Wednesday, 27 July 2016

I spy Asta… S1 (1913)

“The happiness of the country, It is the happiness of all.”

Thanks to those wondrous folks at the European Film Gateway, we are able to view one of The Asta Nielsen Series of films made in Germany by Asta and her director husband Urban Gad; this one from the third annual series, one of seven made in 1913/14 and released just after Die Suffragette (1913).

“The famous Danish actress… enjoys unchallenged popularity. Her acting, the vivid expression of her gestures, have earned her the honorary title of a ‘Duse* of cinematic art’…” raved Union-Theater-Zeitung about this “fully acclimated Berliner” in 1912. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation in the World’s third largest cinema market.

Asta Nielsen
The story is slight and lacking in dramatic pace but Asta’s acting overcomes it all in a series of virtual tableaux in which she shows her mastery of delicate, natural expression. Asta goofs around with her girlfriends, cigarette in mouth as she messes up daddy’s secret papers, exchanges secret glances with her beau and messes around on the beach just like you or I. There had probably never been a beach frolic quite like it up to this point – Asta’s dressed in practical light clothing anyway and rolls her bloomers up to allow most of her legs to paddle – we never saw that much of Lilian’s limbs of Pickford’s pins.

Out on a limb
In every scene Asta’s thinking and moving as if the entire exercise was just to enable her expression.  This film has just about the least happening of any film I’ve seen her in from 1910-1913 but she fills the gaps in dramatic tension with emotional improvisations.

Asta Nielsen is an extraordinary figure and in more ways than one… and no, there’s not a hint of Sid James in that observation. Asta confounded even future director Carl Theodore Dreyer with her willowy frame and slight physique, writing under the pseudonym Tommen in a 1913 review he decried her “…terribly unfortunate features. She is lanky … flat-chested and with no calves to speak of. But what does Asta Nielsen-Gad do? She is determined… to reveal her scrawniness.”  Young Carl’s protests to one side, Asta’s form found considerable favour in Denmark and beyond: something new.

The new look
Asta was the precursor of slimmer, smarter, leading ladies who would not only act well but lead their audience towards a future less-constrained by smothering fashion and manners. What we see in 1913 is a flaming youth and an “it” girl far from lost even after the box is flung open.

As Karl Bleibtreu, amongst the first film reviewers in the German speaking countries noted: “In every moment The Nielsen is the life, the nature, in every of her aspects she is real truth.” He thought she was better than Elenora Duse too… and he didn’t think her “scrawny” at least, I shouldn’t expect so.

At the airfield
Asta plays Gertrud von Hessendorf, daughter of General Hessendorf (Siegwart Gruder) who is charged with procuring new aircraft for the military. The two travel to Copenhagen to take a test flight in a giant airship – thrillingly, Asta is in the air for a few seconds although she is soon climbing out of the ship…

Military invention is at a delicate point and following a major crash, the country is badly in the need of the confidence boost that a new, indefatigable airship could bring: cue the S1 a ship so advanced enemies will quake and, of course, do anything they can to stop it.

This is where the handsome Graf Baldini (Charly Berger) comes in – a man who has already left his mark on the General’s daughter; he is also a spy for a foreign power charged with stealing the designs for the revolutionary new plane.

With Baldini
Instead of furtive looks and skulking shadows, Gad, focuses on the relationship between the two which gives his real-life wife ample opportunity to pull the viewer into what will become her conflicted world. She enjoys the frisson of her illicit relationship sneaking small affections during public functions and, most emphatically, enjoying the most liberated of seaside runs as she and the Count break free from a society picnic and just let rip splashing in the shallows and leaving the watcher in no doubt that their affection is real and very true.

But this cannot last and Gertrude’s loyalties will be tested to the limits once her love’s true nature is revealed: we she be loyal to father and state or will love guide her heart in frightening, new directions?

For the greater good?
The camerawork from Herr Karl Freund and Emil Schünemann is superb even whilst Gad’s direction is a little on the static side: he prefers to let his actors do the talking and there’s a lot of 1913-style pantomime within the static frame.

But Asta is never static and is in the constant flow of showing us who her character is and what she wants.

The film can be viewed on the European Gateway if you follow this link – there’s no sound but if you watch carefully you can hear the chamber players at the elegant parties, the dramatic tension of the aerial scenes and the sweep and descend as Gertrude’s heart almost splits in two…

Quotes lifted from the fascinating deep dive into Asta's break-out years that is Importing Asta Nielsen, KINtop 2 (KINtop Studies in Early Cinema). Available still from Amazon.

Men making plans
Gertrude, fag in mouth, and the girls
Freedom of movement
Partie de campagne
Der Asta


  1. As you know, I'm a big fan of Die Asta, in fact she's probably my favourite actress ... it's amazing how she transcends the usually boilerplate material she was given in this era. I didn't love this as a film, but her performance is fabulous. And that ocean scene is great, especially as she's clearly having so much fun!
    Great to see others digging into the EFG material! And also, I have English subs for this if you want them for future.

    1. She transcends the script and injects so much character. The run in the surf is lovely - a real person in any age and a performing "special effect"! I'd love to see the English subs - Google Translate was laborious and inaccurate but Asta's language is international. My email is: Thanks for reading! Best wishes, Paul