Silent film star Asta Nielsen (1881-1972) was an elegant, athletic, charismatic woman with striking dark looks that to my modern eyes seem like part Vampira, part tragic singer Karen Carpenter. Not quite the vamp and too old to be the ingénue, her vast body of work is generally forgotten except perhaps for G. W. Pabst's 1925 melodrama The Joyless Street - and even that is better known as the film that shot fellow Scandinavian Greta Garbo into stardom. That development might lead some to believe that Nielsen's craft is best left for navel-gazing movie bloggers to analyze, but she was actually quite a modern, expressive performer with a unique, sexy appeal all her own.
Danish by birth, a mediocre stage actress turned brilliant film headliner, Nielsen was notable as one of the first movie stars - period. Her success in the 1910s made her well-known all across Europe, an unusual occurrence at a time when most film actors received little to no onscreen credit. Nearing the age of thirty by the time she started acting on film, Nielsen's maturity and more naturalistic performing style must have touched a nerve with audiences of the day. Another factor in her popularity was her impressive versatility, which is on full display in the German 2-DVD set Four Films with Asta Nielsen. The films contained in this nicely presented set showcase Nielsen's knack for florid melodrama (The Queen of the Stock Exchange), zany slapstick (The ABCs of Love), cross-cultural comedy (The Eskimo Baby), and nail-biting suspense (The Suffragette).
Four Films with Asta Nielsen consists of the following films, all produced by Germany's Internationale Film-Vertriebs-Gesellschaft in 1913-16:
Die Suffragette (The Suffragette) (1913; 61 minutes)
Despite The Suffragette's strangely backward-looking conclusion (long story short: the suffragettes do not emerge victorious), it's actually a pleasant, efficiently paced drama with a diverting performance from Nielsen. Her natural acting style makes Nelly's transition from naive but outgoing girl to militant feminist believable. Unlike many films from the early silent era, it's not very stagy or dull. In fact, Nelly's anxious rush to save Lord William counts as the highlight of this set.
Das Liebes-ABC (The ABCs of Love) (1916; 50 minutes)
A thoroughly average slapstick farce, The ABCs of Love nevertheless holds a lot of fascination due to the cross-dressing angle and Nielsen's unrestrained approach to it. Even when the story becomes poky and unbelievable, the total commitment that Nielsen brings to this silly throwaway (with an outdated message, natch) makes it worth a peek for fans of this über-versatile leading lady.
Das Eskimobaby (The Eskimo Baby) (1916, 70 minutes)
Where to begin with The Eskimo Baby? This is one strange flick, hobbled with dated, condescending attitudes and a bizarre conclusion that can be boiled down to Babies Make Everything Better (The Suffragette comes to a similar conclusion, actually). There's one reason to watch it, however, and that is Asta Nielson's completely uninhibited take on the character of Ivigtut. Ivigtut is written as a completely naive, childlike being with no basis in real Native peoples. She's treated more like a space alien than anything else (even facial hair confounds her). It could have been a disaster, and yet Nielsen crafts her into an endearing figure who is utterly fascinating to watch. The film is enlivened with several genuinely hilarious moments, including a scene where Ivigtut wanders into a fancy department store and shoplifts random items. This sequence was filmed on location (in Berlin?) and has a wonderful spontaneous feel.
Die Börsenkönigin (The Queen of the Stock Exchange) (1916; 63 minutes)
The Queen of the Stock Exchange counts as a typically ripe melodrama of the era with a dense plot that's low on surprises. The fact that it was filmed at an actual mine with real miners as extras injects it with some of the realism that got sucked out via the fussy story and theatrical performances. Although Nielsen was renowned for her naturalistic acting style, here she's almost as stiff and unconvincing as her male counterparts. She does have the gravitas to pull off this more mature, intelligent character, however. This film appears more lavishly mounted than the others included here, with photography that is given a luster with tinted film stock.
Four Films with Asta Nielsen was produced by the German company Edition Filmmuseum with the same care and respect that you'd expect to find with U.S. releases by Kino and Criterion. For silent film fans, the set serves as a real treat to experience the many sides of this unjustly forgotten actress.
Edition Filmmuseum's Four Films with Asta Nielsen comes as a Region 0 PAL release which may not play in many American DVD players. It didn't work with my relatively new blu-ray player, but I was able to enjoy both discs on my iMac. The discs are housed in a standard-width transparent hinged DVD case which comes with a nice 12-page booklet containing photos and biographical info on Nielsen written in German, English and French.
These films were reconstructed with the best available materials, with missing segments reconstructed through surviving script excerpts or (as in The Suffragette) publicity photos. There are a few instances where the film is badly deteriorated, and dirt/specks are a constant presence. By and large, however, the picture is nicely mastered. The Queen of the Stock Exchange is presented with tints that replicate what would have been seen in the original print.
All four films in this set have the option of either viewing them in complete silence or with pleasant, period-appropriate piano scores from composer Maud Nelissen. The films' reconstructed intertitles are presented in German with optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
No extras on the discs themselves, but the booklet is an informative plus.
Edition Filmmuseum's Four Films with Asta Nielsen serves as a fine showcase for one of silent-era Europe's most talented actors. The tall, almond-eyed, somewhat gawky Nielsen might initially appear as an odd type to be a continent-spanning movie star, but her energetic skill with comedies and melodramas alike comes shining through in this set. Recommended.