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All four films made by Asta Nielsen in Denmark (in 1910, 1911 and 1919) , before she became an international superstar, have been released by the Danish Film Institute, which was created a hundred years ago and has taken care of Danish films ever since. Thus we usually get very good, clean and sharp copies of films almost 100 years old. The series is truly amazing, and the Asta Nielsen disk is one of the best. The four features (on one disk) are: Livets storme, Afrgrunden, Den sorte drøm, and Mod Lyset. I had only seen Asta Nielsen's later films, such as Hamlet, before, therefore I was astounded to see that she was a rather beautiful actress in her youth, with a figure of a Barbie doll which she isn't afraid to show. The films are remarkably good as well. In Afgrunden, we see Miss Nielsen as a shy piano teacher who abandons her fiancée in order to elope with a circus artist, who turns her into a harlot and a murderess; in Livets storme she is a dancer whose beauty brings along the ruin of her and of men; in Den sorte drom she is a circus star who does everything for the man she loves, and in Mod Lyset a reckless countess who has to destroy the lives of several men as well as her own before she learns the true values of life. The last tale is a bit moralizing for modern tastes, but the first three (from 1910-1911) are true gems. These films are naturalistic, strong portraits of life before the WW I. Miss Nielsen is a very good actress indeed, as well as a gorgeous clothes horse, wearing the trendiest models of the day around her nonexistent waist. The prints are very sharp, even though the first film shows some decomposition. They should have been released colour tinted and with somewhat more interesting musical accompaniment than the constantly meditating piano, but who cares? These films still were eye openers. When you thought the film wasn't a true art form back in 1910, think again: moving camera, panning camera, closeups, parallel editing, fluent narrative it's all there, and years before these techniques became accepted in UK, US or Italy.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Asta Nielsen was an ethereally beautiful silent-film actress who made
only one sound film, then went into a long Garbo-like retirement. There
are some strong parallels between Nielsen and Garbo, including some
roles they both played (notably 'Mata Hari'). It's intriguing that
Nielsen and Sarah Bernhardt both played the (male) title role in
'Hamlet'. Bernhardt played the role as a man when she was too old to
play Ophelia; whilst Nielsen (astonishingly beautiful in male costume)
played the role as a young woman who had been raised as a male. Most of
Nielsen's career was in German films; 'Mod Lyset' (a German
co-production) is one of only four films she made in her native
Denmark. Nielsen is less beautiful and more matronly than usual here;
in some shots, she looks distressingly like Carol Channing.
SPOILERS AHEAD. I viewed an excellent print of 'Mod Lyset' ('Towards the Light') from the Danish Film Museum. (Not to be confused with the better-known Danish Film Institute.) Interestingly, the print begins with Nielsen (via dissolves) in three different costumes, hairstyles and make-ups: as the haughty countess, as the same woman in more humble garments, and (with plenty of backlighting) as an angelic saint. In a later reel, this print oddly deletes the shot of Countess Ysabel flinging her wedding veil into her fireplace and the close-up of the veil burning; I've seen these shots in another print.
Nielsen plays the wealthy Countess Ysabel, who flaunts her atheism. (I found this unlikely; in 1919, most upper-class Europeans -- especially the peerage -- were either sincerely religious or found it politic to affect to be so.) She is, however, respectful of religion in others, so she attends a service held by the handsome priest Elias Renato. Afterward, Ysabel claims to have been genuinely moved. Father Renato wants to set up a religious colony on a small coastal island. Amazingly for Denmark in 1919, the priest's religious mission is racially integrated: I spotted two Negroes and a Chinese man in this film. A ragman named Peter is played by Charles Willumsen, an actor who looks astonishingly like Sam Fuller.
Ysabel and her mother (the dowager countess) have no time for religion: she is betrothed to Sandro Grec, a handsome baron. Here begins a sequence which proves my point about religiosity in 1919: Ysabel observes all the traditional rituals of a wedding (bridal gown, veil, coach to the wedding site) yet we never see precisely how nor where the wedding takes place: surely it would be held in a church, with the marriage consecrated by a priest ... yet this would contradict the countess's atheism. We do see the wedding feast afterward, with a vicar presiding.
Anyroad, Ysabel and the baron are on their way back from wherever they got married when some top-hatted cops intervene and haul the baron away in handcuffs. He's an Italian impostor! (Does nobody check these things?) This is such a shock and scandal, it kills Ysabel's mother. Ysabel burns her trousseau and goes off to Father Renato's island, mostly to escape public ridicule but also to be with the handsome priest.
On two separate occasions, characters in this film tell the countess: 'What a man sows, he shall also reap.' The Danish intertitles clearly use male nouns and pronouns here, even though the words clearly refer to Ysabel.
A subplot concerns a waif named Wenka, who is brutalised by her drunken father in a manner which reminded me of 'Broken Blossoms' ... except that the Danish intertitles are careful to tell us that he's merely her 'stiffader' (stepfather). This irrelevant detail feels suspiciously like something inserted to mollify the censors; the abuse is somehow more acceptable if he isn't her biological parent. Interestingly, Wenka's plight is shown in flashback. Throughout the film, director Holger-Madsen uses dissolves and iris shots to strive for arty effects: some of these work better than others. During the sequence when the phony baron is courting Ysabel, we know he's no good because Holger-Madsen inserts a symbolic shot of a spider trapping a fly. Elsewhere, there's one beautiful exterior long shot, in a deep focus set-up that even Gregg Toland might envy.
At the film's climax, the buildings of the priest's colony catch fire. This sequence is expertly photographed and excitingly edited, but we can clearly see that the burning buildings are actually miniatures. A subplot between two first cousins who are in love goes nowhere. (Or is there a scene missing?) It's very obvious that Ysabel will find religion and marry the handsome priest, then join him in his mission. The film ends, unexpectedly, with a Nativity tableau. 'Towards the Light' is a well-made and ambitious film on a subject which frankly didn't interest me, and I'll rate it 7 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Countess Ysabel is a frivolous aristocrat who toys with men and
their feelings in the same way that she played with dolls as a child -
a customary habit among the aristocratic frauleins. The terrible thing
about Damen Ysabel is that she is an atheist!!! Can you believe that,
mein liebers, an atheist Countess in Denmark?!.
The professor Manini's daughter, Inga, loves her cousin Felix but he only has eyes for Ysabel, a fact that doesn't very much please the Baron Sandro Grec, who also has eyes (the aristocrats share some vital organs with the ordinary people, but the difference is that we use monocles) for the Countess Ysabel. The Baron also likes to play cards at the club with the help of a cue man.
While those lovers see each other, there is a preacher in the city, Elias Renato, who is devoted to the homeless people and to spreading the gospel at any occasion. During a rest in the park he will save the life of a poor orphan, Wenka, who wants to commit suicide in the park's lake because all she has in this world is a brutal alcoholic step-father and an alley cat as a friend, but now thanks to Herr Renato's help she also has a preacher in her life.
Felix, Ysabel's unrequited lover, knows that she is engaged to the Baron Grec and made desperate by this information he decides to commit suicide, leaving a note to the Countess (alas, this time the preacher was not around because he was too busy devoting all his time to creating "The Island Of The Homeless," a kind of asylum for poor people on an island not far from the city).
The professor Manini (his poor daughter Inga now alone without her Felix) torments the Countess at her very home telling her that "what a man sows shall he also reap," a very interesting quote considering the fact that the Countess is a woman. Regardless, Damen Ysabel doesn't feel any remorse about Felix' suicide and she continues her atheistic ways as always and goes off to marry the Baron Renato, despite the bad feelings relayed to her by her own mother about him.
During the wedding the cue man is arrested and he tells everything about those cards tricks to the police, who finally discover that the Baron Renato is not a Baron at all but Leon Spontazzi!!! The Countess Ysabel is informed of this terrible news (certainly it is impossible for a Countess to continue a relationship with anyone possessed of such name!) and the no-longer-a-Baron is arrested in the carriage by the police when the couple returned to their palace. So finally the bride finds herself home alone with terrible thoughts, remembering that terribly prophetic quote, "what a man sows shall he also reap." Do you remember Wenka? Well, by now she is at the island of the homeless, nursing people, and because it is a small world she is nursing Ysabel's mother who is seriously ill. Meanwhile, outside the palace Elias Renato is preaching and, thanks to the music accompanying his sermon, Ysabel is moved (if music can tame wild beasts, why not an atheist Danish Countess?). She enjoys the company of the priest while en route to the island but there - Ah, what a wicked soul she is!! - she will try to tempt the vicar with her riches, as did Herr Devil with Herr Jesus von Christ in the desert, but in vain. Ysabel returns to the mainland where she learns that her mother has died. In desperation she does strange things - like preaching!! - at last, the redemption of a sinner!!.
Do you remember Wenka's father? Well, by now he is at the island of the homeless, still a drunkard just as in the good old days when he was with his step-daughter. True to his nature he treats her wickedly and also accidentally sets fire to the whole village. The fire is seen on the mainland and Ysabel sails to the island, but now as a religious Danish Countess, and there she declares her love to Elias Renato and her devotion to the glory of God. After their marriage the happy couple divide the blessed work, the vicar spreading the word of God and Damen Ysabel doing the same but with a guitar, because she knows that if the music could tame a Countess, why could it not do the same with the unwashed hordes?.
Another interesting Nordisk film production starring Asta Nielsen and directed by Herr Holger-Madsen, with remarkable film editing that pleasantly surprised this German Count.
And now, if you'll allow me, I must temporarily take my leave because this German Count must try to redeem himself in case there is a Danish Countess lost in sin at the next soirée who wants to do it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sumptuously produced with magnificent photography by Sophus Wangøe,
decked out with state of the art special effects and visual treats like
a creepy vignette depicting Satan (resembling Nosferatu with hair)
tempting Christ - and ending with a spectacular fire (followed by an
even more spectacular conversion to Christianity by Asta Nielsen),
'Towards the Light' has a surface sophistication at odds with it's
sanctimonious Sunday school didacticism.
Asta Nielsen plays Ysabel, a self-absorbed countess with the power to drive men to suicide; not that Ysabel cares, being an atheist and thus having no morals or sense of responsibility. (Lilly Jacobsson hovers menacingly in the background during these earlier scenes as a young rival in love named Inga, casting envious eyes at Ysabel and her current beau as if plotting mischief; but this leads nowhere, suggesting missing footage). A parallel storyline concerns the plight of Astrid Holm as Wenka, alone in the world apart from her brutal stepfather and beloved cat, who finds sanctuary on clergyman Elias Renato's island community for the destitute. (We don't learn what happened to the cat.)
Ysabel then weds (improbably wearing white) a fake Baron with whom her honeymoon is rudely interrupted when the newlyweds' taxi is intercepted and the groom led away in handcuffs. The shock breaks Ysabel's mother's health and it is at this low ebb that Elias catches Ysabel's eye and she abruptly finds God. The film makes the usual specious claim that religious faith alone automatically makes someone a better person regardless of their individual motives, despite it plainly being the collapse of her personal life rather than a genuine change of heart that drives Ysabel into religion's clammy embrace; deriving - as with the bandit Anacleto in 'The Singer Not the Song' - from her yen for dishy Elias rather than what he's actually selling.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In viewing many silent films, I've come across a few religious
pictures, and many of them seem to have similar problems--some specific
to the silent screen. A vast number of films include a religious
conversion and other religious elements, of course, but I'm here
referring to films that are in their entirety about the religious
(usually evangelical) experience. William S. Hart's Westerns are a good
and somewhat well known example. This film, "Towards the Light" is
another such picture, but more so.
In his films, Hart played a bad man who became good only after a religious conversion. Hart's Westerns, however, were simple and naïve, and there was never the pretence of them being otherwise. "Towards the Light" is more similar to a film such as "The World and the Woman" (1916), which is another pertinent example of the common problems of these type of movies.
In "Towards the Light", Asta Nielsen plays a countess, who's a selfish (and not coincidently) atheist. Initially, her attraction towards religion is actually a desire for the preacher, although she supposedly gets both in the end. The preacher won't have anything romantic to do with her until she converts, either. And, aside from the countess, who converts after romantic tragedies and her mother lying on her deathbed, those without God are apparently suicidal. Thus, the film is insulting to nonbelievers.
Furthermore, it seems to nearly castigate the poor and homeless, despite the film being about a preacher who is helping them. Representing the poor and homeless in the picture are the rowdy-looking characters and the abusive father. The preacher establishes a work program, but it's at the "Island of the Homeless". Concentrated there, they build their village, which eventually burns to the ground. "The World and the Woman" had a similar problem; it bordered on prejudice against the physically disabled.
The story of "Towards the Light" is rubbish, and it doesn't reflect well upon the beliefs it's supposedly advocating. I suppose some of the already converted might look upon it kindly, but this sort of preaching film, or message film, is to my mind completely ineffective and often contradictory to its purpose. There are good religious films, but this is not one of them.
I also find this and another Danish film by Holger-Madsen, "The Evangelist Preacher" (Evangeliemandens liv) (1915), interesting because they come after a period in Danish cinema of sensational films, which were generally lurid and sexual (by the standards of the 1910s). (Ironically, it was a genre Neilsen helped invent.) And, Denmark has been one of the least religious counties in general. "Towards the Light" and "The Evangelist Preacher" are, thus, reactionary pictures, as well.
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