The Protagonist of Modernism

Although Asta Nielsen has secured a place for herself in the history of cinema, her films have been, and indeed still are, unjustifiably neglected. This is not just a discrepancy in itself. The underestimation of her cinema comedies and dramas goes hand in hand with an abstraction of the actress from the rest of cinema, and also fails to do justice to her acting. This separation began as early as the 1920s, and found its apotheosis in Béla Balázs’ concept of a “sign language of eroticism”, with which Nielsen presented us. The verve and sensitivity of this text by that early film theorist still captivates us today. Yet what Balázs does not take into account is that the filmic context in which Nielsen had been able to make her impact was changing. While Balázs was verbally lauding the phenomenon of Nielsen to the hilt, she was actually in the process of dropping out of film production and cinema. The reference to a language of eroticism is above all an expression of love on the part of the viewer, a love that forcibly seizes him. Seeing Nielsen’s films again today, we cannot presume that the force of that love has not decreased, but we can assume a new perception of the world of early cinema – the films of the 1910s – in which Asta Nielsen once moved like a fish in water.

In the light of the historical experiences of the 20th century, our current perception of Nielsen’s films is both more complex, and more impoverished, due to an immense loss of experience. For example, we scarcely have any sense anymore of the drama of passion, the pathos of the sexual, the significance of the gender conflict. Yet these were very much part of everyday life around 1900 – something to which not only Sigmund Freud, but also the sexual reform movement and the women’s movement, testify. What we have gained, by contrast, is an eye for how emancipation and reaction were handled in a mass culture, which began with cinema. We have no difficulty observing Nielsen’s extraordinary animation in her association with and immersion in the trivial, the popular, and the new technology, without feeling obliged to conjure up an original language with which to pay tribute to her. We have no need to debate the feminist or gender-briefed revaluation of the former male celebration of an erotic body language. Instead, what is perhaps of more significance to us than before are the aspects of border transgression, non-conformist behaviour, trouser roles, and the playful handling of age ascriptions. Yet the real potential for a revision of the historiography of cinema lies in the perception of Nielsen in the context of film, the films as shown in cinemas today, and in which history is visualised.

These films document the streets and apartments of large cities, their inhabitants’ clothes and habits, parks and private gardens, fairgrounds, restaurants and bars, even cinemas – as can be seen in the photo-album to the lost film Die falsche Asta Nielsen – and sometimes they also document landscapes and rural settings, such as the Spreewald or a coastal area. They preserve not only situations, but also a reality that is full of tensions. They show what social classes and gender relations looked like in the early 20th century. They visualise the opposition between the settled bourgeoisie in their “proper” professions and travellers and artistes. The latters’ settings are the road, the tent, the stage, the dressing-room, the boarding house, and the tavern. Yet the successful, celebrated artiste can also take viewers into luxury hotels and fine restaurants; she even travels by automobile. Yet in these films she is always threatened by a “fall”, from grace, from the light into the darkness, from wealth to poverty. We can observe, therefore, that the film camera makes a distinction between ‘artists’ who create artworks while being rooted in the bourgeoisie despite their bohemian lifestyle, and ‘artistes’ who work with their bodies and remain outsiders, despite their triumphs, despite the cult of the diva.

With the advent of world war, the camera began to focus on other realities: mines, workers in their bare feet pushing trucks, the stock exchange and stockbrokers; then, in 1919, journalism, the building of the Ullstein publishing house, an office, a rooftop company canteen, Café Kranzler. At the same time, changes also began to take place in Weimar films after the foundation of UFA and the failure of the 1918 revolution. The camera’s empathic attention to the world of the poor wanes to the advantage of scenarios which assert that psychological abysses, spiritual degeneration, and crime exist in dark places. These films are permeated by a suggestive attitude to the world that is not Nielsen’s, and not that of her early films. Asta Nielsen discerned the potential of a style of acting that was not just unfettered by words, but uninhibited in every respect. She took leave of rigid linguistic forms by means of gestures and facial expressions, behaviour patterns which she clearly displayed. By liberating her body from the context of language, Nielsen fully devoted her acting skills to what interested film, namely the rediscovery and revelation of reality, including the reality of people. What this required, however, was the ability not only to be in front of the camera, but also to understand human existence.

Heide Schlüpmann, Karola Gramann