Asta Nielsen

Last updated

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)
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 Russian 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 77-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]


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). [21] [22]

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) [23] - and "Asta Nielsen weiht einen Pokal" (Asta Nielsen Dedicates a Trophy) in 1929. [24]



  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.
  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. McKernan, Luke (14 July 2014). "Asta Nielsen". Picturegoing. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  22. 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). pp. 187–198. ISBN   978-0-7618-1945-5.
  23. Ringelnatz, Joachim (1928). "Über Asta Nielsen". Reisebriefe eines Artisten (in German). Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt Verlag. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  24. Ringelnatz, Joachim (1929). Das Gesamtwerk in sieben Bänden. Band 1: Gedichte. Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mata Hari</span> Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and spy (1876–1917)

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, better known by the stage name Mata Hari, was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy for Germany during World War I. She was executed by firing squad in France. The idea of a beautiful exotic dancer using her powers of seduction as a spy made her name synonymous with the femme fatale. Her story has served as an inspiration for many books, films, and other works.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joachim Ringelnatz</span> German poet and artist (1883–1934)

Joachim Ringelnatz is the pen name of the German author and painter Hans Bötticher (7 August 1883, Wurzen, Saxony – 17 November 1934, Berlin). His pen name Ringelnatz is usually explained as a dialect expression for an animal, possibly a variant of Ringelnatter, German for grass snake or more probably the seahorse for winding ("ringeln") its tail around objects. The seahorse is called Ringelnass by mariners, an occupation to which he felt kinship. He was a sailor in his youth and spent the First World War in the Navy on a minesweeper. In the 1920s and 1930s, he worked as a Kabarettist, i.e., a kind of satirical stand-up comedian. He is best known for his wry poems using word play and sometimes bordering on nonsense poetry. Some of them are similar to Christian Morgenstern's, but more satirical in tone and occasionally subversive. His most popular character is the anarchic sailor Kuddel Daddeldu with his drunken antics and disdain for authority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Urban Gad</span> Danish film director (1879–1947)

Peter Urban Bruun Gad was a Danish film director, stage actor, screenwriter, and author. He directed 40 films between 1910 and 1927. His wife Asta Nielsen starred in 30 of his films, also in his début the film Afgrunden from 1910. They moved to Germany in 1911 where Gad worked with Paul Davidson until 1922.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Francesca Bertini</span> Italian silent film actress (1892–1985)

Francesca Bertini was an Italian silent film actress. She was one of the most successful silent film stars in the first quarter of the twentieth-century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alec B. Francis</span> English actor

Alec B. Francis was an English actor, largely of the silent era. He appeared in more than 240 films between 1911 and 1934.

Ferdinand "Fred" Immler was a German stage and film actor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leo Birinski</span> Russian playwright, screenwriter and director

Leo Birinski was a playwright, screenwriter and director. He worked in Austria-Hungary, Germany and in the United States. As a playwright in Europe, he gained his biggest popularity from 1910 – 1917 but was ultimately forgotten. From the 1920s to 1940s he worked mainly as a screenwriter, first in Germany, later in the United States, to which he emigrated in September 1927. In the United States, he also returned to writing stage plays. He wrote in German and English. Until recently, only a minimal amount of information about his life has been available. Complicating matters, there have been many legends and rumours concerning Birinski's person, including the false report of his "suicide" in 1920 that found its way from newspaper obituaries into encyclopedias.

Axel Graatkjær (1885–1969) was a Danish cinematographer who worked on silent films during the Golden Age of Danish cinema. Graatkjær was the favorite cinematographer of film director August Blom as well as silent film star Asta Nielsen and her husband, director Urban Gad. He filmed more than 100 films during his career from 1906 to 1930.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leopoldine Konstantin</span> Austrian actress

Leopoldine Konstantin was an Austrian actress. She played in Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening (1907), Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1907), A Winter's Tale (1908), and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1910).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henny Porten</span> German actress and film producer

Frieda Ulricke "Henny" Porten was a German actress and film producer of the silent era, and Germany's first major film star. She appeared in more than 170 films between 1906 and 1955.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hertha von Walther</span> German actress

Hertha von Walther was a German film actress. She appeared in 80 films between 1921 and 1983.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anna Bloch</span> Danish stage actress

Anna Kirstine Bloch was a Danish actress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bruno Kastner</span> German actor

Richard Otto Bruno Kastner was a German stage and film actor, screenwriter, and film producer whose career was most prominent in the 1910s and 1920s during the silent film era. Kastner was one of the most popular leading men in German films during his career's peak in the 1920s.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paul Davidson (producer)</span> German film producer (1867–1927)

Paul Davidson was a German film producer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Magda Sonja</span> Austrian-American actress (1886–1974)

Magda Sonja was an Austrian-American actress. She appeared in 42 films between 1917 and 1936, although she is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Mata Hari in Mata Hari: The Red Dancer (1927). Prior to becoming an actress, she was a cabaret performer and chansonnière. She is considered to be one of Austria's first movie stars, only paralleled by Liane Haid.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mia May</span> Austrian actress

Mia May was an Austrian actress. She was married to the Austrian film producer and director Joe May and appeared in 44 films between 1912 and 1924. Her daughter was the actress Eva May.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rosa Porten</span> German screenwriter

Rosa Porten was a prolific German screenwriter, actress, and director during the silent film era.

Sigrid Marie Elisabeth Neiiendam née Andersen (1868–1955) was a Danish actress who played some 200 parts at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. She is remembered in particular for her interpretations of Ludvig Holberg's plays.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ellen Aggerholm</span>

Ellen Aggerholm née Abrahams (1882–1963) was a Danish stage and screen actress. She made her debut in Attester at Copenhagen's Folketeatret in 1901. In 1911, she moved to London where she first played Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Her Majesty's Theatre. She returned to Denmark when war broke out in 1914, touring with her husband's company until 1917. She then joined the Odense Theatre where she became the principal actress until 1924. She went on to tour the provinces until she performed in repertoire at the Casino Theatre in Copenhagen. After a long career, she retired from the stage in 1947. While young, Aggerholm performed a number of leading roles in mainly short silent films released by Nordisk Film from 1910 to 1915.

Jugend und Tollheit is a German silent film in three acts by Urban Gad from 1912, starring Gad's wife Asta Nielsen. It is one of the director's lost films.