Saturday, 19 November 2011

Asta is born... The Black Dream (1911) and The Ballet Dancer (1911)

In 1911 Asta Nielsen was contracted to German producer Paul Davidson for a massive $80,000 a year, a stunning amount for the time (millions in modern terms) for an actress who had made just a few features.

A graduate of the Royal Danish Theatre who had spent most of her twenties in rep with various companies, Nielsen made her screen debut with Urban Gad's Afgrunden in 1910. This film caused a sensation with Nielsen's unabashed potrayal of a woman who follows her impulse to run off with a cowboy from a travelling circus. The film, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is striking when compared with most others I've seen from this period - naturalistic, quite daring and culminating in the famous eye-popping dance routine that wouldn't have made the cut even in pre-code Hollywood.

Nielsen's next two films, The Ballet Dancer (Balletdanserinden) and The Black Dream (Det sorte Drøm) both from 1911, followed similar themes of love, sex and retribution: in the end someone has to pay for passion miss-spent.

The Ballet Dancer was directed by August Blom and features Asta as Camille, a dancer who wins a role in a play after the lead actress is taken ill. The play is shot from the side of the stage and Asta is right at home in showing the closing scene and taking the applause from the unseen audience. After recently watching her in Hamlet and Joyless Street, Nielsen looks so young (not quite 30 at the time) and is full of energy - she knew the exhilaration of performance well and is out of time in her ability to act naturalistically on screen.

Then there is a scene in which Camille is at an outdoor cafe with the playwright, Jean (Johannes Poulsen) with whom she has begun an affair. She sits, wearing an outrageous butterfly hat and chats away exuberantly whilst swatting away the occasional fly; such a natural thing to do but neatly improvised by Nielsen. Whether flies there were or not this helps create the impression of reality.

As Paul Wegener later said, she was able to show "...the unforced quality of natural events", a rare ability in any age and genuinely amazing to find in a 100 year old film.

This is a rich little tale of complicated bohemian love... Camille agrees to be painted by Paul (Valdemar Psilander), who swiftly falls for her whilst Jean starts seeing Yvette the wife of the aristocratic Simon Pentier.

Blom's direction is as assured as Urban Gad's and again this film shows us an authentic slice of pre-war Danish life with some well-dressed scenary and a stunning range of costumery for Ms Nielsen - I'm no expert on fashion but the opulence of the dresses, hats and coats places this closer to the vibrant twenties than the dour noughties.

In spite of his betrayal, Camille tries to cover for Jean's indiscretions as Simon comes looking for satisfaction and revenge: not everyone can get out of this one alive!

Nielsen escalates the emotional intensity as things reach a climax. She goes into what she described as a kind of trance state as, overcome by the drama, her character's mind races into overdrive. This was her way of pulling the audience towards her and making us work out her thoughts in synchronised sympathy. "I realised that one had to detach oneself completely from one’s surroundings in order to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film...." she said later. It's more than a neat trick and it is still working a century later.

There's more forward-thinking acting in The Black Dream, her second film with husband-to-be Urban Gad. This film has an abundance of exterior shots (including some with a window-full of fascinated on-lookers!) that give a great view of contemporary Copenhagen.

There are very few intertitles in any of these films, but this one can have barely half a dozen. This puts the onus on director and actors to tell the story. That they manage this with such subtlety and impact is impressive especially given that this is 1910-11.

Asta Nielsen plays a large part in this but Gad was also a ground-breaker in his own right with his well-paced narratives, surprising range of shots and compositional sense (...around the streets, the actors... Die Asta!).

Story-wise, the The Black Dream is another tale of love, jealousy and, ultimately violence. Asta plays a circus performer, Stella, who rides horses acrobatically in front of her adoring public. She is pursued by the scheming Aldolf Hirsch (Gunnar Helsengreen) but her true love is Johann Graf von Waldberg (Valdemar Psilander).

Hirsch forces himself on Stella and is knocked to the ground by Johann. Hirsch challenges him to a card duel and, presumably cheating, leaves him deafeted and in debt. Unable to raise the money, Johann considers suicide only to be stopped by Stella who has a plan to save them. Will it work or will the evil Hirsch win out?

These are three strong and progressive films that show cinema finding its feet surprisingly early. They also show just why Asta Nielsen became a European phenomena so quickly.

From this point on most of her films were German and, the one remaining danish exception, Towards the Light (Mod Lyset) from 1919, is also included in the Danish Film Institute's DVD set that I watched. It's available from the DFI direct or from BFI and other good retailers.

For those of you who want a poorer quality freebie... Afgrunden is now available for download free from the Internet Archive. But, seriously, don't bother with that, get the best possible quality you can, it's worth it to view one of the greatest performers of the silent era.

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