Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Asta Nielsen’s (Re-)turn to the Stage in the 1920’s: A Paradox or a Consistent Choice?
Annette Forster

Last modified: 2010-05-12


Asta Nielsen is known to be the foremost silent cinema actress who developed a distinct style in acting before the camera. Her striking screen presence was applauded by critics and filmgoers worldwide right from the first film in which she appeared in 1911. Her popularity remained unremitting throughout her highly prolific film career in Germany, from 1912 until 1932, during which she acted in over seventy short and feature length films of various genres, including social dramas, love dramas, crime stories and comedies. The roles that she choose to play were extremely varied and her fame as the first European film star has survived in film history and theory to this day.


And yet, after 1925, the film star Asta Nielsen increasingly preferred stage acting over screen acting. She established the ‘Asta Nielsen Ensemble’ and performed in at least nine plays on over thirty German stages between 1925 and 1935. Her most extensive tours were with Rita Cavallini (German translation of Romance, by Edward Sheldon) and Die Kameliendame (German translation of The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils). But this part of her career is virtually obscured in both film and theatre scholarship. In addition, several of Nielsen’s films of the 1920s were based upon stage plays, among them Hamlet, the first film produced by her production company, Art-Film, and directed by the Danish stage and film director Svend Gade, and Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, after Wedekind), which was the second film by the German expressionist stage and film director Leopold Jessner. What did the cinematic adaptations of these plays offer her as an actress and why did she agree to the roles of Hamlet and Lulu while declining so many other ones?


In the paper that I propose, I will explore the stage and screen connections in Asta Nielsen’s oeuvre and discuss them in relation to the actress’ experiences with and opinions about the German cinema of the 1920s. In addition, I will provide a historical contextualisation of her stage acting, her choice of pieces and roles, and the contemporary debates about theatre and film they fed into. The central issue will be the seeming paradox that the very actress, who decisively shaped and virtually personified screen acting, (re)turned to stage acting: was it a paradox or can it be seen as a choice for artistic consistency?

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