Danish actress Asta Nielsen (1881 - 1972) was one of first superstars of the silent screen. Of her 74 films between 1910 and 1932, seventy were made in Germany where she was known simply as Die Asta. Noted for her large dark eyes, mask-like face and boyish figure, Nielsen most often portrayed strong-willed, passionate women trapped by tragic consequences.
German postcard by Verlag Herm. Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 3047.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 470/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass, Berlin.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 406/4. 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass.
Unique Physical Attraction
Asta Sofie Amalie Nielsen was born in the Copenhagen suburb of Vesterbro, Denmark, in 1881. She was the daughter of an often unemployed blacksmith and a washerwoman. Nielsen's family moved several times during her childhood while her father sought employment. When she was fourteen years old, her father died. Asta's stage debut came as a child in the chorus of the Kongelige Teater's production of Boito's opera Mephistopheles. At the age of eighteen, Nielsen was accepted into the drama school of the Royal Danish Theatre. During her time there, she studied with the Royal Danish actor Peter Jerndorff. In 1901, twenty years old, she became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Jesta. Nielsen never revealed the identity of the father, and chose to raise her child alone with the help of her mother and older sister. In 1902 she graduated from drama school. For the next three years she worked at the Dagmar Theatre, then toured in Norway and Sweden from 1905 to 1907 with De Otte and the Peter Fjelstrup companies. Returning to Denmark, she was employed at Det Ny Theater (The New Theatre) from 1907 to 1910. Although she worked steadily as a stage actress, her performances remained unremarkable. Danish historian Robert Neiiedam wrote that Nielsen's unique physical attraction, which was of great value on the screen, was limited on stage by her deep and uneven speaking voice.
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K 1309. Photo: Freddy Wingärdh.
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K 1422. Photo: Neutral Film. Publicity still for Das Eskimo-Baby (1916, Walter Schmidthaessler).
German postcard, no. 3009. Photo: Herm. Leisen, Berlin-Wilm.
Key Components of Her Legend
In 1909, set designer and director Urban Gad encouraged Asta Nielsen to become a film actress and she starred in his Danish silent film Afgrunden/The Abyss (1910, Urban Gad). Gary Morris observes in Bright Lights Film Journal: "this film established from the beginning key components of her legend: scandalous eroticism and a uniquely minimalist acting style." Asta plays a music teacher lured away from her stolid fiancee (Robert Dinesen) by a sexy but faithless circus cowboy (Poul Reumert). In a startling sequence of sexual intensity, she lassos her boyfriend and does a lewd dance, bumping and grinding against him. Morris: "This vulgar ‘gaucho-dance’ was what most viewers remembered, but critics of the time also applauded Asta's naturalistic acting." The film was a huge success so she was encouraged to continue. The following year Balletdanserinden/The Ballet Dancer (1911, August Blom) proved to be another success. Nielsen and Gad soon married. A German distributor, Paul Davidson, invited Nielsen to Germany, where he was building a new studio. Eventually this would become Europe's largest film studio - the Universum Film Union A.-G. (or Ufa). Asta signed a contract for $80,000 a year, then the highest salary for a film actress. In 1911, she moved to Berlin with Urban Gad. In a Russian popularity poll of that year she was voted world's top female film star, behind French comedian Max Linder and ahead of her Danish compatriot Valdemar Psilander.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 379/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 379/4, ca. 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass phot.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 380/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 380/4, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass.
In the next six years, Asta Nielsen played every conceivable kind of character in both tragedies and comedies. In Die Suffragette/The Militant Suffragette (1913, Urban Gad), she is an English female liberationist whose beliefs force her to become violent, placing a bomb in Parliament. In Zapatas Bande/Zapata's Gang (1916, Urban Gad) she plays a highway robber. In the comedy Das Liebes-ABC/The ABCs of Love (1916, Magnus Stifter) she pretends to be a man and takes her wimpy boyfriend out on the town in order to "bring out the man in him." Nielsen was so famous that the name Asta became a trademark for cigarettes and perfumes. In the Dutch city The Hague a cinema was named after her. Her beauty was praised by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire as "the drunkard's vision and the lonely man's dream". One of Asta's most interesting productions was Hamlet (1921, Sven Gade, Heinz Schall). Gary Morris: "Asta brings a subtle twist to her version not by playing a man, but by playing a woman disguised as a man, adding another level of gender complexity. Hamlet was based less on William Shakespeare than on a popular book of the time that said Hamlet was actually a girl forcibly raised as a boy in order to provide an heir to the Danish throne. At first the effect is more puzzling than effective, but the actress's strategy becomes evident in sexually charged scenes between Asta/Hamlet and Horatio, who caress and coddle each other in what surely appeared to viewers of the time (as it does to modern audiences) as a gay tryst. Asta brilliantly imparts the gender-unstable nature of the character in these scenes with Horatio and others with Fortinbras, whose encounters with Hamlet are also clearly coded as gay. The actress's effortless creation of these subtle, sympathetic homosexual tableaux gives a tremendous vitality to this production. The fact that the film was truly hers — being the first film she made with her own production company — shows just how daring and modern she was."
Spanish postcard. Photo: Asta Nielsen in Hamlet (1921).
German postcard by Verl. Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 7282.
French postcard, no. 200. Photo: publicity still for Hedda Gabler (1925, Franz Eckstein).
Die Freudlose Gasse
Nowadays Asta Nielsen is best known for Die Freudlose Gasse/The Joyless Street (1925, G.W. Pabst). Asta plays in this film an impoverished woman who resorts to prostitution and murder. In the original prints there were two equal-time female leads: Nielsen and a young actress from Sweden, Greta Garbo. Ruthlessly cut for American release, the film suddenly became a Garbo vehicle. Fortunately, the print has been restored recently and Asta triumphs in it as the increasingly unbalanced Marie. Nielsen continued to be a screen legend in Germany, and appeared in films like Dirnentragödie/Tragedy of the Street (1927, Bruno Rahn) and in her only sound film Unmögliche Liebe/Crown of Thorns (1932, Erich Waschneck). After the Nazis came to power she was rumoured to be offered her own studio by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Understanding the implications well, she left Germany for good in 1936, settling in Denmark where she returned to stage acting and became a private figure.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 580/3, ca. 1919-1924. Photo: Art Film.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1140/1, 1927-1928. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1140/2, 1927-1928. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin.
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3084/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Atelier Wulson, Berlin.
A Director at 86
In her later years, Asta Nielsen wrote articles on art and politics and a two-volume autobiography, Den tiende Muse (The Silent Muse) in 1946. She also became an acclaimed collage artist. In 1964, Nielsen had to come to terms with the most severe blow of her life: her daughter Jesta committed suicide following the death of her husband. At 86, Asta directed her first film. Luise F. Pusch writes in FemBio: "After a film about her life did not meet with her approval, she set to work on the project herself. The result was a work of art." At 88, Asta Nielsen married her third husband, Christian Theede, an art dealer 18 years her junior and the great love of her life. The two enjoyed their travels together so much that they decided to leave their fortune to a foundation to fund trips for the elderly. In 1972, Asta Nielsen died in Copenhagen after a leg fracture. She was 90.
The erotic Gaucho Dance from Afgrunden/The Abyss (1910). Source: Filmmuseum Amsterdam (YouTube).
Asta Nielsen in Zapatas Bande (1914). Source: Unknown Cinema (YouTube).
Sources: Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal), Luise F. Pusch (FemBio), Jim Beaver (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.