When I sat down to watch the film, “The Danish Girl,” I had no idea it would inspire me to travel to Copenhagen where I would walk the cobbled streets and explore the same Old Town waterfront where the film’s fated artistic couple lived during the 1920s.
Filming on site, director Tom Hooper brought Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harborfront back in time to the 1920s when the bustling dockside was replete with wooden fishing boats, their sails unfurled and spread out before the century old houses rising above the stone streets. With its tall rowhouses painted in brazen blue, yellow and orange tones and its harbor filled with vintage fishing vessels, the area remains a huge draw for locals and visitors today. Scenes of Nyhavn appear often in the film, each time bringing that sense of magic one feels when transported back in time.
The film highlights more than a dozen Copenhagen locations which I visited over five short days. The drama has its beginnings in the couple’s Nyhavn studio when Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a favorite model who fails to show up for a sitting. The experience awakens in Einar a growing awareness of his female side, culminating in his eventual pursuit of gender transformation.
Scouting locations from the film’s script allowed me to view Copenhagen in a completely different light. Using the story line as a guide to pivotal locations, I lingered longer at each and felt a deeper appreciation for both the film and the city. I was especially star-struck by my view of the sites filmed at Nyhavn and Charlottenborg and Rosenborg Castles.
Nyhavn: Early morning, late afternoon or into twilight, Nyhavn exudes an ambiance of romance and relaxation with its present day cafe culture and historic peek into the past. The rough and tumble brothels and bars that dominated the dockside during the reign of King Christian IV in the 17th century have faded into history. Along the canal’s North side, tall Crayola colored buildings still loom over the waterfront where welcoming pubs, first floor restaurants and shops beckon. You can capture that iconic postcard shot with a quick cross over the bridge to the South side of the harbor where your camera will love the saturated multi-hued scene across the way. In the film, it was here on the more subdued South side that Einar made his first public foray as Lili.
Amplifying the emotional intensity of the plot, the movie often portrays Nyhavn beneath low-lying clouds. The moody setting underscores the tragic tale of Einer/Lili’s gradual evolution and anguish as one of history’s first transgender males. The shadowy light of the couple’s loft quarters combined with overcast clouds casting reflections on the water, the subdued but sensuous hues of the landscape accentuate the inner and eventual outer quest Redmayne’s character embarked upon. Based on a true story, both Einar, the landscape artist who eventually becomes Lili, and his portrait artist wife. Gerda, are remembered most for challenging the boundaries of gender and sexual identity in a time of public resistance to alternative lifestyles.
Charlottenborg: A short walking distance from Nyhavn I found the magnificent Kunsthal Charlottenborg Palace, now housing the Kunsthal Charlottenborg Museum. On the same grounds resides the Royal Danish Academy of Arts where Einar and Gerda first met as students. In one particularly noteworthy movie scene, Einar comes out publicly as Lili when he/she and Gerda attend a ball at the Charlottenborg Palace.
Founded in 1754, the Royal Academy remains active today with eclectic exhibits, concerts and screenings. During my visit, I came upon a wishing tree festooned with paper tags on which visitors have inscribed peace wishes. It was one of many global wish trees designed by Yoko Ono to commemorate the lyrics of her husband John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” – “imagine all the people living as one.” I couldn’t help but relate its message of universal love and acceptance to the theme of “The Danish Girl. It seemed fitting here in a space where the Danish couple’s relationship had once flourished. Guided tours of the Charlottenborg Palace’s gallery space can be booked by contacting the Academy in advance at:http://www.charlottenborg.dk/
Rosenborg Castle and King’s Gardens: scene for a picnic in the film: As I wandered through the gardens-down the length of a path dripping with interwoven trees and on to a peacefully shaded pond, I wondered how that long ago formality of Danish society with its grace and reserve interwoven with its love of beauty might have both inhibited and influenced Einar/Lili’s conflict and destiny. Still, Rosenborg Castle remains today one of the architectural achievements of Christian IV, and seems a fitting repository for the Danish royal Crown Jewels.
Other “Danish Girl” scenes in the movie include the historic streets of Snaregade and Magstraede near the Christianborg Palace, now seat of Parliament for Denmark. Early in the film we see Einar and Gerda strolling arm in arm past half-timbered houses in Magstraede as they make their way home late one night.The buildings at Magstraede numbers 17 and 19 offer an impression of what the city looked like not only in the 1920s era of the film but as far back as 300 years ago. Stop by a sidewalk cafe on Snaregade for a contemplative interlude as you take in the old city ambiance just as it was depicted in the film.
Roaming around central Copenhagen can lead to the need for a break and fortunately the city offers a multitude of sidewalk cafes. I found respite at the open plaza named Rainbow Square. Because it’s close to City Hall, the plaza in the past has been the center of demonstrations and it is here that Denmark’s first civil partnerships legally took place. In 2014, the city renamed the plaza to commemorate the rainbow flag, a universal symbol of the LGBT fight for equal rights, tolerance and liberty. As I sipped my coffee and surveyed the scene, I could almost feel Lili’s presence. It seemed to me that, after all her struggles, she and her spouse, Gerda, would have felt quite comfortable and perhaps even triumphant sitting here in Rainbow Square.