This is probably my final Asta Nielsen-related post for a while. I am delighted to be able to tell you that I was a guest on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, Shakespeare Unlimited, to talk about Nielsen and her Hamlet.
I had a long chat with Shakespeare Unlimited host Barbara Bagaev about the film, and its context in Nielsen’s career. You can access information about the podcast here and listen to my episode and read the transcript here. You can also find Shakespeare Unlimited wherever else you find your podcasts.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Yes, more Asta Nielsen news! Just a quick update this time to let you know that I am giving an online lecture about Asta Nielsen on Monday 7 March in the evening – 6.30-8.30pm, UK time, via Zoom. The event is being held in collaboration with the London Drawing Group, as part of its Feminist Lecture Programme, which is full of fascinating subjects.
The lecture will give an introduction to and overview of the life and career of Asta Nielsen. It will be illustrated with imagery and clips and will be an extended version of the lecture that I gave at the opening of the season last month at BFI Southbank. It will be accessible all around the world, and if book but can’t be online at the right time, you can catchup via a recording later in the week.
Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.
From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.
Hello, Silent Londoners. Soon I will have the results of the 2021 Poll to share with you, but a bout of January sickness has set me back a little. However, I did want to pop on here to tell you that the BFI Southbank season In The Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen starts NEXT WEEK.
The season opens with a lecture and panel event on Thursday 3 February, The ABC of Asta Nielsen. At this event, I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture all about ‘Die Asta’, and then I will be joined by Erica Carter, So Mayer and Bryony Dixon to delve further into the stardom and significance of the woman known as the greatest actress of the silent era. Later that evening I will also be introducing The Abyss and The ABC of Love. Please explore the programme further and remember February represents just the first half of the season – there is more to come in March, including more guest speakers!
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Are we allowed to celebrate Christmas yet? I believe so. And I certainly didn’t want to delay sending my warmest greetings to you, wherever you are – and my thoughts go out especially to those of you who can’t be with the ones you love this winter.
Everything feels very uncertain right now, but I am taking a little comfort from the fact that despite adverse circumstances we have had almost a full calendar of screenings and events this year – and judging by the votes rolling into the Silent London Poll, many of you have been there, in-person or online, enjoying the best of silent cinema and live music.
No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.
• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.
I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
The choices we make in life define us, and this morning I got up bright and early for Viktor Turin’s Provokator (1927), but gave early Selig feature The Ne’er-do-Well (1916) a miss. Did I do right to choose Anna Sten’s anguished student and her revolutionary chums over Kathlyn Williams and the adventures of the rich and beautiful? I don’t know. Provokator, which marks Sten’s cinema debut, was occasionally stirring, but mostly on the pedestrian side, though a raid on the revolutionaries’ den was rather fine, boosted by terrific accompaniment from Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius.
Where I may have erred is in choosing such a downbeat opener on a day that was to close with GW Pabst’s heartbreaking social critique Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). However, I am getting ahead of myself. My afternoon was perked up considerably by the patriotic hubbub around Walter Summers’ lovely postwar tearjerker A Couple of Down-and-Outs (1923), introduced by the producer’s grandson Sidney Samuelson, who was seeing the film for the first time. What could be a very harrowing tale is handled with care, as Rex Davis’s Danny finds unlikely allies when he rescues his war horse from a foreign abattoir: manipulative, but charming with it.
The audience groaned in unison at the start of the next screening, as another tranche of German animated shorts kicked off with a toothpaste advert featuring the “tooth devil” cracking open a poor vulnerable gnasher with his drill. It was, as before, a diverting and diverse hour. In the name of commerce, all kinds of unlikely objects have been animated: detergent, rolling pins, matchboxes, kettles and even, in a sweet but fussy stop-motion ad for aspirin, a silent-film star and director (Im Filmatelier, 1927). Günter Buchwald at the piano followed with apparent ease the rapid changes of subject-matter, media and mood – as when a promo film for a department store dwelt proffered a new suit as a suicide-prevention measure (Der Hartnäckige Selbstmörder, 1925).
I have a date with Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928) on Saturday, but I spent Friday night with both Garbo and Asta Nielsen in the elegant but emotionally gruelling Die Freudlose Gasse (1925), giving a beautiful face to the seedy economic exploitation of women in 1920s Vienna. Both the lead stars are fantastic, and supported by a cast of wonderful character actors including Valeska Gert as a pixie-faced madam. Pabst’s direction veers between sober restraint and wild bouts of inventive, unchained camera excitement. This new print is not quite complete, but mostly crisp, with deep tinting, most especially effective in a fire scene towards the end.
Accidentally profound statement of the day: “The joyless street is long,” exclaimed I, when I read in the catalogue that Die Freudlose Gasse clocks in at 151 minutes long in its present state. It ran for closer to three hours at the Berlin film festival, apparently, but that was based on a projection speed of 16fps, as opposed to the Giornate’s 19fps. Phew.
For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, Lilly Jacobson as Ophelia in Hamlet (1920)
Look what I found tucked into my copy of Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventful History by Robert Hamilton Ball. It’s not a “vintage” postcard, but was bought for me by relatives on holiday in Berlin when I was writing a dissertation on silent Shakespeare. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet also graces the cover of the book, and looking at these pictures again I am reminded why I am so excited about the BFI screening of Hamlet next week. I’ve not seen this 1920 film directed by Sven Gade before, as it was not available on DVD when I was at university, and it still isn’t.
The BFI screening will be a chance to see a restored print of the film, and this event was also to be the premiere of a new score by Claire van Kampen – but unfortunately, that is no longer the case. However, I’m sure that Neil Brand’s improvised piano accompaniment will be up to his usual high standards.
Hamilton Ball says of the film that: “by adaptation and acting appropriate to pictures in motion, the least Shakespearean Hamlet becomes the best Hamlet film in the silent era”. He also quotes from a contemporary review in the periodical Exceptional Photoplays:
Rare is it indeed to see so complete a suggestion of all physical means – appearance, gesture, even the movement of an eye-lid – to the sheer art of showing forth the soul of a character as that which Asta Nielsen accomplishes in her role of Hamlet … For here is a woman whose like we have not on our own screen. Asta Nielsen’s art is a mature art that makes the curly headed girlies and painted hussies and tear-drenched mothers of most of our native film dramas as fantastic for adult consumption as a reading diet restricted to the Elsie books and Mother Goose … It is well … to put Shakespeare resolutely out of mind in seeing this production and take it on its own merits, though that is a mental feat made harder than it need have been by the frequent use of Shakespeare’s words in subtitles … Taken all in all, Hamlet reaches a level not often seen in our motion pictures.
Hamlet (1920) screens at the BFI Southbank on 27 January at 6.45pm. There are still a few tickets available here.