Asta Nielsen's Acting: Motion, Emotion, and the Camera-Eye

By Vacche, Angela Dalle | Framework, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Asta Nielsen's Acting: Motion, Emotion, and the Camera-Eye


Vacche, Angela Dalle, Framework


Asta Nielsen (1881-1972) was the first truly cinematic star in the history of European film. Most importantly, Nielsen became a star because of the expressiveness of her acting, a style uniquely composed of silence, light and movement. For Nielsen, theater was about the psychological plasticity of situations whereas acting focussed on corporeal expression turning into emotional impression. As a theater actress, she was strong enough not to let herself be intimidated by cinema's mechanical recording eye and filmmaking's editing cuts. As a film actress, she brought to the camera such a strong sense of presence that she was able to let her movements speak through her self-crafted image on screen and dominate the fragmentation of each cut on the editing table. Instead of losing herself in these pieces, Nielsen used the continuous, vertical line of her body to disclose her characters' inner selves. In contrast to the worn-out clichés of the nineteenthcentury vamp, Nielsen rejected literary and pictorial acting models while being the first actress to develop a clear equivalence between female desire and simple movement on screen. In the end, Nielsen's acting was both so personal and so compatible with cinema that she made it compete with the new medium. Her way of moving anticipated the close-up's subliminal impact.

Born in 1881, into a working class Danish family (her father was a coppersmith and Asta worked in a bakery), Nielsen grew up in a society open to ever increasing rights for women. In 1871 the Danish Society for Women was founded, its primary purpose to obtain the vote. In 1875 women were admitted to the University. In 1915 Danish women gained full suffrage. Without hesitation, Danish film historian Marguerite Engberg states that: 'This lengthy struggle for equality undoubtedly influenced Nielsen's artistic development and inspired her to portray modern, independent women' (Enberg 1996,4)'. In fact, shortly after completing her education, Nielsen chose to raise her child alone as an unmarried mother, while she pursued her theatrical career. Very little is known about Asia's daughter, who is barely discussed in Nielsen's famous autobiography, Den Tiende Muse, published in Copenhagen circa 1945.

Motion pictures first appeared in Copenhagen when Nielsen was four-teen. By the time she was eight, she decided she wanted to become an actress. By age twelve, she gained admission to the school of the Royal Theater of Copenhagen. This same institution saw the premiere of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1879. Nielsen first theatrical steps were not easy, partly because of her androgynous voice (Levinsky 2000, 43) and also because of her svelte, brunette appearance at a time when stage prima-donnas were blond or tended to look matronly. After a period of traveling in Scandinavia, between 1902 and 1908, in a mixed atmosphere of economic uncertainty and professional stagnation, somewhat by accident, Nielsen and her soon-to-be-husband, the set designer Urban Gad, began to develop a filmic project. It is worth noting that Gad had never worked in film before but had some training as a painter. He was Emma Gad's son, a famous Danish feminist writer and socialite. For these two ambitious theater artists, Gad and Nielsen, this turn to cinema was a choice based on an economic and creative impasse. Film historian Caspar Tyberg notes that Nielsen expressed strong doubts about the cinema as an art form when the writer Thomas Krag first approached her about it in 1909 (Tyber 1996,112)2.

By the time Gad and Nielsen went into film-making, Nielsen's theatrical career was on the line and she needed a ground-breaking performance more than ever. Gad and Nielsen made The Abyss (Urban Gad, Denmark, 1910) which became an international success. The making of the film was punctuated by one quarrel after another between Gad and Alfred Lind, the cameraman and the only member of the group with previous film-making experience. To make things worse, Lind did not think that Asia's acting style was suited for the camera. …

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