Asta Nielsen’s career started with a bang. The Danish diva’s first step on the path to becoming perhaps the greatest actress of the silent era, and one of the cinema’s first truly international film stars, was a hot romance and an overnight sensation. In her first film, The Abyss, 1910, she played a music teacher torn between two lovers: a sensible vicar’s son, and a circus performer who treats her terribly but has captivated her sexually. Nielsen delivers a compelling performance as a young woman riven by the conflicting demands of duty and desire, which culminates in the film’s most infamous scene, a lascivious dance. She circles her tyrannous lover, swaying her hips, before taking a rope from around her waist and tying it tightly around her man.
As soon as audiences caught their breath, they clamoured for more. Nielsen soon realised that her future lay in the cinema. She was 29 when The Abyss was released, and had been working as a jobbing actor since leaving school, but despite glowing reviews couldn’t land the leading roles of her dreams. The cinema offered opportunities that the stage had failed to provide, and she elevated the new art form to something more sophisticated, more adult, with her radical new performance style. She and the writer-director of The Abyss, Urban Gad, moved to Germany where they made several more films together – and soon married.
Nielsen immediately set herself apart from her peers thanks to her acting technique, which she studied from the rushes: she summoned emotions, nuance by nuance, to her face and with the smallest movements could tell complex stories of passion and loss on camera. In her memoirs, she called it: “The absolute gift of thinking yourself into fragments organised beforehand in your mind, which requires authenticity of expression in front of the all-determining lens.”
When she auditioned for drama school as a teenager, she offered a fully silent performance. She was told to return with a more traditional audition piece, but it is telling that her understanding of performance began with physicality, not reciting lines. The Hungarian film critic Béla Belász considered that Nielsen had invented an entirely new language for the screen: “Only when advances in cinematography enable us to assemble our first gesture lexicon will we be in a position to gauge the extent of Asta Nielsen’s thesaurus of gestures.”
Nielsen liked to joke that her scripts gave her little material to work from, simply reading, for example: “Baby dies. Asta’s main scene.” That’s almost certainly a rank exaggeration of the facts, but it is true that she brought a lot more technique to her scenarios than many of her peers. For Nielsen, achieving these miniature effects was the essence of making great cinema.
Born in 1881, Nielsen didn’t have an easy start, growing up in poverty in Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden, and giving birth to a daughter out of wedlock when she was 19 and a student at the Royal Danish Theatre drama school. She refused to marry the child’s father, a law student, because marriage would have inhibited her theatrical ambitions. It was a fairly audacious decision for a working-class girl in 1901, but Nielsen was single-minded in matters of love and work. As were the often shockingly headstrong women she loved to play on screen. Her appearance was striking. With a slender, androgynous body and dark features set against pale skin, which she accentuated with her makeup and costumes, she was fascinating to look at. And those large eyes of hers contained pools of deep feeling that hypnotised audiences. She created such a distinct persona on film that it was as if she had been born for the camera.
It seems that few people remember Nielsen’s astronomical stardom now, but the BFI Southbank in London is hosting a retrospective of her work in February and March, which will reintroduce this distinctive silent star to the big screen. As a “film-primadonna” (the title of one of her self-reflexive movies), Nielsen went on to make 72 films, continually striving to improve her technique and find material worthy of her efforts, before retiring from the screen in 1932, aged 51, after her first and only talkie. She was a hoot in rip-roaring comedies (such as 1916’s gender experiment The ABC of Love and 1918’s fish-out-of-water romp The Eskimo-Baby) but particularly excelled in heartbreaking tragic roles, in adult melodramas filled with the deep emotion and sexual passion that she conveyed so naturally to the camera. Try her early film Poor Jenny (1912) or her heartbreaking mature work, such as Der Absturz (The Decline, 1923), in which she plays a woman waiting for her lover’s return. Or Dora Brandes (1916), in which she plays a woman shattered by guilt, with shades of Dostoevsky’s novel Raskolnikov.
Nielsen was every inch the diva, but her cool androgyny gave all her roles a certain edge of unpredictability, even when she wasn’t playing teenage tomboys in drag. In perhaps her most famous role, she played Hamlet in a feature-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy in 1921, directed by Svend Gade – but Nielsen’s Prince of Denmark was secretly a princess, disguised as a boy all her life to secure her claim to the throne. It’s a loose interpretation of the play, but Nielsen’s silent soliloquies are as eloquent as any spoken verse reading. As a result, this Hamlet, produced by Nielsen’s own company, has to be seen to be believed.
The excitement about Nielsen’s films, and her indelible appearance on screen, made her a megastar, adored by fans from her native Denmark all the way around the world to Australia, and especially in Germany where she spent most of her career – and was hailed as “Die Asta” – The Asta. During the first world war, soldiers in the trenches on both sides pinned up her picture and sent her fan letters. She inspired poets and artists and thrilled the avant garde, while receiving the highest possible acclaim from critics and peers, who considered her mastery of screen acting to be as revolutionary in its own way as Charlie Chaplin’s comedy.
Even in the US, where her films were screened less often due to their erotic content and cinema booking systems that didn’t favour imported films, critics marvelled. “She acts. That’s the thing,” enthused the New York Times critic in 1921. “She does not just pose before the camera, nor does she rant and tear around violently. She impersonates a character, she makes it live and have a meaning, a hundred meanings. Her mouth is not simply something to paint a cupid’s bow on. It is an organ to express the thoughts and feelings of the woman within.”
Nielsen’s fame may have faded with the passing decades, but one of her younger co-stars gave a sense of her impact on cinema. Greta Garbo said Nielsen taught her everything she knew: “In terms of expression and versatility, I am nothing to her.”
• In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen is at BFI Southbank from 3 February to 15 March.