Asta Nielsen: the silent muse

To mark a new BFI Southbank season celebrating the films of silent-era diva ‘Die Asta’, we share this feature – first published in S&S Autumn 1973 – which heralds Nielsen as of one of the world’s first and greatest film stars

Asta Nielsen


She tore a piece of quivering human flesh out and held it toward the light for all to see. Her amazing face had toward the end a tragic power without equal.Thomas Krag
She is all. She is the drunkard's vision and the hermit's dream.Guillaume Apollinaire

It was Asta Nielsen’s first film performance in the 1910 Danish film Afgrunden (The Abyss) which inspired these panegyrics. These two poets were the first of many to laud the talents of the great Danish actress during her 22-year career. Her 76 films reveal a consistently high level of performance and a vast range of characters which made her one of the first, if not the first, and one of the greatest, if not the greatest, international screen stars of the 1910s and 1920s.

Siegfried Kracauer called her “the most fascinating personality of the primitive era”. Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen refers to her as “an intellectual of great refinement… the quintessence, the epitome of her era”. Bela Balazs wrote, “Dip the flags before her, dip the flags before her, for she is unique.”

To all but a few film historians and scholars, however, Asta Nielsen’s death in 1972 was noted, if at all, as merely the passing of a vaguely familiar figure from the cinema’s dim beginnings. 63 years ago, in Apollinaire’s words, “a new light seemed to shine from the screen“.

Asta Nielsen had been working in the Danish theatre for nearly a decade before she made The Abyss. Since reading Ibsen’s Brand at the age of eight, she had dreamed of being a great tragedienne. But the Copenhagen theatre directors would only cast her in character roles. She would not, they felt, be accepted as a leading lady. Her mouth was too thin, her nose was crooked, she had no figure, her voice was not a female alto but a male tenor.

The Abyss (1910)

So in 1910, after years of playing an 80-year-old farmer’s wife one night and a French coquette the next, she had little to lose by accepting an offer from Urban Gad, a theatre art director, to act in a film he had written for her. Gad had secured 8,000 kronor backing from a theatre-owner friend – exactly enough for eight days shooting. The Abyss was made during the summer of 1910 in a deserted jailyard, on the streets of Copenhagen, and in the Frederiksberg Gardens. Only the cameraman, Alfred Lind (who also thought Nielsen should not have been given a leading role), had ever made a film, and he and Gad frequently quarrelled during the shooting.

Gad and Nielsen made no secret of the fact that they were making the film to attract the notice of the Copenhagen theatre establishment. But the theatre directors boycotted the premiere, held at the Kosmorama cinema on 12 September, 1910. Director and star hardly had time to commiserate with each other. As Asta Nielsen recalls in her autobiography: “Soon the film was being shown all over the world, and everywhere everyone agreed that… a turning point had been reached in the history of the cinema. The papers which had never reviewed films before now praised this first proof of film’s claim to being an  art form. In spite of the film being distributed without our names being mentioned on it, my name everywhere rose like a phoenix out of the ashes. Letters from all corners of the world began to pour in to me, the adventure of the film had become my reality.”

In The Abyss, Nielsen plays Magda, a young music teacher who becomes engaged to Knud, an engineer. On a trip to the country to meet his parents, her eye is caught by an advertisement for a travelling circus featuring the dashing, chap-clad cowboy, Mr. Rudolf. She persuades Knud to take her to the circus, and Mr. Rudolf is struck by his attractive admirer. That night, while rhapsodising over the debonair entertainer, Magda is startled to see him climbing through her bedroom window. With a profession of everlasting love and a fiery kiss, Mr. Rudolf carries her away to join his nomadic life. Hero soon turns to villain, however, as we learn that Mr. Rudolf showers his affections on any female within striking distance. All attempts to contain her roving lover having failed, Magda seizes his lasso and coils it round him. Then, in what for 1910 must have been a scandalously erotic dance, she declares both her passion and her desperation, grinding her body against his, her expression an ecstatic trance. Apart from temporary immobility, however, Magda’s dance has little effect on Mr. Rudolf. Because of his extra-curricular activities he is soon fired from the circus, and Magda finds herself supporting an unemployed cowboy by playing the piano in the park. One day her former fiance happens along and arranges to meet her. Mr. Rudolf bursts in and begins striking Magda, and in a fit of rage she stabs him to death. The final shot shows Magda being led down the stairs to a waiting police wagon.

The plot of The Abyss is memorable for two reasons. First, it contains the standard elements of successful films from 1910 to now: sex and violence. Secondly, its theme of the bored, middle-class fun-seeker lured to ruin by the glittering world of cabaret and circus is the prototype for a number of later films, particularly German films of the 20S: The Street, Joyless Street, The Blue Angel, etc.

The Black Dream (1911)

But even in 1910 The Abyss would hardly have stirred a ripple of interest had it not been for the acting of Asta Nielsen. Her style was in direct opposition to the reigning technique of exaggerated gesticulation. After killing Mr. Rudolf, for example, instead of indulging in wild breast-beating she walks towards the camera in the last scene in an almost somnambulistic trance, her expression hardly changing throughout the sustained shot; yet – as Thomas Krag said – her face has ”a tragic power without equal”. Hers was a restrained, naturalistic style, her frugal use of external gesture riveting attention on her expressive face. To quote Apollinaire again: “She laughs like a girl completely happy, and her eyes know of things so tender and shy that one dare not speak of them.”

Even in her first film she demonstrated knowledge of her characters down to, as she called it, “the last externals”. This knowledge, coupled with her great improvisational talents, manifests itself in the illuminating though unobtrusive touch which pushes the character into three dimensions. The rope-dance in The Abyss, for instance, was largely improvisational, and the combination of ecstatic mask and frenzied dance perfectly sums up the character of Magda at that point in the action. In Engelein (The Little Angel, 1913), her most successful comedy film, Nielsen plays an 18-year-old girl contemplating drowning herself over unrequited love for her uncle. In the midst of writing her final letter to him, she pauses to pick at a pimple on her knee – a simple touch which sustains the comedy of a potentially morbid situation while setting up the audience for the next scene, in which she defers her suicide because the river is too cold.

The success, both critical and financial, of The Abyss soon came to the attention of Paul Davidsohn, Berlin theatre-owner and President of Projektions A.G. Union (PAGU), a forerunner of UFA. Davidsohn made Gad and Nielsen a handsome offer to go to Berlin to make two films, with an option for an extension of their contract. Nachtfalter (The Moth, 1911) and Heisses Blut (Burning Blood, 1911) repeated the success of The Abyss, and the couple, now married, moved to Berlin.

Nielsen made over 30 films for Union between 1911 and 1914, all but a few written and directed by Urban Gad. These four years were a self-imposed and self-supervised apprenticeship: her goal was the development of a “silent language” which would “make the spirit visible”, and she worked towards it in everything from her selection of roles to her stern self-criticism.

S1 (1913)

Most of the films, made in series of eight, were written during the winter and shot in summer. Nielsen worked closely with Gad in the selection of material – choosing themes, characters and locales as diverse as possible to provide a constant challenge to her versatility. During the last three months of 1911, for example, four Nielsen films were released: In dem grossen Augenblick (The Great Moment), in which she plays a starving mother forced to give up her child for adoption; Zigeunerblut (Gypsy Blood), in which she is an unscrupulous gypsy who marries a count and then runs away with their son; Der fremde Vogel (Strange Bird), where she is the daughter of a rich American who falls in love with a barge-man; and Die Verräterin (The Traitress), the story of a French nobleman’s daughter who turns traitress to save the life of her lover, a German lieutenant.

Once the characters had been selected and the scripts written, Nielsen began the laborious process of ‘becoming’ the characters. “Months in advance”, she recalled, “I lived myself into the persons I was to represent. I prepared all the externals from the lines of the costumes to the characterising props which, in an art where the word is silent, play a still part in the theatre.”

In addition to her own preparations, there were other, more mundane matters. She convinced Davidsohn to spend money hiring competent supporting actors, rather than recruiting them from a cafe known as the  ‘Kinobörse’, as was the practice. She also persuaded him to withdraw “the most horrid market posters showing me in gruesome scenes that were in none of the films”, and to hire artists to do the advertisements. And there were always battles with the censors. A garter was revealed for a second in Engelein, her screen death was removed from one film for fear it might over-excite the audience, and in another an entire scene was cut because it took place in a hospital where there was a crucifix above her bed.

Her efforts were rewarded. By the end of her contract with Union, in the summer of 1914, her name was known all over the world. She was receiving fan letters from England and South America, and had cinemas named for her in Dusseldorf, Nagasaki and San Francisco. Her films had begun to reach America early in 1912, and an article in the Moving Picture World, announcing the purchase of six of her films by the Tournament Film Company of Toledo, Ohio, referred to her as “the great German emotional actress” whose followers “are firm in their belief that she possesses all the talents and abilities of Miss Marlowe, Mrs. Campbell and Madame Bernhardt rolled into one”. Judging from the trade paper reviews, the films did well.

Little Angel (1913)

Nielsen’s success in the United States was abruptly halted by the outbreak of the First World War. It was to be seven years before her films would be seen again on American or English screens. Still very much a Dane, and for the most part apolitical, she left Germany at the beginning of the war and, after a cruise to South America and the United States, settled in Copenhagen. She had not been forgotten in Europe, however; both French and German soldiers decorated their trenches with her picture.

In 1916 she returned to Germany to make a series of films for Neutral Films, of which the best were Das Liebes ABC (The ABC of Love) and Das Eskimobaby (The Eskimo Baby), both comedies. She found comedy difficult; she remembered being “completely devoid of any trace of humour at all” during her stage training in Copenhagen. It was more likely that her sense of the comic was buried, requiring the ego-boost of The Abyss and the self-confidence of continued success to bring it to the surface. What we see on the screen is far from forced, and her acting is so self-assured that one might think she had come into film after years in the music-hall. The character which emerges from her comedies (Jugend und Tollheit, Zapatas Bande, Vortreppe-Hintertreppe, Das Liebes ABC and Eskimobaby among others) is the unstoppable extrovert, constantly plotting and endowed with more energy and determination than all the other characters put together.

In most of the comedies, the humour springs from an incongruity between the character Nielsen plays and the situation. In Eskimobaby she plays an Eskimo brought back by a young Arctic explorer to his upper-class home. In The ABC of Love she is a young woman who teaches her Caspar Milquetoast boyfriend the ways of the world by going out on the town disguised as his brother. In Engelein she is an 18-year-old girl who has to masquerade as a 14-year-old when her uncle comes to visit. Whether as a man, a child, an Eskimo or a highway robber (Zapatas Bande), she usually invades a stuffy, middle-class environment and turns it on its ear – not through burlesque or slapstick but by behaving more or less normally for the character she is playing. Had she decided to concentrate on comedy rather than tragedy and melodrama, she might well have developed into one of the finest comediennes of her age.

Her first film after the war was Rausch, an adaptation of Strindberg’s Brot och Brot directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The script, written by Lubitsch and Hans Krahly, bore little resemblance to the play, and Nielsen appeared under protest, having tried to extricate herself from her contract. She refused to participate in the film’s ‘touch’, a scene from Paradise Lost with her and Alfred Abel performing nude. But in spite of their differences Nielsen remembered Lubitsch as the most talented director she had worked with. He had “just that artistic conception of technology or technical conception of art which is the genuine talent of a good director of films”.

Zapata's Gang (1914)

In 1920 Nielsen formed her own production company, Art Films, and chose as its first venture a version of Hamlet with herself in the title role. The idea had come from the book The Mystery of Hamlet by Edward Vining, who suggested that Hamlet had actually been a woman forcibly raised as a man so that a male should succeed the throne in time of war. The script also borrowed from the 13th century Historicae Danicae by the Danish bishop Saxo Grammaticus and from a German play, Fratricide Punished.

Nielsen had played men before and she had played women playing men, but only in comedies. The challenge in Hamlet was to play a sexually ambivalent role for its tragedy. Her litheness and energy lend credence to her maleness as a decidedly unbrooding Hamlet; but we are never allowed to forget that Hamlet not only is a woman but has the feelings and desires of a woman – desires which can never be fulfilled. The mood of the film, directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall and beautifully photographed by Curt Courant and Axel Graatkjaer, is an unusual mixture of outdoor epic and dimly lit interior intimacy. The costumes and sets are lavish and the backgrounds filled with extras. Battle scenes and banquets anticipate later costume films, while some of the interiors have the shadowy gloom of Expressionist works.

Despite some unfavourable opinions – some critics could not bear to think of Hamlet without Shakespeare; others could not suspend their disbelief to accept a female Hamlet (“She must have enjoyed an extraordinary amount of privacy for the period,“ said Oswell Blakeston in Close Up) – the film was a great success. Both the New York Times and the National Board of Review selected it as one of the best films of the year, the latter noting that “Asta Nielsen’s art is a mature art that makes the curly-headed girls and painted hussies and tear-drenched mothers of most of our native film dramas as fantastic for adult consumption as a reading diet restricted to the Elsie books and Mother Goose.”

One of Asta Nielsen’s closest friends in Berlin during the early 20s was the actor Paul Wegener. They collaborated on several films, most notably Arthur von Gerlach’s production of Stendhal’s Vanina, written by Carl Mayer. Vanina, designed by Walter Reimann, who began his career with Caligari, is the most Expressionist of Nielsen’s films, full of shadows, maze-like corridors and dank dungeons. Wegener plays a demoniac governor whose daughter (Nielsen) falls in love with the leader of a revolutionary group (Paul Hartmann). The rebel is imprisoned, but Vanina frees him, only to find, after leading him through seemingly interminable, labyrinthine corridors, that the governor is waiting for them; with a sinister smirk he returns the rebel to his doom and leaves his daughter tugging vainly at the cross-bar of the huge dungeon door.

Das Eskimobaby (1918)

Nielsen brilliantly adapts her essentially naturalistic style to the demands of an emotionally claustrophobic plot. As Lotte Eisner says, “If this film is more astonishing for us today than many others, the reason is that Nielsen’s acting is intensely modern – her eyes, her hands, the sweep of her figure betraying an immense sorrow, give a violent intensity and resonance to this Kammerspiele of souls.” The final, full-figure shot of Vanina in a shimmering white gown standing out in sharp relief against the black walls and door sticks in the mind like a screaming figure from a Munch painting.

Another outstanding film of this period was Erdgeist, directed by Leopold Jessner. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind, the film features one of the most fascinating characters of the German screen: Lulu, the ultimate femme fatale, the heartless siren whose life is spent in gratification of an insatiable physical passion. To those who have only seen her photograph it is perhaps difficult to imagine Asta Nielsen as a sex symbol; but from the fragments of Erdgeist which have been preserved it is easy to understand why some of her admirers regarded her as the most erotic screen actress of her time. True, on appearance alone, she does not have the immediate attraction of a Garbo or a Dietrich; but her not unattractive features, combined with an intense power of expression, make her Lulu just as erotic as Dietrich’s garter-belted Lola Lola. When Lulu yields to the caresses of her ruined lover, we see in her half-opened eyes not only her boredom and disgust with her exhausted lover, but also the attraction which ruined him.

By the mid-1920s, films of the calibre of Vanina and Erdgeist were becoming scarce. Many studios had fallen into the hands of greedy distributors, and American interests had invaded the German industry, reducing some domestic producers to grinding out ‘quota films’ necessary for American imports. As Asta Nielsen described the situation:

“The films I was forced to act in for a while were not only pure film-hawking, but were ground out in the studios at breakneck speed for reasons of economy. Often the photographer was not allowed to adjust his lighting and long shots and close-ups whirled among each other in the same constant light. The same decoration served widely different interiors, only from another angle of view. The result… was technically at the 1908 level.”

Hamlet (1921)

It was fortunate, therefore, that G. W. Pabst, wanting to add some ‘names’ to his production of Joyless Street (1925) after deciding on an unknown (Garbo) for one of the leads, turned to Asta Nielsen and Werner Krauss. Nielsen’s role is a development of her Magda in The Abyss. She plays Maria Lechner, a girl caught up in the poverty of postwar Vienna who sells herself to a rich speculator so that her boyfriend can make a profit on the stock exchange. She discovers him being unfaithful, however, strangles her rival, and resigns herself to being the speculator’s kept woman, letting the police think her boyfriend committed the murder. But a spark of conscience returns and she confesses the crime. Running parallel with the Maria plot is that of Greta Rumfort (Garbo), who flirts with the twilight world of Mrs. Greifer’s nightclub but never succumbs, thanks to the somewhat deus ex machina appearance of an American Red Cross lieutenant.

The real poignancy of the film comes from Maria, who although she does sell out to the parasites of society, shows herself to be the only really moral character by choosing to accept the consequences of her actions. Whereas the moral nadir of The Abyss occurred with the rope-dance, in Joyless Street it comes in a brilliant scene in which the speculator enters a shady hotel room accompanied by a frizzy-haired woman in a see-through, sequined dress. The woman turns towards the camera and is seen to be Maria, a vacant, lifeless expression on her gaudily painted face.

Because of its mutilation by censors in various countries, Joyless Street did little to enhance Nielsen’s career. Her role was apparently completely excised in the American version, and the programme notes of the London Film Society (its only British screening until 1935) bear witness to its butchering: “The action is so complex and tangled that there is little opportunity for detailed characterisation.”

After an almost two-year absence from the screen, during which she toured in a play, she returned to do the last of the ‘street’ films, Dirnentragödie (Tragedy of the Street, 1927), for Bruno Rahn. Nielsen plays Auguste, an ageing prostitute, first seen sitting at her shabby dressing-table before a cracked mirror applying shoe-polish to her greying hair with a toothbrush. She falls in love with a middle-class young man, but he is seduced by a younger prostitute after Auguste has spent her life savings trying to achieve some vestige of respectability by buying a bakery. Rather than see her lover ruined, she persuades her pimp (Oscar Homolka) to kill her. The young man runs home to cry in his mother’s lap.

Asta Nielsen at her home in Berlin

Many regard this as Nielsen’s best and most sustained dramatic performance. Certainly her representation of a woman fighting off the approach of age has an inevitable ring of truth – Nielsen was 46 when the picture was made. The simplicity of this, her last great silent film, provides a showcase for the display of her ‘silent language’. In the early scenes, rejuvenated by love for the young man, she reaches back towards the innocence of Magda in The Abyss – an effect made more powerful by her age and the accoutrements of her profession. She learns of her friend’s treachery by hearing the sounds of the seduction through her locked bedroom door, and in a shot matching the desperate isolation of the end of Vanina, she pounds vainly on the door.

The sound film made its debut in Germany in 1929, but Asta Nielsen was reluctant to try the medium, feeling that the stage rather than the screen was the place for theatrical dialogue. In 1932, however, she agreed to play the role of Vera Holck in Unmögliche Liebe (Impossible Love, directed by Erich Waschneck). According to The Silent Muse, the original novel dealt with a middle-aged woman artist who falls in love with an elderly sculptor, marries him and lives happily. In the film version the sculptor became a young man with a deranged wife, and the ‘impossible love’ ended tragically. Once bitten, twice shy: Asta Nielsen retired from films. She continued to live in Germany until 1936; when she returned to Copenhagen – not before, she claimed, refusing an offer from the Führer himself to head her own studio.

While her screen life faded into the limbo of a retired star, Asta Nielsen’s last 35 years remained full and active. She wrote short stories, two volumes of autobiography, and articles on film, politics and social matters. After the war she unsuccessfully applied 13 times for a licence to open a cinema in Denmark. The official reason for her being turned down was her advanced years, but there was also the threat of a scandal involving the release of certain ‘evidence’ that she had once been too friendly with the Nazis. Although she had never been even vaguely sympathetic to the Nazi cause, the government bowed to the pressure.

In 1968, Asta Nielsen made a short documentary of her career with Poul Reumert, Mr. Rudolf of The Abyss. In the final scene she sits among the art treasures of her Copenhagen apartment and says, ‘I am only waiting to die,’ a single tear trickling down her cheek. After the scene was shot she is said to have told the cameraman, ‘I hope you got that. I don’t think I have another screen tear left in me.’