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Asta Nielsen: A Silent Legacy

Women may have been silent onscreen in early cinema, but backstage they were building a powerful new art form.

Film can shape culture and challenge authority. It not only entertains, but also teaches about life. During the early era of silent film, women pioneered techniques and practices to make their stories come to life without the aid of color video or synchronized speech. Professor Julie Allen (European Silent Film, Danish Literature) focuses on the silent film era and documents how silent film shaped culture and the impact of women in film in her two new books, Screening Europe in Australasia and The Silent Muse.

Women in Film

Allen passionately tells the story of a woman named Alice Guy-Blaché, who many consider to be the very first filmmaker to make important French films. While working for Gaumont, a big French film company that sold projectors, she proposed the idea of making narrative films to give audiences a reason to buy their projectors. After receiving funding from Gaumont, Guy-Blaché directed and produced a number of films, such as The Life of Christ and The Fairy of the Cabbages.

Unfortunately, the men at Gaumont took the credit for these foundational films, and Guy-Blaché wasn’t given credit for her work until recently. Then, the corporatization of the film industry pushed women out of directing films. A quick glance at the early work of silent film, however, proves how pivotal women were in developing cinema. Audiences now recognize the vital role Alice Guy-Blaché, Asta Nielsen, and other women like her played in developing film as a form of media.

Black and white photo of Asta Nielsen performing a Gaucho Dance Afgrunden.
Asta Nielsen performing a gaucho dance.

In an interview about her books, Allen says “Women were on the ground floor of film. Without the legacy of the silent films to prove that, their whole story would be lost. The whole empowerment of women filmmakers would be lost. They're not taking anything from anybody, they're just taking back what was already theirs.”

Media Shapes Culture

Allen’s first published book this year, Screening Europe in Australasia, follows the production of silent films and the way those films traveled across continents. While Allen was researching Asta Nielsen (silent film star and producer), she found a speech that Brandis (Danish intellectual) gave during a birthday party for Asta. He said “[Asta is so famous that] the wings of the dawn have carried her name to the ends of the earth.”

Feeling skeptical about this claim, Allen decided to investigate it. Since Australia is the farthest place on earth from Denmark, Allen thought it qualified as “the ends of the earth”. She then utilized digitized newspaper archives from Australia to see if the general public knew anything about Asta. Allen found out that Asta was, in fact, a household name in Australia. She excitedly continued researching which silent films made it to Australia and New Zealand, and the idea for her book Screening Europe in Australasia was born.

Allen says, “Film was really influential for people, how they dressed, how they interact with each other, gender roles, value norms, all that is conveyed through film.” Because Australia and New Zealand were brand new independent countries around the turn of the century, they were looking for answers to their cultural identities and their identities on the global stage. Silent films from Europe helped fill the gap in understanding what it meant for them to be their own nations.

Asta dagmarteatret feb1905
Asta Nielsen reclining on a stool. Photo taken February 1905.

Preserving Asta's Voice

Allen’s second published book this year, The Silent Muse (a translation of Asta’s autobiography), was a labor of love. Allen wanted to honor the 50th anniversary of Asta’s death by translating Asta’s own words about her life and work. Allen added footnotes to Asta’s memoir describing the cultural setting as well as Easter eggs about Asta’s life that Allen knew from her extensive background studying Germany, Denmark, and the silent film era.

The Silent Muse follows Asta’s memories of her life and career in film, not only as a star on screen but as a producer and director too. Asta faced personal struggles with love and political unrest, but always strove to innovate and create great art. Allen justified her translation choices, saying, “I really tried to preserve [Asta’s] voice. She's telling her story from her own angle. And I think that's really special, especially given that she's an eye witness to this incredibly important period of [silent] film history.”

Is Silent Film Still Relevant?

In the 1970s, the creation of the silent film festival brought these films back into popularity. “And people recognize that there's a completely different way of reading these films,” Allen says, “because silent films weren't silent. They're always accompanied by music. You have this really phenomenal interplay between the film and the particular musician, pianist or orchestra that's accompanying the film. To be there with a full orchestra playing to a film that has no words in it—but you feel the feelings anyway through their music.” These films preserve the artistic work of Asta Neilson and her female contemporaries in improving silent film, and are still worth exploring today.

Screening Europe in Australasia and the Silent Muse are both available for purchase through Amazon and independent booksellers.