The ABC of Love (1916): Asta Nielsen bends the rules in top hat and tails

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.

Asta Nielsen was one of the first truly international film stars, mobbed by crowds when she made personal appearances and beloved by audiences all over the world. Was she the first? You might call it a tie between her and the French comedian Max Linder, who made his name with a dapper, high-class comic character in a dress suit. When they burst on to the scene, Charlie Chaplin was four years away from making his debut. Although acclaimed as a tragedienne, the melancholic counterpart to Linder’s slapstick sensation, Nielsen proved often that she could do funny, too. And in tails as well.

In fact she had needed a little encouragement to play humorous scenes at drama school. “It all went wrong when I had to try my hand at comedy,” she wrote in her memoir. “Every type of humour was utterly foreign to me.” But in many ways the seriousness and commitment she brought to drama was her secret weapon as a comedienne. And as Robert C. Allen has written, perhaps the confidence boost of global stardom gave her the freedom to be silly.

The ABC of Love (1916)

The ABC of Love, made in the summer of 1916 and directed by Magnus Stifter, is one of her most charming comedies. At this point she was no longer working with or married to Urban Gad. The film was shot at Paul Davidson’s PAGU studios in Berlin and was produced by a company called Neutral Films, run by Alfred Duskes. However, it was really funded by money from the family of her new husband Freddy Wingardh (who co-stars with her in one of the films she made at this time, Das Eskimo-Baby).

She can tell that she is a huge, huge star by now. Just look at the opening shot of the film, in which she takes her curtain call. Austrian actor-director Stifter has just two directorial credits, both for Nielsen films: this one and the devastating drama Dora Brandes. He also appears here in the role of Nielsen’s father. Nielsen here is in her thirties but in her element playing a teenage girl, Lis, who finds her timid boyfriend Philipp, played by the gay German film star and matinee idol Ludwig Trautmann, fails to match up to her romantic ideal. Lis’s solution is a trip to Paris, and a whole new wardrobe, for both of them. A bonnet for him, top hat and tails for her.

The plot of the film, and its tone, is not dissimilar to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 film I Don’t Want to be a Man, starring Ossi Oswalda as the transvestite teenager. Although you might wonder whether Lis would really agree with the statement in that title. And as Laura Horak has pointed out, the potential for a frisson same-sex attraction is overlooked here.

Cross-dressing roles were common for women in cinema, especially German cinema, in the 1910s and 1920s. Of course it was very popular on stage, in music hall and cabaret too. Men in drag, as also seen in this film, were a little less respectable. Though of course it would become something of a staple in American comedy: Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Reginald Denny all dabbled.

The adult Asta Nielsen playing a girl playing a boy is a little more than simply a demonstration of her dramatic flexibility. It’s an expression of modernity, of female liberation from corsets, long skirts and the rules of feminine behaviour, so there is a political element. There’s also a frisson in watching a famous actress dressing up in front of the mirror, reinventing herself for a new performance. The moments when she is half in and half out of drag are very revealing. And if we’re talking about stardom, there’s something a little Linder-lite, a little Chaplinesque about Asta in tails.

Throughout her career, Asta NiIelsen played characters of maximum gender fluidity – not just capable of doing a man’s job, but wearing his trousers and sometimes, being more of a man. She often plays characters who are women operating in male spaces, journalism, business, politics. Not for nothing did she once play a suffragette. In every role, no matter whether she was playing a tearaway tomboy or an opera star with a broken heart, Nielsen embodied the idea of the modern, liberated woman. And that androgyny, emphasised in her cross-dressing roles from The ABC of Love to Hamlet, gives her portrayals an edge of unpredictability, an instability, as if Nielsen is capable of rewriting the rules of gender, rewriting herself and the world around her.

Importantly, the image of Nielsen in drag is frankly very sexy. You only have to watch The Abyss to know that early film audiences were interested in sex. Both straight and queer audiences would both have found the idea of a film star in tight trousers, or briefly, out of them, appealing. The excitement for us as 21st-century audiences, is to enjoy quite how subversive Nielsen could be in these “trouser roles”. In The ABC of Love, much as in other cross-dressing Nielsen comedies such as Zapata’s Gang just as in her gender-destabilised Hamlet, the joy is seeing quite how complex the simple gag of misapprehension can become. How far the joke can go. Or rather, what queer desires lurk underneath the scaffolding of a seemingly simple romcom. And how often Lis crosses a line even when she’s wearing a dress.

If heteronormativity tends to carry the day at the end of these comedies, we can still enjoy the moments when the rules are being broken. Germany was about to become a far more draconian society when it came to gay rights, with Trautmann himself being prosecuted in the 1930s and 1940s under the notorious Paragraph 175, heavily enforced by the Nazis. Anarchic artefacts such as The ABC of Love make a mockery of these homophobic laws.

If there’s one thing I would like you to take away from watching this film it would be an appreciation for the versatility and sheer electric screen presence of Asta Nielsen. If there’s one other thing, it would be to banish the false idea, sadly widely prevalent, that early and transitional cinema, cinema from the 1910s, was infantile entertainment for juvenile audiences. The medium may have been young, but it was made by and for adults. So if you are ever wondering: maybe…?  The answer is usually yes!

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