Nielsen, Asta (1881–1972)

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Nielsen, Asta (1881–1972)

Danish-born actress who was one of the earliest and greatest stars of silent movies. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 11, 1881; died in 1972; attended children's school of Copenhagen's Royal Theater; married Peter Urban Gad (who directed her in 30 films); married four more times; children: (first marriage) one daughter.

Filmography in Germany, except as noted, includes:

Afgrunden (The Abyss, Denmark, 1910); Ved Faenslets Port (Denmark, 1910); Livets Störme (Denmark, 1911); Belletdanserinden (Denmark, 1911); Den Sorte Dröm (Denmark, 1911); Der fremde Vogel (1911); Der schwarze Traum (1911); Die Sünden der Väter (1911); Zigeunerblut (1912); Die arme Jenny (1912); Das Mädchen ohne Vaterland (1912); Der Totentanz (1912); Engelein (1913); Die Filmprimadonna (1913); Die Suffragetten (1913); Der Tod in Sevilla (1913); Elena Fontana (1914); Die ewige Nacht (1914); Das Feuer (1914); Die Tochter der Landstrasse (1914); Weisse Rosen (1914); Zapatas Bande (1914); Das Liebes-ABC (1916); Das Eskimo-Baby (1917); Die Rose der Wildnis (1917); Der Fackelträger (1918); Das Ende vom Lied (1919); Rausch (Intoxication, 1919); Der Idiot (The Idiot, 1920); Der Reigen (1920); (also producer, starred in title role) Hamlet (1920); Die Spielerin (1920); Die geliebte Roswolskys (1921); Irrende Seelen (1921); (asMata Hari ) Die Spionin (1921); Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box, 1922); Fräulein Julie (Miss Julie, 1922); Vanina Vanini (Vanina, 1922); Erdgeist (1923); I.N.R.I. (Crown of Thorns, 1923); Die Frau im Feuer (1924); Hedda Gabler (1924); Lebende Buddhas (1924); Die freud-lose Gasse (Street of Sorrow or The Joyless Street, starringGreta Garbo , 1925); Atheleten (1925); Die Gesunkenen (The Sunken, 1925); Dirnentragödie (Tragedy of the Street or Women Without Men, 1927); Gehetze Frauen (1927); Kleinstadtsünden (Small Town Sinners, 1927); Laster der Menschheit (1927); Unmögliche Liebe (Impossible Love, 1932).

"Incomparable" Asta Nielsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1881, at a time of extreme poverty and illness for her family. Her autobiography The Tenth Muse describes the harsh conditions under which her mother toiled to make enough money for a household of four to survive, especially during her father's extended illnesses. As well, Asta's beloved sister, Johanne , suffered from rheumatic fever throughout her life which several times brought her to the point of death. At age 14, Nielsen was expected to earn her living as a servant or shop assistant. She had, however, set her heart on a career in the theater, as her only opportunity to express her grief at the death of her father and the continuous sufferings of her sister. She wanted to speak for all the sick, poor, and suffering in the world. Expectedly, Asta's mother disapproved of her daughter's choice of occupation which seemed farfetched and unproductive. Johanne, however, supported Asta's dreams, both emotionally and financially, with her meager earnings as a factory worker.

Asta's determination brought her to the Royal Theater of Copenhagen, where a director took an interest in her and trained her for a debut there. Disenchanted with the possibilities for advancement, she joined a smaller Copenhagen theater and subsequently went on a tour of Scandinavia doing minor parts. Back in Copenhagen, she played at The New Theater before her debut in 1910 in the silent film The Abyss. It was written by the artistic director of the theater (who was also her husband), Peter Urban Gad. The film was a smashing success, a breakthrough for Asta as well as for the Danish film industry. Nielsen's ability to convey the emotions of her character without a single word was unsurpassed. She understood the demand for genuine expression and asked that her solo parts be filmed without prior rehearsals. In role after role, she lent her unique talent for mime to present the fate of "sad ladies of unfortunate virtue."

After her debut, film offers poured in from Germany, which was then moving into the forefront of film production. By 1911, she was Germany's leading movie star, known as the "Duse of the Screen." Nielsen would appear in 70 films. In 1920, she formed her own company, Art Film, and made Hamlet with herself in the title role. In 1932, she returned to the stage where she played the lead in Romantik and appeared as Alphonsine Plessis in The Lady of the Camelias. She acted in one sound film, Impossible Love (1932), before returning to Denmark for political reasons.

In 1961, Nielsen received the German film industry's medal of honor and in 1963 was accorded both Germany's gold medal of achievement and an honorary prize from the Danish government. In 1969, she received the Danish Authors' prize for her memoirs The Tenth Muse (Die Tiende Muse).


Nielsen, Asta. Den Tiende Muse. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966.

Robinson, David, ed. The History of World Cinema. NY: Stein and Day, 1973.

Shipman, David, ed. The Story of Cinema. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima Valley, Washington

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