By Subir Ghosh
A little more than a 100 years ago, a 20-year-old girl who barely knew the facts of life, accidentally became pregnant. At the turn of the 20th century when the very idea of single mothers would have been outlandish and scandalous even in Europe, this gritty young woman refused to marry the would-be-father. She brought up the child on her own.
The life of Asta Nielsen (born 1881) today is canned history, but if one were to be told about her, it would be no surprise to know that the first truly great international film star was a woman.
The unjustly forgotten Nielsen was born in Copenhagen, into a family where the father was an often-out-of-work blacksmith and the mother a washerwoman. The family moved around Denmark as the man struggled to find work, losing jobs every other day. The hard times, naturally, took their toll. Asta lost her father when she was 14, and her mother a year later.
Life began to change as she gradually stepped into adulthood. When she was barely 18, Nielsen was accepted into the acting school of the Royal Danish Theatre. It was during her theatre days that Asta gave birth to her daughter, Jesta. Nielsen never revealed the identity of the man, and chose to raise her child alone with the help of her mother and elder sister Johanne. She worked hard on stage for close to 10 years, and was among the highest-paid actors of the time.
Asta jumped on to the screen in 1909 when Danish filmmaker Urban Gad cast her as Magda Vang in the 1910 tragedy Afgrunden (‘The Abyss’; and ‘The Woman Always Pays’ in the US), a portrayal of a naive young woman lured into a tragic life. Nielsen probably acted with a vengeance – for she was a woman who would simply refuse to pay. What stood out were her minimalist acting style and her overt sexuality in the film’s “gaucho dance” sequence. The film got her the recognition she wanted. The two married in 1912, and moved on to Germany.
There were two reasons for this migration. First, Germany as the home of Expressionist Cinema era dovetailed into their plans, especially since her work in her home country was not accorded due importance. Second was the offer from German producer Paul Davidson. She was paid an annual salary of $80,000, then the highest for any film star. Her earnings were matched by her popularity, and it was only Frenchman Max Linder who could stand up to her.
Nielsen’s films were shown the world over. In the United States, however, her films were heavily censored because of the erotic nature of her performances. She achieved little popularity in the US. Gad, however, could not see her rise to stardom – he passed away in 1918.
Asta went on to form her own production company, and came out with her own adaptation of Hamlet in 1921, playing the title role. No, she did not play a man, but a girl forcibly raised as a boy in order to provide an heir to the Danish throne. Nielsen was ahead of her times.
In Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s 1925 film Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street), Asta was one of the two female leads. She played an impoverished woman who resorts to prostitution and murder, but the film was badly mutilated for the US release. In the version that hit the theatres, her role was reduced into fillers, while the other female lead, also a Scandinavian actor, went on to gain fame and eventually migrated to Hollywood. This was Greta Garbo. Many years later, Garbo was to acknowledge that “she taught me everything I know.” Nielsen certainly did.
But when the Nazis, who understood the need for cinema, came to power in Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted to retain the jewel in their crown and offered her a studio. This was 1936. The Silent Era had passed by, and Nielsen, who had acted in 74 films between 1910 and 1932, had acted in only one talkie. But, she understood the political implications of the offer that few would want to fritter away, and fled to Denmark.
But Asta Nielsen didn’t return to cinema. In 1946, she published her memoirs The Silent Muse (Den tiende Muse in the original – something that would be lost in translation). Nielsen had already begun writing – stories, articles for newspapers and, subsequently, a series of radio lectures titled ‘Growing Old: A New Life’.
Danish Nobel Laureate in Literature Johannes V Jensen wrote of her memoirs: “If you weren’t a great actress, then you would have become a great author.”For a woman who came from German Expressionist Cinema, it was only natural that she would find her expressions in other forms as well – she went on to achieve acclaim as a visual artist as well.
The biggest blow in her life was to come when she was in her 80s, when her daughter Jesta committed suicide following the death of her father. But Asta did find love again – when she was all of 88. In 1970, Nielsen married Christian Theede, an art dealer 18 years her junior. The two loved travelling together, and left their fortune to a foundation to fund trips for the elderly.
Today she is unremembered, but Nielsen’s contribution to cinema will remain unparalleled – it was she who transformed film acting from decidedly theatrical performances into a subtle cinematic style. Asta had preferred the screen to the stage for compelling reasons. Danish historian Robert Neiiedam wrote that Nielsen’s unique physical attraction, which was of great value on the screen, was limited on stage by her deep and uneven speaking voice. It was for this compulsion that she Nielsen knew that she fit into the sound era either.
Yet, she became a star because of her talent of adapting her performing style in accordance with the demands of the film and shunned theatrical mannerisms. And she could play a woman from any strata of society, and, for that matter, of any mindset. She was versatile.
Asta Nielsen died in May 1972, following a leg fracture, two years after her fifth marriage.