Saturday, 4 May 2013

Asta wears the trousers… Das Liebes-ABC (1916)

Asta Nielsen
“…a shot of Buster Keaton sadness, a dash of Chaplin charm, mixed with the champagne coronation Asta Nielsen… a stunning transformation.*”

On the face of it, Asta Nielsen might seem a surprise as Europe’s first true film star – already in her late twenties by the time she broke through in Denmark she may have lacked the natural charms of later stars such as Negri and Garbo, but was an instinctive film performer with a tremendous range.

It is not perhaps in her more dramatic works that we can see the secrets of her success though but in relatively slight comedies in which her ground-breaking naturalism was allied to a wicked energy and a sense of humour which – hinting at transgression – crossed all borders.

Das Liebes-ABC (The ABC’s of Love) premiered in Berlin in August 1916 and shows this deceptively complex comic appeal to great affect.

Directed by Magnus Stifter - who also acts - the film tells the story of a spoilt young woman (Asta was 35 at the time but carries it off!) who is offered an arranged marriage with the wimpy Philip von Dobbern (Ludwig Trautmann).

"Read it in books..."
Asta’s Lis, spends her days moping around her parent’s luxurious mansion, playing with her dog and her doll whilst dreaming of great romance with dashing gentlemen. But, when her present is delivered in the form of the timid hypochondriacal Philip, she is devastated.

But Lis is not without spirit and resolves to make him into a man and to instruct him in the ABC of love she has read so much about…

Asta Nielsen and Ludwig Trautmann
Lesson one starts with smoking with a brief kiss offered as reward. But more drastic schemes are required to fully test the young man’s mettle.

Rather surprisingly – given the time, given the specific location – Lis arranges for them to travel to Paris, the City of Love where reside all known cures for sexual timidity. I’m not sure what this says about contemporary mores with the front line so close, yet seemingly so far away.

In their hotel Lis makes Philip wear a bonnet and play the role of a woman to her male “pursuer”…shades of Donald Pleasance in Cul-de-sac

Equally daring, is Lis’ transformation into a man with Nielsen alive with double-think through this  sequence which sees her relishing the role a little too much as she proves more alluring to the ladies of gay Paris than her man…

A night at the opera
She’s forced to cross-dress again when her father (Stifter) pays a surprise visit to his future brother-in-law. But dad is too smart for them and spotting the deception teams up with Philip to teach his daughter a lesson.

They invent another woman, Teresa, and leave a letter for Lis to find and draw the wrong conclusions from… She resolves to interrupt Philip’s liaison with this other woman and disguises herself as a chef to gain access to the hotel where the letter says they are to meet.

Well, he didn't fool me...
Lis’ is enraged with jealousy at the sight of Philip and his fancy woman - played naturally, by Graf von Kiesel’s male assistant – and storms off in a rage much to her father’s amusement. But all is finally well when she discovers the deception and its intent: “you are the finest man I know”, she tells Philip; at last impressed with his masculine credentials.

Das Liebes-ABC is a bit of an oddity but displays the enduring fascination with comedic cross-dressing and shows how adept der Asta was in a “trouser role”. But, as I’ve said before, she could pretty much do anything on front of a camera.

Das Liebes-ABC is available along with Die Suffragette on the Edition Filmmuseum DVD set Four films with Asta Nielsen. You can buy it direct or from the Amazon.

*Quoted from Ilona Brennicke, Joe Hembus: Klassiker des deutschen Stummfilms 1910–1930

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