January 27, 2022
The Danish Actor was a cinema pioneer and wildly popular all over the world. She is largely forgotten – discover her in a BFI season dedicated to her extraordinary talent
Asta Nielsen, the silent film star who taught Garbo everything
Asta Nielsen’s career started with a bang. The Danish diva’s first step on the path to becoming perhaps the greatest Actress of the silent era, and one of the cinema’s first truly international film stars, was a hot romance and an overnight sensation. In her first film, The Abyss, 1910, she played a music teacher torn between two lovers: a sensible vicar’s son, and a circus performer who treats her terribly but has captivated her sexually. Nielsen delivers a compelling performance as a young woman riven by the conflicting demands of duty and desire, which culminates in the film’s most infamous scene, a lascivious dance. She circles her tyrannous lover, swaying her hips, before taking a rope from around her waist and tying it tightly around her man.
As soon as audiences caught their breath, they clamoured for more. Nielsen soon realised that her future lay in the cinema. She was 29 when The Abyss was released, and had been working as a jobbing actor since leaving school, but despite glowing reviews couldn’t land the leading roles of her dreams. The cinema offered opportunities that the stage had failed to provide, and she elevated the new art form to something more sophisticated, more adult, with her radical new performance style. She and the writer-director of The Abyss, Urban Gad, moved to Germany where they made several more films together – and soon married.
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