The BFI have announced full details of IN THE EYES OF A SILENT STAR: THE FILMS OF ASTA NIELSEN – a retrospective celebrating the vibrant career of Danish star of silent cinema ASTA NIELSEN,a performer with boundless range, unique sensitivity and unforgettably hypnotic eyes. Taking place at BFI Southbank from 3 February – 15 March, the season is programmed by film historian and writer Pamela Hutchinson and will showcase Nielsen’s incredible career, from early work such as her debut in the erotic melodrama THE ABYSS (Urban Gad, 1911), to her androgynous portrayal of the Danish prince in HAMLET (Svend Gade, 1921), through to her final dramatic film role, and first talkie, IMPOSSIBLE LOVE (Erich Waschneck, 1932). The season will launch on 3 February with a talk – THE ABC OF ASTA NIELSEN – in which season curator Pamela Hutchinson will present an illustrated lecture on Nielsen’s life and incredible career, before she is joined by a panel of experts including the BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, to examine Nielsen’s performance, stardom and significance in depth.
The retrospective, which is presented in partnership with Danish Film Institute (Det Danske Filminstitut), will chronicle Nielsen’s illustrious career, the early part of which featured over 30 collaborations with her first husband, Danish film director Urban Gad, introducing her as an accomplished actress who would lead 1900s European silent film in both comedy and tragedy. Highlights of this period of her career screening in February will include THE ABC OF LOVE (Magnus Stifter, 1916), where Nielsen offers an androgynous style and erotic performance as a young girl impersonating a male to teach her fiancé about masculinity; THE BLACK DREAM (Urban Gad, 1911), in which she plays a circus star pursued by two suitors; and ZAPATA’S GANG (Urban Gad, 1913/14) where, in self-reflexive reference to her own celebrity, she plays an actor, on location to shoot a film about bandits. Also screening in February will be Nielsen’s final creative work, the documentary ASTA NIELSEN (Asta Nielsen, 1968), a self-portrait in which the actress reflects on her life and magnificent career in conversation with the Danish actor Axel Strøbye – the result is a now immortalised reminder of the first international movie star.
Screenings in March will focus on the latter part of her career, including her flexible-minded interpretation of William Shakespeare’s HAMLET (Svend Gade, 1921); Nielsen’s androgyny and emotional range come to the fore in a Shakespeare film that challenges both gender roles and patriarchal authority. Also screening will be THE DECLINE (Ludwig Wolff, 1923) in which fortysomething Nielsen confronts the ageing process and plays a musical star waiting faithfully for her lover to be released from a jail sentence so they can be reunited. Nielsen co-stars with a young Greta Garbo in GW Pabst’s THE JOYLESS STREET (1925), set in a slum district where meat is valued more highly than morality and sex work seems to be the only way for women to survive. Although a prominent figure in European cinema thanks to her intensely emotional and modern performances, Nielsen’s work remained relatively obscure to American audiences as censors considered her roles too erotic; over a century after Nielsen’s screen debut, the screenings in this season, which will be presented with live piano accompaniment, offer audiences a chance to discover the work of one of the brightest stars of the silent era.
In cultural partnership with Danish Film Institute (Det Danske Filminstitut)
FULL PROGRAMME INFORMATION
– Nielsen plays a woman in an erotic dilemma in her screen debut THE ABYSS (Urban Gad, 1910), the tale of a young woman who leaves her fiancée for a circus star; in comic and tragic mode, she sows the seeds for her provocative persona.
– Romantic comedy THE ABC OF LOVE (Magnus Stifter, 1916) is a showcase for Nielsen’s skills in male impersonation and genderplay. Here, thirtysomething Nielsen plays a teenage girl who teaches her young suitor how to be the man of her dreams, by dressing up in trousers herself.
– In ZAPATA’S GANG (Urban Gad, 1913/14), Nielsen plays an actor, as she often would, in self-reflexive reference to her own celebrity. On location to shoot a film about bandits, Nielsen and her crew run into a real band of robbers who steal their clothes, forcing them to change into their outlaw costumes. While cross-dressed as a brigand, Nielsen gets involved with admirers of both sexes.
– THE ESKIMO BABY (Walter Schmidthässler, 1916/1918) features one of Nielsen’s most full-throttle comic performances in the fish-out-of-water mode. In this romp that bears no relation to geographical authenticity, Nielsen plays a young Inuit woman brought to Berlin by an Arctic explorer, marvelling at the madness of big-city life.
– THE BLACK DREAM (Urban Gad, 1911), one of Nielsen’s earlier roles and suited to her mastery of melodrama. Nielsen plays Stella, a circus star in the middle of a high-stakes love triangle.
– THE FILM PRIMADONNA (Urban Gad, 1913) features Nielsen playing a movie star with a tempestuous love life.
– In the German silent drama DORA BRANDES (Magnus Stifter, 1916) Niesel plays a feted actor slowly driven to despair and alcoholism after her politician lover betrays her and the sacrifices she made for his career.
– In an early Danish film POOR JENNY (Urban Gad, 1911/12), Nielsen plays a cleaner seduced by a callous young man, and then abandoned by her family. The setting may be downbeat but Nielsen’s charisma radiates.
– Asta Nielsen plays a woman at home in a man’s world in THE QUEEN OF THE STOCK EXCHANGE (Edmund Edel, 1916). She’s the co-owner of a copper mine who makes the mistake of mixing business and romance – with potentially terrible consequences.
– THE GUINEA PIG (Edmund Edel, 1968) is a raucous comedy with a touch of the grotesque that sees Nielsen play a manic, rebellious tomboy who exasperates her father so much that he sends her away. As fate would have it, however, she is mistakenly sent to a psychiatric clinic instead.
– The last film that Nielsen ever made in Denmark is the captivating religious melodrama TOWARDS THE LIGHT (Holger-Madsen, 1919), in which she plays a wealthy countess who strings along a series of suitors even though she’s fallen in love with a baron. When her thoughtless flirtations turn out to have dreadful consequences, can the countess redeem her wasteful life by turning to God?
– Dark thriller In the IN THE EYES OF THE LAW (Willy Grunwald, 1919) begins with a deceptive romantic breeziness, as Nielsen plays a journalist in love. However, this determined, principled woman will stop at nothing to support her friend’s life-saving medical research.
– In this flexible-minded adaptation of HAMLET (Svend Gade, 1921), the prince is truly a woman in disguise; Nielsen’s androgyny and emotional range come to the fore in a Shakespeare film that challenges both gender roles and patriarchal authority.
– Nielsen was Weimar cinema’s first Lulu in Expressionist-style film EARTH SPIRIT (Leopold Jessner, 1923). Nimble in her early forties and sporting a very modern bob, Nielsen projects her famous ‘demonically dangerous’ sensuality as the siren who lures the people who love her to their inevitable destruction.
– Fortysomething Nielsen confronts the ageing process in THE DECLINE (AKA DOWNFALL) (Ludwig Wolff, 1923) with a devastating climax. She plays a musical star waiting faithfully for her lover to be released from a jail sentence so they can be reunited.
– Nielsen co-stars with a young Greta Garbo in THE JOYLESS STREET (GW Pabst, 1925), set in a slum district where meat is valued more highly than morality and sex work seems to be the only way for women to survive. Nielsen plays put-upon Marie, who sells herself for the man she loves.
– IMPOSSIBLE LOVE (Erich Waschneck, 1932) was Asta Nielsen’s first sound role and her final dramatic film role. In this tragic romance, she plays Vera, a widowed sculptor who falls for a younger man. But will her daughters, and society at large, endorse their relationship? Watch Nielsen triumph in her short-lived transition to sound.
– The only film Nielsen ever directed is ASTA NIELSEN (1968), a documentary self-portrait in which the actress reflects on her life and career in conversation with the Danish actor Axel Strøbye. Watch as the celebrated tragedian poignantly sheds her final tear for the camera.