar’s career as an artist started to wane as she spent less time painting.
But all of that would change.
There’s another major timeline issue in the movie as it shows the couple moving to Paris toward the end of the film.
Once the news broke that the model for Gerda’s popular paintings of women in high fashion were, in fact, paintings of her husband, it was a scandal that proved to be too much for Copenhagen.
But the most likely reason for Gerda’s encouragement of Lili is because of her apparent belief that she created Lili. In Lili’s autobiography, Man into Woman, she quotes Gerda:
“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.”
Regardless, after the scandal in Copenhagen, the couple felt pressure to leave. The movie makes it seem like they went straight to Paris, but in truth the couple traveled around Europe as they tried to find a place more open-minded, visiting Italy and France, before finally settling down in Paris. This happened in 1912, before the timeline of the movie even began.
In Paris, they could live openly as lesbians without fear.
After moving to Paris, Gerda started to relish the popularity as her fame blossomed. She continued painting for high fashion magazines and started painting nude women, usually in very sexual or risqué poses. Her work became popular in some very controversial exhibitions, even in the open-minded Paris. There were even a few small riots thanks to the openly lesbian themes in her paintings.
But Gerda loved the controversy. It only garnered her more fame. She began throwing crazy parties at her studio in Paris. Through it all, Gerda seemed to be thoroughly supportive of Lili. If anything, she was the only one who supported Lili.
The movie’s ending is very different than the true story.
In the movie, Einar meets with a Professor Warnekros who informs her that he can perform a gender reassignment surgery. It is highly dangerous, and consists of multiple surgeries. When asked for a last name, Lili gives the name “Elbe, like the river.”
This is followed by a scene, after the first surgery, when Lili is walking through a park in France when two men beat her up. After this, Lili wants to finish the gender reassignment, even though Gerda feels it’s too soon. It’s after this surgery when things start to go downhill. The movie ends on a sad note as Lili passes away, devastating Gerda.
Perhaps the only common thread between this and what actually happened is the innate sadness that ripples through both stories.
To begin, Lili’s name was officially Lili Isle Elvenes. The surname of Elbe was actually made up by a journalist in Copenhagen. By the time 1930 rolled around, we know from Lili’s autobiography that she was tormented—no doubt ravished by mockery and ridicule at the time. She had decided that she would kill herself. We don’t really know why, but she set the date of her suicide as May 1st, 1930.
However, Lili changed her mind when she found out about a doctor in Berlin who could perform a gender reassignment. She went to Berlin in February of 1930, and with the hope that Lili could fully become the woman she was, she decided undergo the surgeries instead of committing suicide.
In the movie, there’s two surgeries. In truth, there were four surgeries. While the movie depicts all of the surgeries being done by Professor Warnekros, in truth there’s conflicting reports about this. Some indicate only the first was performed by Dr. Warnekros, like in the movie, with the rest of the surgeries being done by a Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Others indicate it was Dr. Hirschfeld who did the first with Warnekros doing the rest. Still other reports indicate it was a Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt or Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz who performed the initial surgeries with Warnekros, who was a member of the Nazi Party, taking over as the Nazi’s began to rise in Germany.
Another aspect that wasn’t covered in the movie was the possibility that Lili may have been intersex—she may have already had ovaries before any of her surgeries. This came up in some of the reports from Dr. Hirschfeld’s German Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, which was the location for all of the surgeries.
We don’t really know who performed the surgeries. Most of this fog around Lili’s medical history is because the German Institute for Sexual Science had their records burned by Nazi students as a protest to the institute in 1933. Then, during World War II in 1945, Allied bombings would destroy most of the building.
Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the full truth.
The movie doesn’t mention this, but Lili and Gerda were divorced on October 6th, 1930. This happened after the first of Lili’s surgeries, and as she started to reject her former life as Einar. Lili wasn’t a painter as Einar was. She applied for, and was granted, a passport with her new name. It was her first official documentation as Lili.
She’d go on to date a man named Claude Lejeune, someone she hoped to marry and start a family with. To do this, she’d have to be able to bear children. So, in September of 1931, Lili underwent another surgery—this time to transplant a uterus.
In one of her last letters to her sister she wrote, “Now I know that death is near. Last night I dreamt about mother. She took me in her arms and called me Lili…and father was also there.”
Lili Isle Elvenes died on September 13th, 1931 after her body rejected the uterus. Unfortunately, the medical technology of the time simply could not successfully perform such a highly experimental surgery.
While her death was cloaked in sadness, her life was one that shone as a testament as someone who lived life to its fullest extent despite what others may think. A few months before she passed away, Lili wrote a letter to one of her friends that reflected on her life.
“That I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months. It may be said that 14 months are not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”
The movie may not have been entirely accurate. In fact, most of it was made up for the book and film as they condensed the duration of Lili’s life into the few final years. Sadly, we don’t know the entirety of the true story thanks to the lost records over the years. Still, The Danish Girl did a great job of bringing Lili’s life to the forefront of our minds—remembering someone who simply wanted to live a happy life.
After Lili’s death, one of her friends, Niels Hoyer, collected her diaries and turned them into what we now know as Lili’s autobiography, Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. It was published in 1933. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Lili’s life.