Asta Nielsen became an international star with her debut film Afgrunden. We sampled the opening, one of the most memorable entrées of a star, and the gaucho dance, still stunning in the age of Jennifer Lopez and Miley Cyrus.
The topics of the lesson were Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo, two Nordic stars, a Dane and a Swede. Nielsen became great in Germany, which, paradoxically, was a lesser force in film production than Denmark in 1910. Garbo went to superstardom in Hollywood at the MGM. Their paths crossed in Die freudlose Gasse / The Joyless Street directed by a still unknown G. W. Pabst.
Both were born in working-class circumstances, and both lost their fathers at the age of 14.
Both were unique. They copied no one. Both were unsuccessfully imitated by others, but successfully parodied and caricatured.
Both were compared with Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest divas of la Belle Époque. The comparison was made in the sense of each of them being unique.
Asta Nielsen belonged to the very earliest international film stars. She was always unconventional. She left Denmark because of the dearth of good roles, and she often fought in Germany to get good scripts. She was so vocal in her criticism that she was boycotted by the film industry in 1925-1927. That did not matter because she was active in many fields, most importantly in the theatre.
She was good both in tragedy and comedy. She was an active creative partner in her vehicles, starting with the first 30 films directed by her husband Urban Gad. She produced herself three films. The first was Hamlet, not based on Shakespeare but on a tradition that Hamlet was a woman, an inheritor to the throne forced to live as a man. She played Stendhal, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, Wedekind, and Ibsen. But even second-rate subjects she transcendended with her presence. Half of her films are lost, and the remaining films, too, survive often in a battered condition (Afgrunden, fortunately, is not one of them).
Also in her roles she played characters who transcend their circumstances. Artists, starting with Afgrunden. Women who enter unconventional relationships. Women who refuse to accept their traditional roles. Women who cross class boundaries. Women who are victims of prejudice. Women who fight for their dignity after having been once off guard.
Henri Langlois saw in her "a figure from Van Gogh", and he called her "Baudelaire's daughter".
Asta Nielsen was able to project interiority through her performance no matter how dreary the script was. She was called "a genius of the gesture". Her method: for weeks she immersed herself into the character. She did not like rehearsals. At the performance she acted as if in a trance.
There are good books on Asta Nielsen, and an indispensable one is Asta Nielsen's autobiography Den tiende Muse I-II (1945-1946), in German Die schweigende Muse (1961, 1977) / [The Silent Muse].