Bright Lights Film Journal

Meet Asta Nielsen: Gender-Bending Silent Star Who “Taught Me Everything I Know” (Garbo)

“Asta brings a subtle twist to her version of Hamlet not by playing a man, but by playing a woman disguised as a man, adding another level of gender complexity.”

Some of the most memorable images from films of the 1930s are based on the idea of strong women who resist, even dissolve, gender boundaries: Dietrich, dressed in a man’s suit, offering a rare lesbian kiss in Blonde Venus; Hepburn convincing us she’s a boy in Sylvia Scarlett; Garbo as a mannish ruler, staring into the camera at the end of Queen Christina. If audiences were not entirely unprepared for such imagery, it was probably because of another star with a single name who was doing the same thing more than two decades earlier. This is not mere speculation; Garbo herself acknowledged the woman who co-starred with her in The Joyless Street, saying “she taught me everything I know.”

The spiritual godmother of these women was Asta Nielsen, an unjustly forgotten Danish silent movie actress who is often called “the first great international star.” Asta, or “Die Asta” — never “Asta Nielsen” or “Miss Nielsen” — made 74 films between 1910 and 1932. At first glance she seems an unlikely diva. Her enormous dark eyes, thin lips, masklike face, and slender, boyish figure contrast starkly with prevailing female body norms, which tended toward the Rubensesque. But Asta, who started her own production company in 1921, became the model of the self-made, self-possessed androgynous artiste.

Born in 1881 in Copenhagen, she was largely self-invented, emerging from a working-class background with few prospects beyond achieving her mother’s wish that she become a shopgirl. Her theatrical aspirations dovetailed with Denmark’s growing women’s liberation movement, and as a teenager she entered the drama school of the Royal Theater of Copenhagen, where she became pregnant. Her decision to have her child without being married was shocking at the time but typical of her tenacity and unshakable individualism. In 1902 she began acting on the Danish stage, and in 1910 made her first film, The Abyss (Aufgrunden).

The Abyss was important in establishing from the beginning key components of her legend: scandalous eroticism and a uniquely minimalist acting style. Here Asta plays a music teacher lured away from her stolid fiancee by a sexy but faithless circus cowboy. In a startling sequence of sexual intensity, she lassos her boyfriend and does a lewd dance, bumping and grinding against him. This vulgar “gaucho-dance” was what most viewers remembered, but critics of the time also applauded Asta’s naturalistic acting, unknown in a silent cinema noted for its wild theatrical gesturing and overwrought grimacing. In her autobiography, the actress commented on this: “I realized 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. The opportunity to develop character and mood gradually, something denied the film actor, can only be replaced by a kind of ‘auto-suggestion.’ ” Throughout her career she used this trance state at key moments to force the viewer to respond imaginatively to what was happening — an effect that, combined with her masklike face and minimal gestures, gives the strange feeling of watching a present-day actress who has dropped suddenly into silent movies.

After a handful of Danish films, Asta moved to Germany with her husband, set designer Urban Gad. In the next six years, she played every conceivable kind of character in tragedies and comedies — actresses, unwed mothers, society girls, gypsies, even children (at 35 she played a 12-year-old in one of her films). Activist and androgynous roles were regularly reprised. In The Militant Suffragette (1913), she is an English female liberationist whose beliefs force her to become violent, placing a bomb in Parliament. InZapata’s Band (1916) she plays a highway robber. In the comedy The ABCs of Love(1916), she pretends to be a man and takes her wimpy boyfriend out on the town in order to “bring out the man in him.”

The actress had trouble with censors from the beginning. In 1912, The Abyss was announced for American release as Woman Always Pays, but it was so badly mutilated by censors disgusted by her erotic dancing that the film was panned. This scenario would repeat itself throughout her career, most notably 13 years later with the film for which she is best known, Pabst’s The Joyless Street. In the original prints, Asta, playing an impoverished woman who resorts to prostitution and murder, was one of two equal-time female leads. Ruthlessly cut for American release, the film suddenly became a Greta Garbo vehicle, with only snippets of the woman Garbo said “taught me everything I know.” Fortunately, the print has been restored and Asta triumphs in the role of the increasingly unbalanced Marie.

One of Asta’s most interesting productions of the 1920s was Hamlet (1921). There was certainly precedent for major stage actresses playing male roles — Eleanora Duse did it often. But Asta brings a subtle twist to her version not by playing a man, but by playing a woman disguised as a man, adding another level of gender complexity. Hamlet was based less on Shakespeare than on a popular book of the time that said Hamlet was actually a girl forcibly raised as a boy in order to provide an heir to the Danish throne. At first the effect is more puzzling than effective, but the actress’s strategy becomes evident in sexually charged scenes between Asta/Hamlet and Horatio, who caress and coddle each other in what surely appeared to viewers of the time (as it does to modern audiences) as a gay tryst. Asta brilliantly imparts the gender-unstable nature of the character in these scenes with Horatio and others with Fortinbras, whose encounters with Hamlet are also clearly coded as gay. The actress’s effortless creation of these subtle, sympathetic homosexual tableaux gives a tremendous vitality to this production. The fact that the film was truly hers— being the first film she made with her own production company — shows just how daring and modern she was.

Asta retired from the screen after making only one talkie in 1932. Allegedly unable to adapt her “silent language” to the new medium, she returned to stage acting, wrote articles on art and politics and a two-volume autobiography, and became an acclaimed collage artist. The woman the poet Apollinaire called “the drunkard’s vision and the lonely man’s dream” died in 1972 at age 90.