Four Icons of Early Cinema – Part 1: Asta Nielsen

This is a short excursion into the film careers of four extraordinary female actors of early cinema. All four women set new standards in dramatic performance, all came to fame as outstanding beauties of their time, and yet all brushed away vanity to portray diverse roles, impaired personalities and to smash down stereotypes.

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Asta Nielsen (1881–1972) was the first true movie star. A phenomenon in her time, she broke ground in dramatic performance and versatility of style that most actors today would envy. She is sadly not well-known outside of Europe. Her films were so severely censored in the USA for their erotic suggestibility that they were often reduced to dull film-shorts. Asta was born into humble circumstances in Copenhagen, Denmark in September 1881. Her father died when she was fourteen. At eighteen she joined the Royal Danish Theatre, in opposition to her mother’s wishes that she might get a steady job in a shop. Two years later she gave birth to a daughter, Jesta, whom she raised with the help of her mother and sister. She appeared in numerous theatre productions, but her deep voice and boyish looks often prevented her from taking leading female roles, though she received attention for her startling large, dark eyes. She began appearing in Danish films from 1910, and was quickly distinguished by her sexually overt performances but also for leading a major transition from animated stage acting to the more subtle facial inflections suitable for film. Without words and without the camera leaving her face, Asta could take the viewer on an emotional ride as her face transformed from terror-struck to cautious hesitancy to slow recognition and then pure joy.

Her debut film was Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910), a 35 minute film in which a nice girl (Asta) leaves her mundane fiance for a rough and ready cowboy, lassoing him into an erotic dance and somewhat forward (for the time) sexual entanglement. A heavily censored version, renamed Girl Who Always Pays was released in USA in 1912. The film was an instant success.

Her first five films were all directed by Urban Gad, whom she later married. They moved to Germany to extend their film careers, and Asta was provided with her own film studio. Die Suffragette (The Militant Suffragette), released in 1913, is a comic film which appears to be a German perspective on the American film The Militant Suffragette, released a year earlier. Set in London, Nelly Panburne (Asta) is recruited into the Suffragettes by her mother, and they plan to put a bomb under the chair of Lord William Ascue (Max Landa), whom Nelly has previously met as a stranger and fallen for him. But Nelly does not surrender her political beliefs. The film ends with: ‘She who rocks the cradle rules the World’.

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Asta rallying the troops in Die Suffragette

Asta defied the norm of female-leads of the time (usually buxom blondes) for a more natural yet flirtatious girl-in-the-street appeal. Her popularity among cinema-goers as well as by fellow actors was enormous. By 1914 she was known as Die Asta (The Asta), due to her hypnotic and seductive magnetism on screen, and the fact that there was no other actor like her. She was a rising star that began a sensation of fan supporters, and making a whopping 85,000 marks, the highest paid actor in the world. Throughout Europe teenage girls and young women copied her hairstyle. She was less successful in the USA however, where her films were cut to shreds (a consequence of Asta’s sexually-charged acting).

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Nielsen as Hamlet (1921)

In 1921 Nielsen took the lead role of Hamlet, made and distributed by her own company Asta Films, which she established the year before. She took an interest in every element of film production. In this interpretation of Shakespeare, Hamlet is a woman disguised as a man. It was a phenomenal success. She was not the first woman to play a man’s role or even the first to play Hamlet, but it was unusual and her popularity at the time made it something of an iconic film (what might call these days gender-bender), catapulting Asta to even greater heights of popularity.

Asta visited New York to study American film techniques but continued to work in Germany. In Die freudlose Gasse (1925 – The Street of Sorrow in the USA and The Joyless Street in Britain) Asta co-stars with Greta Garbo in a hard-hitting drama about poverty in inner-city Vienna in 1921. Both are impoverished, trying to make ends meet, with Asta’s character Maria Lechner becoming a prostitute to survive. Incidentally, Marlene Dietrich also had a small part in this film. It was one of the first films of the New Objectivity art movement in Germany in the 1920s, which dealt with social issues of poverty, such as drug addiction, prostitution and abortion; and also with homosexuality and opposition to war. The movement was crushed in 1933 by the Weimar Republic. Later in life, Greta Garbo stated that Asta ‘taught me everything I know’.

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Asta made 74 films in her career, only the last of which in 1932 was made with sound (Unmögliche Liebe  – Crown of Thorns). She returned to stage acting thereafter. In 1936 Joseph Goebbels offered Asta her own studio, and Hitler invited her to tea to convince her to return to the screen where she could be a great political influence. Asta declined, and soon left Germany, returning home to Denmark. During the war she sent money to contacts in German-occupied regions to assist Jews in desperate circumstances. Much of the money was used to provide food parcels to the Theresienstadt concentration camp (where German, Austrian, Dutch and Danish Jews were imprisoned) in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, which occurred with such regularity that the Gestapo gave her a stern warning to desist.

In Denmark, Asta continued a career on stage, but increasingly wrote on art and politics, and later became an acclaimed collage artist. She married four times, including marrying her long-time partner in her late 70s. Asta died at age 90 in May 1972. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn all credit Asta has a guiding influence, and more recently it has been suggested that Kylo Ren’s morose and darkly suited look in the recent Star Wars films is modelled on Asta’s 1921 Hamlet. Today, many cinemas around the world are named The Asta in her honour.

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