From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Asta Sofie Amalie Nielsen (11 September, 1881 - 24 May, 1972), also known as Die Asta, was a Danish actress, mostly appearing in German silent films during the 1910s and 1920s. Nicknamed The Silent Muse, she became one of the first sex symbols.
Early life, education and stage
Asta was born in Vesterbro, Copenhagen to a coppersmith father and a washerwoman mother, who both died before she was fifteen. She studied acting at the Royal Theatre School in Copenhagen. Asta became the most famous stage actress across Scandinavia while she toured.
Transition to film
In 1909, director Urban Gad encouraged her to become a silent screen actor and she starred in the 1910 film Afgrunden ("The Abyss"). The film was a success so she was encouraged to continue making silent films. Nielsen and Gad soon married and then moved to Germany because her talent was not understood by the Danish film industry.
In 1911 she was contracted to German producer Paul Davidson for $80,000 a year, then the highest salary for a film star. Indeed, she is called "the first international movie star", challenged only by French comic Max Linder, also famous throughout Europe and in America by that time. In a Russian popularity poll of 1911 she was voted world's top female movie star, behind Linder and ahead of her Danish compatriot Valdemar Psilander.
She remained popular on both sides through World War I and in 1915 (before the United States' entry into it) she visited New York to study American film techniques, then pulling ahead of the rest of the world.
In 1924 she was famously co-starred with that other great Scandinavian diva, Greta Garbo, months before Garbo left for Hollywood and MGM. Nielsen continued as a legend of the screen in Germany. After the Nazis came to power she was offered her own studio by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Understanding the implications well, she instead fled the country home to Denmark.
She worked in film until talkies became popular, continuing acting only on stage. In 1936, she left Germany for good, settling in Denmark where she was unemployed for almost the rest of her life.
She is considered to be a great movie actress because of her talent of adapting her performing style in accordance with the demands of the film media avoiding theatrical manners. Besides, she was able to play women of extremely various social positions as well as of different psychology.
Assistance to Jews during World War II
During the Second World War she provided money for Allan O. Hagedorff, a young Dane living in Germany, to assist Jews. Using money provided by Nielsen, Hagedorff sent so many food parcels to the Theresienstadt concentration camp that he was warned by the Gestapo. Among others, Victor Klemperer, the diarist and philologist, was offered money by Hagedorff. (Reference: Anhang: Victor Klemperer: Die Tagebücher, S. 6905 http://www.digitale-bibliothek.de/band150.htm ]
She was married five times. She died in 1972.
German films of importance
- Engelein, 1914
- Reigen, 1920 (Eng. Merry-Go-Round)
- Mata Hari, 1920
- Die Spionin, 1921, In which she also played Mata Hari
- Fräulein Julie, 1921
- Hamlet, 1921
- Die freudlose Gasse, 1925 (Eng. Joyless Street), directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
- Dirnentragödie, 1927 (Eng. Tragedy of the Street)