Nationality: Danish. Born: Copenhagen, 11 September 1881. Education: Attended the children's school of the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. Family: Married 1) the director Urban Gad, 1910 (divorced); four later marriages. Career: Actress in chorus of the Kongelige Theatre; stage debut at the Dagmar Theatre, then leading lady at the New Theatre; 1910—film debut in Afgrunden , directed by Gad; 1911–36—worked in Germany first with the producer Paul Davidson: directed by Lubitsch, Gerlach, Wiene, Pabst, and others; 1932—only sound film, Unmögliche Liebe ; 1936—returned to Denmark. Awards: Deutscher filmpress, 1963. Died: In Copenhagen, 24 May 1972.
Films as Actress:
Afgrunden (Gad); Den sorte Drom (Gad); Balletdanserinden (Blom); Nachtfalter (Gad); Heissen Blut (Gad); Im grossen Augenblick (Gad); Zigeunerblut (Gad); Der fremde Vogel (Gad)
Die Arme Jenny (Gad); Die Match des Goldes (Gad); Zum Tode gehetzt (Gad); Der Totentanz (Gad); Die Kinder des Generals (Gad); Wenn die Maske fällt (Gad); Das Mädchen ohne Vaterland (Gad); Jugend und Tollheit (Gad); Komodiaten (Gad); Die Sunden der Väter (Gad)
Der Tod in Sevilla (Gad); Die Suffrageten (Gad); S.1. (Gad); Die Filmprimadonna (Gad); Engelein (Gad)
Das Kind ruft (Gad); Zapatas Bande (Gad); Das Feuer (Gad); Die Tochter der Landstrasse (Gad); Vordertreppe-Hintertreppe (Gad); Engeleins Hochzeit (Gad); Die ewige Nacht (Gad); Aschenbrödel (Gad); Weisse Rosen (Gad)
Dora Brandes (Stifter); Das liebes A.B.C. (Stifter)
Das Waisenhauskind (Schmidthassler); Die Rose der Wildnes (Schmidthassler); Das Eskimo-Baby (Schmidthassler); Die Börsenkönigin (Edekl)
Mod Lyset (Holger-Madsen)
Nach dem Gesetz (Grunwald); Graf Sylvains Rache (Grunwald); Das Ende von Liede (Grunwald); Rausch (Lubitsch)
Hamlet (Gade); Steuerman Holk (Wolff); Der Reigen (Oswald); Kurfurstendamm (Oswald); Brigaten Rache (Bruck)
Sklaven der Sinne ( Irrende Seelen ) (Froelich); Die Spionin ( Mata Hari ) (Wolff); Die geliebte Roswolskys (Basch and Galeen); Fräulein Julie (Jessner)
Vanina ( Vanina Vanini ) (von Gerlach); Der Absturz (Wolff); Die Tänzerin Navarro (Wolff)
Erdgeist (Jessner); INRI (Wiene)
Das am Meer (Kaufmann); Liebende Buddhas (Wegener); Die Frau im Feuer (Bose); Die Schmetterlingsschlacht (Eckstein); Hedda Gabler (Eckstein) (title role); Die Gesunkenen (Walther-Fein)
Athleten (Zelnik); Die freudlose Gasse (Pabst)
Laster den Menschheit (Meinert); Dirnentragödie (Rahn); Gehetzte Frauen (Oswald); Kleinstadtsunder (Rahn); Das gefahrliche Alter (Illés)
Unmögliche Liebe ( Vera Holgk und ihre Töchter ) (Waschneck)
By NIELSEN: book—
Die Tiende Muse , Copenhagen, 1945.
On NIELSEN: books—
Langsted, Adolph, Asta Nielsen , Copenhagen, 1918.
Diaz, Pablo, Asta Nielsen: Eine Biographie unsere popularen Kunstlerin , Berlin, 1920.
Urazov, Ismait, Asta Nielsen , Moscow, 1926.
Mungenast, Ernst, Asta Nielsen , Stuttgart, 1928.
Balázs, Béla, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art , London, 1952.
Engenberg, Marguerite, Asta Nielsen , Copenhagen, 1966.
Drouzy, Maurice, Le Cinéma Danois , Paris, 1979.
Image: On the Art and Evolution of Film , edited by Marshall Deutelbaum, New York, 1979.
Asta Nielsen—ihr Leben in Fotodokumenten: Selbstzeugnissen und zeitgenössischen Bertrachtungen , edited by Renate Seydel and Allan Hagedorff, Munich, 1981.
Fonesca, M. S., Panorama do Cinema Dinamarquês , Lisbon, 1983.
On NIELSEN: articles—
Blakestone, Oswell, "Lusts of Mankind," in Close-Up (London), November 1928.
Winge, J. H., "Asta Nielsen," in Sight and Sound (London), April 1950.
Eisner, Lotte, "Asta Nielsen," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1953.
"The Screen's First Tragedienne: Asta Nielsen," in Image (Rochester, New York), March 1955.
Luft, H. G., "Asta Neilsen," in Films in Review (New York), January 1956.
Castello, Guilio, "Asta Nielsen," in Bianco e nero (Rome), October-November 1958.
Lindberg, I., "Ojeblikke med Asta," in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), September 1972.
Gress, E., "Die Asta: A Personal Impression," and "Asta Nielsen: The Silent Muse," by R. C. Allen in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1973.
Gramann, K., and H. Schlupmann, "Asta Nielsen: Pioniere van de filmtaal," in Skrien (Amsterdam), September 1983.
Monty, Ib, "Deres hengivne," Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Autumn 1986.
Film Dope (Nottingham), December 1991.
Teunissen, José, "Hosenrolle," in Skrien (Amsterdam), December-January 1991–1992.
Virmaux, Alain, and Odette Virmaux, "Asta Nielsen," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1992.
Engberg, M., "The Erotic Melodrama in Danish Silent Films 1910–1918," in Film History (London), March 1993.
Stein, E., "Louder Than Words," in Village Voice (New York), 30 January 1996.
* * *
Asta Nielsen, muse of silence, began her career with Afgrunden , and from 1910 to 1916 (her formative period), carried fully the style of the cultivated Dane in cinema. Contrary to the practice of actors of the time toward excessive and emphatic gestures, Nielsen launched a style more suited to the cinematographic medium, characterized by her strife, by the play of various expressions which she completed with a distant gaze, holding generally to one point of view and then cut away, in contrast to the montage editing of America.
With Afgrunden Asta Nielsen naturally introduced one of the fundamental components of her representational style. Here emerges a sense of dance, and her eroticism, touched with an aura of spirituality, commands a metaphysical fatalism—the marked Nordic presence—which made Nielsen so disturbing. When she created the vamp (preceding Musidora and Theda Bara) she came to be a sorceress and one of the forces of cinema, conveying innermost feelings in her melodramas. Her admirable use (similar to what Lillian Gish began to create much later) of her face and her gaze—a tremor of the eyelids or her immense eyes spoke concisely—made audiences feel a dialogue was transmitted despite the silence of the film.
Her relationship with Urban Gad symbolized a model of identification between actress and director which film history continually reproduces (for example, Stiller-Garbo, Sternberg-Dietrich, and Godard-Karina). Between the acting power of Nielsen and the mastery of mise-en-scène of Gad, a style completely appropriate and self-sustaining emerged. For example, Vordertreppe-Hintertreppe , in particular through the technique of lighting and stylized decor, shows the contribution of their relationship to the development of a type of worldly drama which foreshadowed what would be seen much later as "Lubitsch's touch."
Berlin did not delay in summoning her. With the support of the producer Paul Davidson, Nielsen became established as one of the key figures of the German cinema. Especially in the second stage of her career, after cutting away from Gad, Nielsen brought to the German screen the burden of tragic and mystic Scandinavian culture, and one can hear the echo of both Ibsen (not only by chance in the film Hedda Gabler ) and Strindberg (by filming Fräulein Julie with Jessner).
This period gave her, consequently, the chance to make her major contributions to the art of cinematic representation. In one case we see her utilizing the slightest expressions of her visage (her "painted face" in front of the mirror in Der Absturz ) as she is to receive her lover after ten years in prison. Her deceptively passive attitude toward the scene, in Die freudlose Gasse , of the jeweler making experimental jewels, while Nielsen fails to notice what is really seen, is a sovereign example of multiexpressive mimicry. And she is working not only with her face but also with her hands, which resignedly tumble down on long arms from her body, and which she uses to accent her voluntary mechanized portrayal. These are the same hands which "spoke" in Vanina , in a most typical product of "caligari-ism," as she waits to escape with her lover.
As others have said about Nielsen, she reminds one of a female Hamlet, a woman who worked with men who had a sense of dynasty, a fragile woman with melancholy ambiguity, reminding us of Mary Magdalene in Wiene's INRI , with a piousness of dynastic volume, or the Lulu of Jessner's Erdgeist . In her work with Jessner, Reinhardt's great rival in the development of German theater, she began her second phase. Nielsen worked with a variety of directors who chose theatrical texts of undeniable quality, from Ibsen and Strindberg to Wedekind and Schnitzler.
In the 1920s Nielsen also developed a persona in characteristic decline, changing from her old passion to the figure of an old dignified prostitute, quoting from Der Absturz in two noted "street films," Die freudlose Gasse of Pabst and Dirnentragödie of Bruno Rahn. Extracting life from the world of myth, Nielsen now herself seems mythic.
—M. S. Fonseca