The Decline (1923): Asta Nielsen’s star falls to earth

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, including a screening of this very special film.

We are referring to this film as The Decline. It is also known as Downfall. The original German title is Der Absturz, which is perhaps something more like The Crash. The Dutch title, and this film survives in a partial Dutch print, was “The Penalty of Sin”. The subtitle was A Drama From the Artist’s Life. The film was and written and directed by Ludwig Wolff and it was made in 1922, by Asta Nielsen’s own production company, Art Film, in Berlin – she described the existence of that company as “three glorious years”. So it is a star vehicle of sorts, but without the vanity that you might expect from such a project.

I should explain the plot, not least because the first act is missing from the print. And I will try to be careful, because although this is a rarely screened film, the ending is relatively well known. Asta Nielsen plays Kaja Falk, a singer of mature years (well Nielsen was 40, possibly 41, when she made this film, so let’s just say mature by the standards of film melodrama, but her age is important) who retreats to a small fishing village after some trying times (AKA the first act of the film). She has a wealthy friend, the Count, who has graciously provided her with a beautiful villa by the coast, in which she can recuperate. Those trying times doubtless involve a man named Frank Lorris, whom the film describes as a ”vampire” and Falk describes as someone who “torments me in every possible way”. We may well suspect blackmail, and he is clearly connected to her early career in some way, but he certainly intends to shake her down for money, and he is terrifyingly persistent. When Frank tracks her down to the coast, a crisis ensues, involving Karstens, a local man from the village who is besotted with Falk, and Kaja’s good friend the Count.

Asta Nielsen in The Decline

This is a very beautiful film, but its narrative arc is encapsulated in the title – Falk is headed for a decline, the loss of youth, of prestige, of health and money, and perhaps even love. Is the young man besotted with her beauty and allure, as much as the woman within? If they were to meet again, and she was older and less glamorous, would he even recognise her?

The Hungarian critic Béla Belász wrote of one of the climactic scenes in the film that, Nielsen’s face “becomes a dramatic stage that explodes before the passions raging on it. […] And now there are close-ups over a hundred meters from Asta Nielsen’s face! A trembling hope, mortal terror, eyes that cry out for help until your ears tingle, then the tears tumble – visibly, really – down the skinny cheeks, which now suddenly, before our eyes, completely wither, and we see a soul die.” I think it is useful here to think about how Nielsen described her technique in her memoirs – not as a formal technique at all, but a process of emotional concentration: “No ability matters here, no technique, only the absolute gift of thinking yourself into fragments organized beforehand in your mind, which requires authenticity of expression in front of the all-determining lens.”

That really is the essence of screen acting. Not that she didn’t study her work intently in the screening room and think diligently about how she could perfect her portrayals. This is how she put it: “It fell to me to discover the silent, complicated language of thoughts. Film didn’t allow enough time for long, psychological explanations; only a few meters were allotted to interpret subtleties the author himself had needed several pages to describe sufficiently.”

If you have been watching some of the other films in this season, then you may already have noticed that mirrors play a key role in certain scenes in Nielsen’s films and this one is no exception. You will also have noticed that her costumes were often very elaborate concoctions of black and white, monochrome designs that show up well on camera, but here also emphasise, if not exaggerate, the many roles that Nielsen plays, in one woman. The costumes, as well as the art direction, are the work of designer Fritz Seyffert, who worked on many of Nielsen’s film, from Zapata’s Gang onwards. And of course Nielsen supervised her own wardrobe closely. She knew how important clothes are, especially to character such as this one. She plays a performer, and within that character of Falk she embodies many different types, as her circumstances change, and her fortunes dwindle. In fact, Asta Nielsen undergoes a dramatic transformation in this film. In the early scenes, she has never looked more luminous, with flattering closeups catching her smiling, beautifully madeup and lit. But as the film continues she begins to look less delicate, but more frail: grubbier, older, greyer, even smaller… She seems to be making a comment on the transience of stardom, and beauty, as well as playing an unforgettable tragic character.

Behind the camera, the writer turned director Ludwig Wolff was assisted by the actor and director Max Maximilian and the Danish cinematographer Axel Graatkjaer, who shot so many of Nielsen’s films,, was assisted by a 21-year-old Georg Krause – he went on to a long and illustrious career in the German film industry until the mid-60s. This is a strikingly photographed film.

Karstens, the young man from the village is played by the man who would become Asta Nielsen’s third husband, Grigori Chmara, a Ukrainian-born actor who came to Germany after he fled the Russian Revolution in 1919 and then began working with Max Reinhardt. He was a devotee of Stanislavski’s Method and played some significant roles in Russian films and in Weimar cinema including Raskolnikov in Robert Wiene’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment and Jesus Christ in the same director’s biblical epic INRI (starring Asta Nielsen as Mary Magdalene) in the early 1920s. However, he was soon to find himself playing only character parts and then, only character parts in Nielsen’s movies. In the 1930s, after splitting from Nielsen, he moved to France, and continued to work as an actor and musician. He even appeared in the occasional film until his death at the age of 90.

Karstens’ mother is played by a great German film star, and another Reinhardt graduate, Adele Sandrock. She was born in Rotterdam and her career took her to Germany and Austria. Her tempestuous affair with Arthur Schnitzler when she was in Vienna is said to have been the inspiration for the “Writer and the Actress” episode in his famous play La Ronde. As a very successful actress, she was, like Asta, noted for her command of tragedy, but as she grew older, she came to embody a dragonlike scene-stealing matriarch in comedies. She could be rather a dragon in real life, and was known for her withering putdowns. I wonder if she dared to attack Die Asta? I think it’s good to know a little about her career and fame and persona before you see her in this film. She certainly chose a different kind of mature role than Asta did.

In February 1926, the then-journalist and future film director Billy Wilder interviewed Nielsen and Chmara backstage at a play in which she was appearing in Berlin. It was clear that Chamara though the film industry was no longer the place for his wife to display her talents. “As long as film gave us projects in which we flourished, we didn’t think about the theatre. But today, when American kitsch has killed off the German art film? Is Nielsen supposed to stand still on the same spot?”

When Nielsen enters the room, Wilder asks her whether she has given up movies for good. “No, I’ve left them because they didn’t have any new real projects for me. But I will belong to them once again when they become art.” At this point, she was trying her hand at Stansislavski’s Method, under Chmara’s encouragement, and hoping to play great roles, including Hamlet, on stage.

In truth, Nielsen had a few more years of her film career left, and would have had even more had she not refused to collaborate with the Nazi-run film industry, and only once, with the talkies. However, she was older than many of her peers in the film industry, and certainly disillusioned with the business. With this film, you can see Nielsen embracing her age, and exploiting a capacity to play vulnerable, to reject the glamour that makes film a dangerous illusion.

The Decline premiered in early 1923, and in Germany it was banned for exhibition to young people, which shouldn’t really alarm you, a century on. In many ways this is not a film for young people anyway, but it is one of Nielsen’s very best performances.

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