Earth Spirit (1923): Asta Nielsen as Leopold Jessner’s Expressionist ‘man-eater’ Lulu

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.

This irresistibly grotesque German silent is an adaptation of a play that was hugely popular in Germany and around the world, in the early 20th century, and has been subsequently adapted many times, loosely or otherwise, for the screen. The play is Erdgeist/Earth Spirit, the first part of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu cycle, which silent film viewers may be more familiar with in the form of GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box of 1929, starring Louise Brooks. The later, iconic film has overshadowed this adaptation, which has been harder to see. And indeed, Brooks wrote rather scathingly about the film in Lulu in Hollywood: disparaging the film for its lack of lesbianism and incest (a questionable complaint for two reasons), and accusing Nielsen’s Lulu of performing “skippity-hops” and appearing to suffer from an attack of indigestion at the crucial moment. Nielsen’s Lulu was, she said, a “man-eater” who “devoured her sex victims”, whereas her own portrayal of the femme fatale was much more innocent…

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)

Obviously there are great differences between the two films, not least that the Pabst version incorporates the story of the second play in the cycle, and that when it comes to performance style, Nielsen was 41 when she took the role, whereas Brooks would be 20 years younger. Although Pabst planned a much more comprehensive adaptation, he was definitely concerned about comparisons to the earlier film. He screentested Brooks with her hair curled, so that the actress’s sleek shingle haircut wouldn’t remind audiences of Nielsen’s own bob in this film. Obviously he changed his mind. But it didn’t help Brooks’s confidence that her dresser in Berlin had previously worked for Nielsen and revered her as the greatest actress in the world – an opinion shared by many moviegoers in the 1920s.

When Pabst’s film was released six years later, some critics said that it had been an impossible plan, that no silent film could possibly render the wonders of Frank Wedekind’s play, which relied so much on speech. This translation of text into action, however, was Asta Nielsen’s pet project: “I worked ceaselessly to perfect film’s silent language,” she wrote in her memoirs, “to remove unnecessary speech, and strive for as few and effective intertitles as possible.”

Albert Basserman and Asta Nielsen in Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)
Albert Basserman and Asta Nielsen in Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)

Earth Spirit was clearly considered a hard act to follow. It has two illustrious stars, and was made by Leopold Jessner, one of the leading directors of stage and screen in the German Expressionist mode, who had made a splash with his debut film Hintertreppe, two years previously. This was a production of a certain prestige: an adaptation of a much-loved German play, with a screenplay by the era’s leading screenwriter, Carl Mayer, and although the leading lady was Danish, the Germans had long since claimed her as one of their own, with the affectionate nickname “Die Asta”. However this is not a very expensive film­ – although some of the setting are ambitious in design, simple black curtains are used for a backdrop in many key moments. And Lulu’s costumes (an embroidered shawl worn as a dress, a white fox fur, and a blouse patterned with roses) seem to have been recycled from the Nielsen’s wardrobe for The Decline, a much more lavish film.

Later Nielsen would complain about having to act in rush-produced, low-budget films. Earth Spirit perhaps points to the direction of traffic: “The films I was forced to act in for a while were not only pure film-hawking, but were ground out in the studios at breakneck speed for reasons of economy. Often the photographer was not allowed to adjust his lighting and long shots and close-ups whirled among each other in the same constant light. The same decoration served widely different interiors, only from another angle of view. The result… was technically at the 1908 level.”

The plot of the play, and the film, concerns Lulu, as the kept lover of the newspaper editor Schön, played here by the great German star Albert Bassermann, acclaimed as one of the greatest of his generation on stage and screen (he was renowned for his Hamlet, a notably masculine interpretation of the role, unlike Nielsen’s). Like many of the cast and crew, he left the German film industry in the 1930s following the rise of the Nazi regime. You may find his face familiar: despite struggling with English, he was Oscar-nominated for his performance in Foreign Correspondent and his final film role was in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. In the film, Schön has arranged for Lulu to be married to an older man Dr Goll, played by Gustav Rickett. As the film opens, Goll has brought Lulu to a studio to have her portrait painted in a Pierrot costume, by a young artist named Schwarz. Schwarz is played by Karl Ebert, a actor-director graduate of the Max Reinhardt troupe, who worked in opera as well as straight drama and would later go on to co-found the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1934, after also escaping Nazi Germany. There is also Schön’s son Alwa, played by the Austrian star Rudolf Forster, who wants Lulu to perform in his cabaret, at least.

When Goll returns to find the artist and model in flagrante, Lulu claims her first victim… I don’t want to spoil the action any further but you will want to look out for Alexander Granach as Schigolch, Lulu’s first patron, whom you may know from roles as diverse as Knock the estate agent in Nosferatu and as Kopalski in Ninotchka, his first American film.

I said Lulu’s first victim, didn’t I? Not her last. Nielsen makes for a very carnal Lulu, sure of her effect on men, and also of the danger that she represents. She is much closer to the primitive animal of the play’s text than Brooks. Just look at the many ways in which she uses her mouth here. Nielsen’s devilish performance carries a lot of the weight of Wedekind’s text here. There is still so much that cannot be shown on screen. When, for example, Lulu and Alwa cavort in the afternoon, all Jessner shows us is the disgusted butler, tutting not so discreetly as he lays the tea table a few feet away from the off-screen coupling.

Asta Nielsen as Lulu in Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)

Nielsen had long been praised, and rightly, for the naturalism and intensity of her performances, but this film was made following her gender-swapped Hamlet, in which she ventured into Expressionist style for the first time. Here with Jessner directing, she gives a performance that rises to the scale and grotesqueness of Wedekind’s play, and the German Expressionist style. This is Lulu turned up to eleven.

Leopold Jessner was certainly happy with his star. He wrote that “A single tear from Nielsen, a single flicker of her mouth, says more than any superimposed effects of suffering. She was and is the great actress, the canvas that makes dignity visible.” That said, he encourages here one of the diva’s larger performances – though I think you can still see a hint of what she called her “inward-oriented style of acting that made me so well-suited to film”.

Jessner was renowned for his strident, not to say over-the-top Expressionist style – his career was mostly in the theatre, but Earth Spirit is one of the four films he directed in the 1920s and 1930s. He was particularly known for his use of staircases, a symbol that Lotte Eisner identified as a key trope of German Expressionism, connoting physical or social movement, perfect for gold-diggers and their victims, or perhaps a fallen woman. She also pointed out an aside that, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, the upwards momentum of the staircase is a mirror for the sexual act.

Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)

The staircases here are part of towering, outlandish sets that risk dominating the actors and are by the architect-turned-set designer Robert Neppac. The film was shot by the Danish cinematographer Axel Graatkjaer who photographed many of Asta Nielsen’s films. However, this film was not produced by her own production company, but by that of the director and producer Richard Oswald, who would later direct an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening in 1929 – one of many films on his CV to deal with sexuality and in particular gay themes, more or less explicitly.

Spring Awakening (Richard Oswald, 1929)

Kristin Thompson has identified Earth Spirit as one of the truest examples of German Expressionism on screen, one of the “films from the movement that push the style the furthest”. She continues: “Most Expressionist cinema ‘tamed’ the style a bit by applying it to genre tales: horror (Caligari, Nosferatu), fantasy (Der müde Tod), historical myth (Die Nibelungen), and science fiction (Algol, Metropolis).” Earth Spirit, she argues, is one of the few examples of the style that “depended on dramas where elemental human passions are released and taken to extremes, with the costumes, decor, makeup, and acting reflecting the characters’ inner states”.

If Earth Spirit isn’t often mentioned in conversations about Expressionist cinema, that’s partly because it has been harder to see, but Thompson has another explanation, one that is hard to counter. “Overall, the style is so grotesque and the characters so unpleasant as to make it clear why Erdgeist is one of the least remembered of the major Expressionist films.”

Certainly it was enough to shock the censors – Earth Spirit was banned in Denmark, leading one newspaper to conclude that Nielsen “chooses subjects so degenerate and perverted that they cannot be shown to a broad audience”.

Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)

Writing in Sight and Sound shortly after Nielsen’s death, Robert C Allen identified Earth Spirit as “outstanding” even though at that time it did not exist in a complete print. “From the fragments of Erdgeist which have been preserved it is easy to understand why some of her admirers regarded her as the most erotic screen actress of her time. True, on appearance alone, she does not have the immediate attraction of a Garbo or a Dietrich; but her not unattractive features, combined with an intense power of expression, make her Lulu just as erotic as Dietrich’s garter-belted Lola Lola. When Lulu yields to the caresses of her ruined lover, we see in her half-opened eyes not only her boredom and disgust with her exhausted lover, but also the attraction which ruined him.”

Luckily today, you can witness the full effect of Nielsen as Lulu. This is still a rarely screened film. I first saw it on a VHS tape in the basement of the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, but you can now watch it (without English subtitles, sadly), streaming for free on the Danish Film Institute’s marvellous Stumfilm.dk site. But with Die Asta, who needs dialogue?

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