Friday, 24 August 2012

Asta Nielsen, shoulder to shoulder… The Suffragette (1913)

Asta Nielsen
Oh this is a really interesting film… One of the first made by director Urban Gad and Asta Nielsen after their move to Germany; it dealt with the then highly topical and contentious issue of the woman’s suffrage movement in Britain.

To give some context, women in Britain did not get the vote until after the First World War and the reasons may have included their contribution to that conflict as much as what now seems like the common logic of intellectual and social equality.

But, as women continue to fight for equal pay – in this country and many others – equality should not be taken for granted and the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters is hard to understate.

Asta Nielsen and Mary Scheller
Beginning in the late 1890s the movement began its long struggle to attain “Votes for Women”… their methods became increasingly radical, post boxes were set alight, property was damaged (then as now a particularly serious crime in Britain…), women chained themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace and Emily Davison died after throwing herself under the hooves of the king’s racing horse.

Suffragettes were imprisoned and force fed after going on hunger strike… it was amongst the most extreme civil struggles in this compliant country.

So, what are we to make of the contemporary view from northern European film-makers?

Asta Nielsen plays socialite Nelly Panburne, a thinly veiled Pankhurst, who has her pick of suitors from the upper echelons and yet who opts for the unobtainable Lord William Ascue (Max Landa) ...not a million miles from Lord Asquith, Britain’s PM at the time.

Nelly’s mother, Mrs Panburne (Mary Scheller), is an aristocratic wife who has decided to join the struggle… even though she could presumably find other entertainment. (By contrast her counterpart, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was middle class and from solid Lancastrian socialist stock.)

She and her “sisters” suck Nelly into their world and, overcome by their zealous fervour, she decides to become a suffragette.

Nelly’s first bit of civil disobedience is to smash a shop window for which she is imprisoned. In jail she goes on hunger strike and there is a fairly uncomfortable demonstration of the attempt to force feed her with a rubber tube. This evokes deep-lying memories of the ground-breaking 1970s TV series, Shoulder to Shoulder which dramatized the movement and is, sadly, an all too accurate reflection of the brutal way these women were treated.

Under Asquith’s odious “Cat and Mouse Act” from 1913, suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike and then released when they were too unwell to take part in any further protest… giving the women enough rope to starve themselves.

Here Nelly manages to avoid the feeding and is released in good health to a hero’s welcome from the suffragettes.

Meanwhile Lord Ascue is the driving force behind an attempt to outlaw the suffragette movement. He was having a relationship with one Lola Rodrigues who – scorned – gives her love letters over to the suffragettes so they may use them to blackmail her former lover and stop the legislation.

Nelly is given the task of delivering the ultimatum to Ascue but, before she leaves, her mother gives her a time bomb which she is to place in his study. There is no evidence that the suffragettes ever went as far as attempting assassination but they did use arson. In this age of uncertainty, such methods were far from uncommon and the Germans had as much reason to fear terrorism as any other empire…

Still ignorant of who her enemy is, Nelly plants the bomb and then realises to her horror that her intended victim is also the love of her life… She attempts to blackmail him with the letters but he faces her down like a true English gentleman. Then as she leaves she has second thoughts and tries to remove the bomb, but it is too late.

Once home Nelly tries to draw Ascue away to an assignation but he already has a meeting planned in his house at precisely the time when the bomb is due to go off. Nelly finally breaks free of the hold the suffragettes have on her and goes to try rescue the Lord.

The film is genuinely thrilling for this last section as Nelly’s struggle with the suffragettes takes place as the clock ticks down on Ascue 's meeting…

It’s hard to judge this film out of time and a century removed from the political and social mores not only of Britain but, in this case Germany. To the film-makers the suffrage movement must have seemed especially alien and frightening: an enemy from within undermining the social balance from the most unexpected source. Women behaving like men, aristocrats behaving like anarchists… this was the very stuff of nightmares.

The suffragettes acted clearly outside of the law, but no one can deny that their cause was just – feel free to comment below if you don’t agree.  As it was, many in the suffrage movement were opposed to Emmeline Pankhurst’s more extreme measures and two of her daughters broke away to continue more moderate agitation. Was the WSPU a terrorist organisation and did its ends ever justify all of its means?

Urban Gad
Urban Gad directs the film with skill, especially the closing sequence, there is also a fair amount of camera movement and some wonderfully framed external shots. I especially liked the boating scene in which Nelly deliberately bumps into Lord Ascue.

Sadly, there are a number of sections missing but the German Film Institute have reconstructed the narrative well, with the odd use of a film still showing Nelly’s attack on the shop window. The censors obviously found much to tamper with in this daring film. Was it merely sensational or was it an attempt to detail the “problem” in a serious way? Maybe a bit of both.

The closing lines are now cringe-worthy but true to the film’s moral: “she who rocks the cradle rules the World”. So much change had to come… but society’s valuation of women must be seen in the context of the time. Yes Nelly may revert to the family norm in the end, she is not without courage and intelligence and she never loses our sympathy.

Asta Nielsen and Max Landa
 Whatever the merits of the story, Der Asta acts up her usual storm. With a well-crafted blonde hairstyle and some outrageous hats, she is completely convincing as the love-stricken suffragette, carried away by the passion of her sisters’ politics. She is really quite different in every film I’ve seen from the leather-skirted paramour of Afgrunden to the emerging actress in The Ballet Dancer and the down-trodden anti-heroin of The Joyless Street (Hamlet, goes without saying).

It’s hard to think of a more versatile actress from this time.

Asta Nielsen
This film is one of four on the new double DVD Vier Film mit Asta Nielsen from edition filmmuseum. The other films showcase her comedic talents as an eskimo and as a man...

The set is highly recommended if you want to see how European cinema was developing during the pre- and early Great War period, and especially, if you want further proof of Asta Nielsen’s acting skill: Europe’s first movie star and still a tough act to follow.

And, in the real world…  women over the age of 30 were given the vote in 1918 provided they also met certain property qualifications. It wasn’t until 1928 that suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21, equal with men… That was the year Emmeline Pankurst passed away, having changed British society for ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment