Four Films with Asta Nielsen is the third release from the Edition Filmmuseum label to feature the celebrated Danish actress. In 2009 they issued G.W. Pabst’s 1925 silent classic The Joyless Street (Die freundlose Gasse) which paired Nielsen with an up-and-coming Greta Garbo. Two years later came the release of Hamlet, a radical 1921 adaptation of the Bard which repositioned the titular Prince of Denmark as a cross-dressing Princess. (I reviewed the disc here.) The latter also included the surviving fragments of Die Filmprimadonna, a 1913 feature, among its extras as well as some of the actress’ home movies from both the 1910s and 1970s (by which point she’d been long retired). This latest two-disc set brings together a quartet of lesser-known works, each of which could be labelled a romance to a greater or lesser extent, and offers further insight into one of European cinema’s very first female stars.
Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1881 and made her feature debut, following a number of years in the theatre, in Urban Gad’s The Abyss (Afgrunden) in 1910. Thanks to a particularly risqué dance routine she was thrown into stardom, never once looking back until her retirement in 1932 following her sole excursion into talkies, Crown of Thorns (Unmögliche Liebe). During that time she starred in more than 80 features, her reputation slowly becoming such that she was able to set up her own production company in 1920 as a means of making the riskier likes of Hamlet. The selections which make up Four Films with Asta Nielsen all date from before this period (one was made in 1913, another in 1916 and the remaining two in 1918) and as such are of a decidedly lighter variety. Yet for all they lack in depth – and, to be fair, both Hamlet and The Joyless Street are a tough pair to live up to – they more than make up for in fascination. Indeed, if you want to see exactly what it was that made Nielsen a star, then this particular quartet is just the ticket.
The earliest of the inclusions, The Suffragette (Die Suffragette), took its inspiration from the headline-grabbing lives of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. Here Nielsen plays Nelly Panburne, a young English girl who is fights for women’s rights alongside her mother. Little does she know, however, that her lover also happens to be one of the movement’s most fervent opponents. This being a comedy, such complications are dealt with rather frivolously. The ABC of Love (Das Liebes-ABC) also provides comic romance, plus a bit of cross-dressing for good measure. Nielsen’s beau isn’t quite man enough for her, so she decides to suit up as a fella in order to teach him a thing or two about masculinity and how to treat a lady. Such vigour and knowingness is switched for impishness and a near-childlike quality in The Eskimo Baby (Das Eskimobaby). A fish-out-of-water comedy, it sees Nielsen’s titular Greenland resident introduced into polite society to predictably ‘unpredictable’ effect. Finally, The Queen of the Stock Exchange (Die Börsenkönigin) swaps the chuckles for straight drama and a tale of tough businesswoman who is also unlucky in love.
The most immediate quality to all of these films is Nielsen herself. She stands out so completely that it becomes impossible to take your eyes of her. The giant eyes and boyish physicality which she brings to each of the parts no doubt help, but then the overall look is entirely in place. The hairdo she models in The Suffragette, in particular, is a standout – and it remains impeccable throughout (as does the hefty eye shadow), even when hunger striking in her prison garb. Furthermore, the look is always complemented with the attitude: confident, playful and a little bit cheeky. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the drag scenes in The ABC of Love in which she takes her husband-to-be around the nightspots of Paris. Unlike her onscreen intended Nielsen is wholly in-tune with the times and that makes for wonderfully infectious cinema. It’s hard not to get caught up in her energy and her presence, even if the films themselves can sometimes be lacking.
The Eskimo Baby, especially, comes across as somewhat thin. Its approach to Nielsen’s character is also somewhat naïve, painting her as nothing more than a woman-child who is fascinated in men’s facial hair, terrified by the sight of a “dog-less cart” and emotionally stunted in the extreme. Nevertheless she attacks the role with her usual vim, papering over some of the more apparent cracks. It also helps that each of these films concludes around the hour mark; they’re too flimsy to withstand any more (The Joyless Street, on the other hand, was a comparatively epic two-and-a-half hours), but under such circumstances make for light enough fancies. Indeed, don’t come to Four Films with Asta Nielsen looking for great cinema – its subject was far too prolific to ensure any genuine quality control – but do come expecting a showcase for a really quite extraordinary performer. On that count it’s a more than worthwhile collection.
Four Films with Asta Nielsen splits its selections over two discs. The Suffragette and The ABC of Love appear on disc one, with The Eskimo Baby and The Queen of the Stock Exchange making up disc two. Both are encoded for all regions, come with a choice of optional subtitles (English, French, Spanish and Portuguese) and are accompanied by a trilingual 12-page booklet containing liner notes from Frank Brenner and Annette Groschke, plus details on the source materials.
The Suffragette exists in only a partial form. It suffered cuts at the hands of the Munich police department, including an entire plot strand. The reconstruction we find here makes use of various film elements (including those held by archives in Berlin and Prague) but still requires explanatory intertitles to explain and detail the missing scenes and sequences. The other three films are all intact, with The Eskimo Baby and The ABC of Love derived from Danish materials (their intertitles newly translated into the original German) and The Queen of the Stock Exchange originating from an original tinted nitrate print located in the Netherlands. Of course, each comes with its own flaws and failings given the age of the elements and the combination of prints and negatives, but the transfers themselves are excellent. Clarity and contrast levels are superb and there is often a terrific amount of detail to be seen. New piano scores have been composed and performed by Maud Nelissen and appear here in flawless DD2.0 offerings. The option to view the films silent is also available.
Four Films with Asta Nielsen can be purchased via the Edition Filmmuseum website.
A showcase for one of European cinema's very first female stars.