The Magic of Movies; The Story Behind The Danish Girl

People have been fascinated with movies for more than a century now. The first movie theatre devoted to showing moving pictures was the Nickelodeon, which opened on June 19, 1905, in Pittsburgh, Penn. The name Nickelodeon was a combination of the price of admission, a nickel, with the ancient Greek word for theatre, odeon.

The theatre’s owner Harry Davis, a vaudeville impresario, bought a machine called a cinematograph from a Frenchman named Lumiere and set up a storefront theatre where everyone could afford the admission price. Davis showed a 10-minute thriller, The Great Train Robbery. A bonus scene at the end of the short film featured the film’s bandit, actor George Barnes, pointing his revolver at the camera lens and shooting point-blank directly into the camera. Audiences were terrified, but the love of movies was born as a result of this unexpected drama.

Davis’ low overhead meant he could show the movie several times a day to thousands of people. Within months, Davis had opened more than a dozen Nickelodeons throughout Pittsburgh.


Movies are magical in that they allow us to trade our own realities for new ones, even for just a few hours, and that they can give us a different perspective of the world around us and of other people in lifestyles different than our own.

Currently showing in theatres is The Danish Girl, which may make some people uncomfortable due to its controversial subject matter.


The Danish Girl, released in the United States on November 27, is about artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who prepares to undergo one of the first sex-change operations with support from his loving wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander).

Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener was a real person, born in Vejle, Denmark, on December 28, 1882, and educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 1904, he married fellow Dane Gerda Gottlieb, an illustrator and painter of French descent who was best known for her erotica featuring women with women. Einar would become the transgender woman Lili Ilse Elvenes, better known as Lili Elbe, after undergoing sexual reassignment surgery in 1930.

For more than 15 years, the married Wegeners carried out their unconventional marriage, with Einar dressing up as Lili and the couple going out together as sisters. Gerda encouraged her husband to be true to himself, even if his true self was a woman and not a man. Gerda used Lili as a model for some of her paintings, and this was the beginning of Einar’s awakening as a transgender person.

Despite living in the dawn of the understanding of human sexuality and gender, Einar would see doctors for years who dismissed his desires to be a woman and misdiagnosed him as hysterical and sometimes even as gay. In February 1930, Einar would meet the doctor who would change his life forever.  As one of the first patients in sexual reassignment surgery, Einar would unknowingly contribute to a better understanding of being transgender and of gender reassignment surgery.

In 1918, German physician Magnus Hirschfield, founded the world’s first gay rights organization and opened the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, with a focus on homosexuality and transgender issues. The Institute would be destroyed in May 1933 by the Nazis during their invasion and occupation of Berlin. Hirschfield spent over 30 years documenting the experiences of homosexual men and women around the world and coined the term “transsexualismus” to describe those who wanted to become, not just simply appear to be, a different sex.

Einar’s gender reassignment surgery was just one archive in the Institute when the Nazis destroyed its records and archives, so the exact surgical procedure performed on Einar is unknown today. Einar’s testicles and penis were removed, and it is believed that the ovaries of a young woman were grafted into his body.

Lili’s new surname, Elbe, was the name of the river that snaked through Berlin, the city of her rebirth. After her successful sex change, Lili returned to Denmark and the king annulled her marriage to Gerda, with the divorce becoming final on October 6, 1930.

Lili yearned to be a mother and to give birth to a child. She underwent a surgery in the hopes of making this dream into a reality. Unfortunately, in September 1931, Lili died as a result of a “misjudged surgery to transplant a womb into her body.” Her body rejected the newly implanted organ which lead to her untimely death.

Slightly more than 50 years would pass before a medication designed to prevent organ rejection would be available for use by transplant patients. The drug cyclosporine was discovered in 1972, was first used successfully in humans to prevent organ rejection in 1978 and was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1983.

The Danish Girl is two hours of solid filmmaking that is already generating Oscar buzz. Watch the movie’s trailer and then head to the theatre for a peek into being a transgendered person and his spouse in the early-19th century.


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