The Abyss (1910): Asta Nielsen’s audacious debut

This blogpost is based on the introduction I gave to a screening of this film in the BFI Southbank season that I curated, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. The season continues until 16 March and there are many great films yet to see.

You have heard of the face that launched a thousand ships. In this film you will see the hips that launched a very famous face.

Asta Nielsen, a dissatisfied stage actress with little interest in film, had her interest piqued when her friend the set designer Urban Gad offered to write her a role and direct her in it. Nielsen felt that the cinema was silly stuff, cowboys and cream pies. But The Abyss (Afgrunden/The Woman Always Pays, Urban Gad, 1910) was an adult film, a serious story, about a love triangle between a young music teacher, Nielsen, a vicar’s son, played by actor and director Robert Dinesen, and a brutishly sexy circus performer, played by Poul Reumert. All three actors were making their debut in front of the camera, and Reumert and Nielsen would remain friends. In the self-titled autobiographical documentary that Nielsen made in 1968, she is shown in conversation with Reumert – the beginning and end of her career on film is with him.

The Abyss (1910)

The film cost 8,000 Kronor to shoot and was completed in eight days (the money would stretch no further), filming on location in Copenhagen. The only person involved who had made a film was the cameraman Alfred Lind, who disapproved of Nielsen’s casting and fought constantly with Gad.

The most notorious sequence in this film is the gaucho dance that Nielsen and Reumert perform on stage, The camera is positioned in the wings, so we feel as if we are getting an illicit view of the action. But Nielsen is directing her performance squarely at the camera. She and Reumert stamp and circle each other, and then Nielsen begins to gyrate. Led by the hips she slinks suggestively around her lover. She removes the belt from around those hips and uses it to restrain her man, so he is trapped as she moves in tighter, caressing his body with hers. It’s a remarkable sequence, which has lots none of its steam. Reumert, Nielsen later said, could not dance. And that’s why she had to dance around him. Also, she said – claimed? – she was unaware of the rules around film censorship. So that’s why she danced like that.

The Abyss/Afgrunden (1910)

The Abyss was released in September 1910, the day after Nielsen’s 29th birthday. 1910 was a good year for Danish cinema – early in the national film industry’s golden age, which lasted from 1909-1914 roughly, a time when it produced films that were the most popular in Europe, and therefore the world. Increasingly, Danish film production was turning over from shorts to multireel features, ushering in a new era of cinema. it was becoming a new more sophisticated form that required and rewarded greater engagement from audiences. In particular, The Abyss brought in the genre that would dominate Danish production for a while, the erotic melodrama. Like the rash of erotic thrillers that appeared in Hollywood in the late 1980s and 1990s these films promised plenty of plot, and plenty of sex and violence, for an adult audience.

The best of them, such as The Abyss, offered something more. The final scene, in particular, is a beautiful showcase for Asta Nielsen’s fine command of pathos and her early grasp of how to act for the camera, what she called her “inward-oriented style of acting that made me so well-suited to film”.  Danish film scholar Marguerite Engberg described Nielsen’s performance in this transitional film this way:

Poster for The Abyss/Afgrunden (1910)

“She understood at once that now it was possible to dwell upon an important scene and not to rush through it as had been the rule until them. She also understood intuitively that a film demanded a more subdued way of acting than the theatre, and that the intensity of the feeling was not to be measured by big gestures and violent grimaces, but was to be expressed with the whole body, and with small means. In the famous final scene… we see her petrified, overwhelmed by pain and sorrow; she touches us this very day, because each fibre of her body emanates her feelings.”

Walking through the studio as Nielsen shot this scene, the Danish director Benjamin Christensen is said to have paused to watch her perform and say something along the lines of “Now, cinema is an art.”  The Norwegian writer Thomas Krag said this when he saw the movie: “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.”

Nielsen and Gad at work in a Berlin studio

It came about that The Abyss was to bring more success for its star and its writer-director than for the national industry. It made Nielsen an overnight star. She made two more films in Denmark, but then she accepted a lucrative offer to lend her intuitive understanding of the new medium to the German film industry. She went along with Gad, who would be her writer, director for the first few years of her film career. And also, her first husband. The film producer Paul Davidson, put her under contract at a salary equivalent to $80,000 a year – then the highest salary for a film star. He later wrote:

“I had not been thinking about film production. But then I saw the first Asta Nielsen film. I realised that the age of short film was past. And above all I realised that this woman was the first artist in the medium of film. Asta Nielsen, I instantly felt could be a global success. It was international film sales that provided Union with eight Nielsen films per year. I built her a studio in Tempelhof, and set up a big production staff around her. This woman can carry it … Let the films cost whatever they cost. I used every available means – and devised many new ones – in order to bring the Asta Nielsen films to the world.”

Asta Nielsen would say later that the sound of the camera whirring in the studio became the sound of doors opening for her, all over Europe.

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