Asta Nielsen

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Asta Nielsen
Asta Nielsen.jpg
Asta Nielsen in 1911
Asta Sofie Amalie Nielsen

(1881-09-11)11 September 1881
Died24 May 1972(1972-05-24) (aged 90)
Frederiksberg, Denmark
Burial place Vestre Cemetery, Copenhagen, Denmark
Alma mater Royal Danish Theatre
Years active1902–1936
  • (m. 1912;div. 1918)
  • Ferdinand Wingårdh
    (m. 1919;div. 1923)
  • Anders Christian Theede
    (m. 1970)
Partner Gregori Chmara (1923–1936)

Asta Sofie Amalie Nielsen (11 September 1881 – 24 May 1972) was a Danish silent film actress who was one of the most popular leading ladies of the 1910s and one of the first international movie stars. [1] Seventy of Nielsen's 74 films were made in Germany where she was known simply as Die Asta (The Asta).


Known for her large dark eyes, mask-like face and boyish figure, Nielsen most often portrayed strong-willed passionate women trapped by tragic circumstances. Due to the erotic nature of her performances, Nielsen's films were censored in the United States, and her work remained relatively obscure to American audiences. She is credited with transforming movie acting from overt theatricality to a more subtle naturalistic style. [1]

Nielsen founded her own film studio in Berlin during the 1920s, but returned to Denmark in 1937 after the rise of Nazism in Germany. A private figure in her later years, Nielsen became a collage artist and an author.

Early life

Asta Sofie Amalie Nielsen was born in the Vesterbro district of Copenhagen, Denmark, the daughter of Jens Christian Nielsen (1847–1895), an often unemployed blacksmith, and Ida Frederikke Petersen (1843–1912), a washerwoman. She had an older sister, Johanne, who suffered from rheumatic fever throughout her life. Nielsen's family moved several times during her childhood while her father sought employment. They lived for several years in Malmö, Sweden, where her father worked at a corn mill and then a factory. After he lost those jobs, they returned to live in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Nørrebro. [2] Nielsen's father died when she was fourteen years old. At the age of 18, Nielsen was accepted into the acting school of the Royal Danish Theatre. During her time there, she studied closely with Royal Danish Actor Peter Jerndorff. [3] In 1901, 21-year-old Nielsen became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Jesta. Nielsen never revealed the father's identity, but chose to raise her child alone with the help of her mother and older sister. [4] Jesta committed suicide in 1964.

Nielsen graduated from the Theater school in 1902. For the next three years she worked at the Dagmar Theatre, then toured in Norway and Sweden from 1905 to 1907 with De Otte and the Peter Fjelstrup companies. Returning to Denmark, she was employed at Det Ny Theater from 1907 to 1910. Although she worked steadily as a stage actress, her performances remained unremarkable. [5] Danish historian Robert Neiiendam wrote that Nielsen's unique physical attraction, which was of great value on the screen, was limited on stage by her deep and uneven speaking voice. [5]

Film career

Asta Nielsen photographed by Alexander Binder, 1920s. Asta Nielsen - Alexander Binder - EYE FOT127484.jpg
Asta Nielsen photographed by Alexander Binder, 1920s.

Nielsen began her film career in 1909, starring in director Urban Gad's 1910 tragedy Afgrunden ("The Abyss"). Nielsen's minimalist acting style was evidenced in her successful portrayal of a naive young woman lured into a tragic life. Her overt sexuality in the film's "gaucho dance" scene established the erotic quality for which Nielsen became known. Because of the film's success, Nielsen continued to act in cinema rather than on stage. Nielsen and Gad married, then made four more films together. The explosion of Nielsen's popularity propelled Gad and Nielsen to move from Denmark to Germany where she was provided her own film studio and the opportunity for greater profits. [6]

In Germany, Nielsen formed a contract with German producer Paul Davidson, who founded the Internationale Film-Vertriebs-Gesellschaft in conjunction with Nielsen and Gad. [7] The company held the European rights on all Nielsen films and Nielsen became a "scintillating international film star", known simply as Die Asta (The Asta), with an annual fee of 85,000 marks in 1914 alone. [8] [9]

Davidson described Nielsen as the decisive factor for his move to film productions:

I had not been thinking about film production. But then I saw the first Asta Nielsen film. I realised that the age of short film was past. And above all I realised that this woman was the first artist in the medium of film. Asta Nielsen, I instantly felt could be a global success. It was international film sales that provided Union with eight Nielsen films per year. I built her a studio in Tempelhof, and set up a big production staff around her. This woman can carry it ... Let the films cost whatever they cost. I used every available means – and devised many new ones – in order to bring the Asta Nielsen films to the world. [7] [10]

Nielsen contracted for $80,000 a year, then the highest salary for a film star. Nielsen is called the first international movie star, challenged only by French comic Max Linder, also famous throughout Europe and in America by that time. In a Russian popularity poll of 1911, Nielsen was voted the world's top female movie star, behind Linder and ahead of her Danish compatriot Valdemar Psilander. Her film 'A Militant Suffragette' was disrupted at a showing in the Queen's Cinema, Aberdeen, Scotland on 4 February 1914, by local suffragists objecting to the portrayal of force-feeding. [11] However she remained popular on both sides through World War I and in 1915 (before the United States' entry into it) she visited New York City to study American film techniques. However, she departed Germany after a mob on the Unter den Linden mistook her for a Russian at the beginning of the war. [12]

In 1921, Nielsen, through her own film distribution company of Asta Films, appeared in the Svend Gade and Heinz Schall directed Hamlet . The film was a radical interpretation of William Shakespeare's play, with Nielsen playing the role of Hamlet as a woman who disguises herself as a man. [13]

Several sources, including IMDb, state that Nielsen played Mata Hari in an early-1920s film variously titled Mata Hari, Die Spionin ('The Spy'). However, scholarly works such as the authoritative filmography published by Filmarchiv Austria in 2010 [14] make no mention of such a film. Film scholar Ivo Blom has concluded that the idea of Nielsen playing Mata Hari on film arose from a confusion with her now-lost film Die Tänzerin Navarro (1922), which features a plot similar to the story of Mata Hari's life. [15]

In 1925, she starred in the German film Die freudlose Gasse ( The Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow), directed by G.W. Pabst and co-starring Greta Garbo, months before Garbo left for Hollywood and MGM. [16]

She worked in German films until the start of sound movies. Nielsen made only one feature movie with sound, Unmögliche Liebe (Crown of Thorns) in 1932. However, the new technical developments in cinema were not suitable to Nielsen's style, nor could her maturity compete with the young American ingenues, so she retired from the screen. Thereafter, Nielsen acted only on stage. After the rise of Nazism she was offered her own studio by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Nielsen later described being invited to tea with Adolf Hitler, who tried to convince her to return to film and explained the political power of her on-screen presence. [6] Understanding the implications, Nielsen declined and left Germany in 1936. She returned home to Denmark where she wrote articles on art and politics and a two-volume autobiography.

Asta Nielsen at an appearance at Scala Theater in Berlin, 1934 Berlin Scala Asta Nielsen 006371.jpg
Asta Nielsen at an appearance at Scala Theater in Berlin, 1934

She is considered to be a great movie actress because of her natural performing style, adapting to the demands of the film media and avoiding theatrical dramatization. She was also adept at portraying women from varying social strata as well as of different psychologies.

Assistance to Jews during World War II

During the Second World War, she provided money for Allan O. Hagedorff, a young Dane living in Germany, to assist Jews. Using money provided by Nielsen, Hagedorff sent so many food parcels to the Theresienstadt Ghetto that he was warned by the Gestapo. Among others, Victor Klemperer, the diarist and philologist, was offered money by Hagedorff. [17]

Relationships and death

Nielsen had four extended relationships and was divorced twice. In 1912, she married the Danish film director Urban Gad following their move together to Germany in 1911 to build their own film studio. [18] They were divorced by 1919 when Nielsen married the Swedish shipbuilder Freddy Windgårdh. [18] This marriage was shorter, ending in divorce in 1923. Nielsen fell in love with the Ukrainian actor Gregori Chmara whom she met through their mutual friend Georg Brandes. They began a long-term common-law marriage that lasted from 1923 until 1936. [18] Nielsen began a relationship in the late 1960s with Danish art collector Christian Theede, whom she had met through dealings of her own artwork. In 1970, at the age of 88, Nielsen married the 70-year-old Theede. Nielsen and Theede's happiness at marrying at an advanced age was celebrated in the world press. [18] Nielsen died at the age of 90 on 25 May 1972 at Frederiksberg Hospital.

Quotes about Asta Nielsen

"Asta Nielsen" means the power to speak of pathos, to see pain, and to find the middle path between Baudelaire's flower of evil and the sick rose of which Blake sang.

M.S. Fonseca, The International Dictionary of Films And Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses [19]

There is a film in which Asta Nielsen is looking out of the window and sees someone coming. A mortal fear, a petrified horror, appears on her face. But she gradually realizes that she is mistaken and that the man who is approaching, far from spelling disaster, is the answer to her prayers. The expression of horror on her face is gradually modulated through the entire scale of feelings from hesitant doubt, anxious hope and cautious joy, right through to exultant happiness. We watch her face in closeup for some twenty metres of film. We see every hint of expression around her eyes and mouth and watch them relax one by one and slowly change. For minutes on end we witness the organic development of her feelings, and nothing beyond.

Béla Balázs, Visible Man, or the Culture of Film (1924) [20]

In terms of expression and versatility, I am nothing to her.


Memorial plaque for Asta Nielsen at Fasanenstrasse 69, in Charlottenburg Gedenktafel Fasanenstr 69 (Charl) Asta Nielsen.JPG
Memorial plaque for Asta Nielsen at Fasanenstraße 69, in Charlottenburg

Belgian Paul van Ostaijen included the expressionistic poem "Asta Nielsen", a paean to Nielsen's sensuousness, in his 1921 collection Bezette Stad (Occupied City). [22] [23]

Joachim Ringelnatz, who was a frequent guest at Nielsens' home, wrote the poems "Über Asta Nielsen" (About Asta Nielsen) - for his 1928 collection Reisebriefe eines Artisten (An Artist's Travel Letters) [24] - and "Asta Nielsen weiht einen Pokal" (Asta Nielsen Dedicates a Trophy) in 1929. [25]


1910 The Abyss Magda Vang
1911 Gipsy Blood JonnaLost film
The Moth Olga / Mademoiselle YvonneLost film
Den sorte drøm  [ da; de; fi; it; no ]Stella
Im großen Augenblick  [ de; it ]Annie
Balletdanserinden  [ da; de; fi; it; no ]Camille Flavier
Der fremde Vogel  [ de; it ]Miss May
The Traitress YvonneFragments preserved
1912 Die Macht des Goldes  [ de; it ]Creszenz FitzingerLost film
Zu Tode gehetzt  [ de; fr ]Paula MüllerLost film
Poor Jenny Jenny
The Dance of Death BellaFragments preserved
Die Kinder des Generals  [ de ]TheklaLost film
Wenn die Maske fällt  [ de ]SannaFragments preserved
Das Mädchen ohne Vaterland  [ de; it ]ZidraFragments preserved
Jugend und Tollheit Jesta MüllerLost film
1913 Komödianten  [ de; it ]Kamma DieserLost film
Die Sünden der Väter  [ de; it ]Hanna Meyer
Der Tod in Sevilla  [ de ]JuanitaLost film
Die Suffragette  [ de; fr; it ]Nelly PanburneFragments preserved
S1 (1913)  [ de ]Gertrud von Hessendorf
The Film Primadonna Ruth BretonFragments preserved
1914 Little Angel Jesta Schneider
Das Kind ruft  [ de ]ElenaLost film
Zapata's Gang
Das Feuer  [ de ]Wanda PetriLost film
1915 Die Tochter der Landstraße  [ de ]ZirziLost film
The False Asta Nielsen Bolette / Asta NielsenLost film
1916 Die ewige Nacht  [ de ]MarthaLost film
Engeleins Hochzeit  [ de ]Jesta SchneiderLost film
Frontstairs and Backstairs Sabine Schulze
Dora Brandes Dora Brandes
The ABC of Love Lis
Cinderella Lotte Lost film
Das Versuchskaninchen Jesta
1917 The White Roses Thilda Wardier
Das Waisenhauskind  [ de ]EstherLost film
1918 Im Lebenswirbel  [ de; it; nl ]Margit
Rose of the Wilderness WandaLost film
The Eskimo Baby Ivigtut
The Queen of the Stock Exchange Helene Netzler
1919 So Ends My Song Dora
Intoxication HenrietteFragments preserved
Towards the Light Countess Ysabel
According to Law Sonja Waler
1920 The Merry-Go-Round Elena
Helmsman Holk Isabella BouflonFragments preserved
Kurfürstendamm Lissy / MarieLost film
1921 Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance Hamlet
Roswolsky's Mistress Mary Verhag
Wandering Souls Nastassja Baraschkowa
1922 Miss Julie Miss Julie Lost film
Brigantenrache Anica, a Bandit's BrideLost film
Vanina Vanina
Navarro the Dancer Carmencita NavarroLost film
1923 Earth Spirit Lulu
Downfall Kaja FalkFragments preserved
I.N.R.I. Maria Magdalene Fragments preserved
1924 The House by the Sea Teresa
The Woman in Flames JosefineLost film
Athletes Princess Wanda HoheneckLost film
Die Schmetterlingsschlacht  [ de ]Rosi HergentheimFragments preserved
1925 Hedda Gabler Hedda Gabler Lost film
Living Buddhas Tibetan girlFragments preserved
Joyless Street Marie Lechner
1926 The Fallen Anna GrosserLost film
1927 The Vice of Humanity Tamara
Tragedy of the Street Auguste
Agitated Women ClarinaLost film
Small Town Sinners Selma KarchowFragments preserved
That Dangerous Age Elsie Lindtner
1932 Impossible Love Vera Holgk


  1. 1 2 Morris 1996.
  2. Malmkjær 2000.
  3. DFI.
  4. Malmkjær 2000, p. 45.
  5. 1 2 Neiiendam 1939.
  6. 1 2 Jensen, Jytte (30 June 2010). Cornelia H. Butler (ed.). Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art. pp.  88–91. ISBN   978-0-87070-771-1.
  7. 1 2 Elsaesser: A second life: German cinema's first decades; page 85
  8. Bock, Hans-Michael; Bergfelder, Tim (2009). The Concise Cinegraph: Encyclopaedia of German Cinema. Berghahn books. p. 80. ISBN   978-1-57181-655-9 . Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  9. Ingram, Susan; Sark, Katrina (2011). Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion. Intellect books. p. 119. ISBN   978-1-84150-369-1 . Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  10. Prawer, Siegbert Salomon (2005). Between two worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910–1933. Berghahn books. pp. 2, 3. ISBN   1-84545-074-4 . Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  11. Pederesen, Sarah. "The Aberdeen Women's Suffrage Campaign". copyright WildFireOne. Retrieved 18 March 2023.
  12. Hastings, Max (2013). Catastrophe 1914 : Europe goes to war (First American ed.). New York. ISBN   978-0-307-59705-2. OCLC   828893101.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. Edition Filmmuseum. Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna.
  14. Gramann, Karola; Schlüpmann, Heide, eds. (2010). Asta Nielsen bd. 2: Nachtfalter. Asta Nielsen, ihre Filme. Austria: Filmarchiv Austria. ISBN   978-0-8166-4182-6.
  15. Blom, Ivo (2017). "More myths and facts on Mata Hari on film" . Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  16. Paris, Barry (1994). Garbo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN   978-0-8166-4182-6.
  17. Klemperer 2001.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Allen, Julia K. (25 August 2013). Icons of Danish modernity: Georg Brandes and Asta Nielsen. University of Washington Press. pp. 127–227. ISBN   978-0-295-80436-1.
  19. Fonseca 1988, p. 470.
  20. Béla Balázs, Visible Man, or the Culture of Film (1924)
  21. Hutchinson, Pamela. "Asta Nielsen, the silent film star who taught Garbo everything". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  22. McKernan, Luke (14 July 2014). "Asta Nielsen". Picturegoing. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  23. Vaessens, Thomas (14 March 2001). A. Prins; B. Brandt; T. Stevens; T.F. Shannon (eds.). 'The downtrodden Christ in each and every one of us' Modernity, Modernism & Metaphysical Aspirations: Paul van Ostaijen's poetry. Vol. The Low Countries and the New World(s). University Press of America. pp. 187–198. ISBN   978-0-7618-1945-5. Archived from the original on 12 November 2018. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  24. Ringelnatz, Joachim (1928). "Über Asta Nielsen". Reisebriefe eines Artisten (in German). Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  25. Ringelnatz, Joachim (1929). Das Gesamtwerk in sieben Bänden. Band 1: Gedichte. Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt.

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