So few Asta Nielsen films are available in the United States today that it is difficult to really understand this marvelous actress' influence on silent film. The only true feature film widely available that features her is The Joyless Street. In it, she is upstaged by the young and upcoming Greta Garbo whom we know patterned herself after Nielsen. Asta was also 44 when the film was made, an age at which Garbo, Pickford and others had already disappeared from the camera lens. (Of course there is also her gender-bending version of Hamlet.) Die Arme Jenny is one of only a small handful of surviving early Nielsen films that an average fan outside of Sweden or possibly Germany can get his/her hands on. Unfortunately, the version I found seems to be a dupe of a dupe of a dupe. Any subtlety of shading, any creative light-and-shadow work and any tenting that may have graced the original celluloid version are long since gone.
Still, after a couple of viewings even without being able to read the German titles, it becomes clear that Asta was indeed something special. Actually, had I seen more 1910-12 US melodramas, I am sure my appreciation for Die Asta would rise even more. As it is, I find myself comparing her with later American and German performances performances that were most likely influenced to some degree by HER! Many have said that they see Garbo when watching Nielsen at her peak. Personally, just from this one film, I saw more Gish than Garbo in her. Then again, this very early work (apparently one of her first after she and husband/director Urban Gad moved to Germany) has only a couple of semi-close-ups and poor surviving film quality. Yet Nielsen's screen personality and restrained style shine through more than enough to show fans why Die Asta was a national treasure in two nations (and supposedly carried in photograph form by soldiers of several countries during WWI).
Were the tight close-ups that Griffith would popularize with Gish already at Gad's disposal in 1912, we would probably be truly blown away especially by an original or first-generation print of this film. In long-shot, it certainly appears that Asta makes some very "modern" and very believable mood changes that Gish or Garbo would have struggled to match at their primes.
Spoilers to some extent follow. Since the titles are in German, it took me two viewings and reading a badly computer-translated plot summary on-line to piece together just what was going on. An adult (or late teen, perhaps) daughter of a factory foreman and seamstress mother, Jenny Schmidt meets a rich young man, Eduard Reinhold (Leo Peukert), while cleaning in the building where he lives. He makes a brief pass at her and leaves her a card apparently with a time and place to meet him written on the back.
Jenny with the help of her sister sneaks out of the house in her Sunday clothes and goes on a date (and apparently to bed) with Reinhold, leaving her mother to do her sewing by herself. Without surviving tinting, one cannot tell what time of day or night it is when she leaves or when she returns. Whenever she gets home, her enraged father throws her out of the house, despite tearful pleas by all the household females. Without titles I can read, I am not sure if he is too proud and pure to harbor a "fallen woman," if he is hacked off that she sneaked off behind their backs, or if he doesn't want her dating (or being taken advantage of by) someone in a higher class. Maybe this is her dad's boss. (I need to find someone who reads German to watch it with me!) When she realizes Reinhold is embarrassed to acknowledge her in polite society, she seems to realize she has no future with him. She drifts first into work as a dance hall girl, then as a prostitute. When she reads in the paper that Reinhold is getting married, she snaps and gets to do the ending that Gish and other American actresses were usually denied: wondering despondently into a snowstorm and apparent death.
While the plot is melodramatic, Die Asta is not. She shows why she influenced a generation of players and was a role model for Garbo. This is about the best surviving example of Nielsen at her peak. A better-quality print would be sensational, but the worn copy I have seen is good enough.
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