Another outstanding film of this [early 20s] period was Erdgeist, directed by Leopold Jessner. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind, the film features one of the most fascinating characters of the German screen: Lulu, the ultimate femme fatale, the heartless siren whose life is spent in gratification of an insatiable physical passion. To those who have only seen her photograph it is perhaps difficult to imagine Asta Nielsen as a sex symbol; but from the fragments of Erdgeist which have been preserved it is easy to understand why some of her admirers regarded her as the most erotic screen actress of her time. True, on appearance alone, she does not have the immediate attraction of a Garbo or a Dietrich; but her not unattractive features, combined with an intense power of expression, make her Lulu just as erotic as Dietrich’s garter-belted Lola Lola. When Lulu yields to the caresses of her ruined lover, we see in her half-opened eyes not only her boredom and disgust with her exhausted lover, but also the attraction which ruined him.
By the mid-1920s, films of the calibre of Erdgeist were becoming scarce. Many studios had fallen into the hands of greedy distributors, and American interests had invaded the German industry, reducing some domestic producers to grinding out ‘quota films’ necessary for American imports. As Asta Nielsen described the situation:
‘The films I was forced to act in for a while were not only pure film-hawking, but were ground out in the studios at breakneck speed for reasons of economy. Often the photographer was not allowed to adjust his lighting and long shots and close-ups whirled among each other in the same constant light. The same decoration served widely different interiors, only from another angle of view. The result … was technically at the 1908 level.’
Robert C. Allen, ‘Asta Nielsen: The Silent Muse’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1973
Asta – die Asta – the Diva, before and above them all, was not just alive and kicking from the moment of birth to that of death at 90, but was also in all respects the opposite of what the myth had made of her.
This myth, evolved around her screen image in the 1910s and 1920s, was avidly absorbed in later decades by her compatriots, who felt guilty at not using her talents and barely tolerating her presence. It painted her as the unfeeling, man-eating monster of some of her films – notably her Lulu in Erdgeist – and added legends of her self-absorbed, misanthropic character and affected life-style. She wasn’t even spared rumours of having colluded with leading Nazis, since she was still working in Germany when they took over.
None of this has any bearing on reality, though one can understand how some of this malignant untruth arose. She was certainly not the true-to-type prima donna, capricious, inane and humourless. And if she was not the usual dumb star, but a bright, strong personality – well then, she must surely be heartless and the rest of it. It is the old Romantic idea of the incompatibility of heart and head. But heart and head are regularly joined in great artists; and to prove that they were so joined in Asta, it is enough to offer – beyond the testimony of a friend – reference to her work in three fields of expression. Where, if not in Asta herself, was the indomitable soul of her films; where was the clear intelligence and compassion of her autobiography, The Silent Muse; where was the observation, the sense of colour and composition, the baroque humour, of the bright collages she did in her retirement? As to her life-style, it may be hard for people brought up to consider clinical sterility the height of good taste to understand that her ‘theatrical’ home, full of baroque art, was a natural milieu to her, an extension of her personality. But it was none the less so. And the most vicious charge was also the most untruthful. Her attitude to Nazism and racism was wholly negative from the start.
She was difficult, all right. Difficult as the true artist is, and as the deeply honest person is, and as the combination of the two is to the second degree. Mercilessly clearheaded, sharp, witty and thoroughly incorruptible, she was clearly not cut out to be a popular figure, no matter how far her fame went as a star. She was also one of those rare, wholly independent women who, without regard to prejudices and patterns, run their lives and their careers, with some providential help but not much. If she wanted a child but not a husband, she had it and not him, no matter what the world thought – and it disapproved strongly around 1902. Husbands were dispensable, until at 88 she found one that wasn’t, and knew it. Work was self-chosen and necessary. And on top of it she, the Free Woman, the career monster, the relentless artist who refused to divulge one bit of her private life, was for two decades the ultra-feminine erotic image of Europe, desired and admired as the essence of womanhood, madonna and whore in one.
She was the Tenth Muse, not its handmaiden, the force that shaped the language of the new, raw film medium with her unique blend of intuitive spontaneity and documentary observation. Like no star before or after, she characterised not just the human types she portrayed – from gypsy to grande dame, from proletarian girl to upper-class spoilt brat – but also their professions and milieus. Getting into a role was not a matter of learning plots and expressions, but of using her insights as a person continuously observant of life. It was no accident that she spoke so strongly to poets and artists. They could not only admire her as a colleague but passionately identify with her – like Apollinaire, who wrote of her, ‘When hatred flames in her eyes, we clench our fists, and when she lifts her eyelids, the stars shine out.’ That she had had to overcome terrible handicaps – deafness, and having to turn inside out the tastes of an age – only seemed to strengthen the courage that never left her, even in the sad, long years of retirement.
Elsa Gress, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1973
EARTH SPIRIT (ERDGEIST)
Director: Leopold Jessner
Production Company: Leopold Jessner-Film
Screenplay: Carl Mayer
From the play by: Frank Wedekind
Photography: Axel Graatkjær
Art Director: Robert Neppach
Asta Nielsen (Lulu)
Rudolf Forster (Alwa Schoen)
Albert Bassermann (Dr Schoen)
Carl Ebert (Schwarz)
Alexander Granach (Schigolch)
Gustav Rickelt (Dr Goll)
Heinrich George (Rodrigo)
Erwin Biswanger (Eulenber)
Piano accompaniment will be by
Stephen Horne on Sat 5 Mar and
Meg Morley on Wed 9 Mar
Digitisation of the 35mm restored in 2003, reconstructed from Dutch and Russian nitrate sources from EYE Filmmuseum and Gosfilmofond of Russia. Dutch intertitles recreated from German censorship cards.
Introduction by season curator Pamela Hutchinson (Sat 5 Mar only)
IN THE EYES OF A SILENT STAR: THE FILMS OF ASTA NIELSEN
In the Eyes of the Law (Nach dem Gesetz)
Tue 1 Mar 20:50; Mon 7 Mar 18:15
Wed 2 Mar 18:15; Sat 5 Mar 17:00 (+ Intro by Prof Judith Buchanan)
Earth Spirit (Erdgeist)
Sat 5 Mar 12:10 (+ intro by Season Curator Pamela Hutchinson); Wed 9 Mar 20:50
The Decline (AKA Downfall) (Der Absturz)
Sat 5 Mar 14:30 (+ intro by season curator Pamela Hutchinson); Tue 15 Mar 18:20
The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse)
Sun 6 Mar 17:40 (+ intro by BFI Inclusion Team Coordinator, Miranda Gower-Qian); Wed 16 Mar 18:00
Impossible Love (Unmögliche Liebe)
Wed 9 Mar 18:20; Tue 15 Mar 20:45
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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