The Danish actress Asta Nielsen (1881-1972) was the highest-paid silent film star in Europe from 1910 to 1920. Known as “Die Asta” and living in Berlin, she appeared in more than seventy films. Her gift for dramatic gesture enchanted audiences around the world, while her strong sensual characters and personal independence made her a feminist role model. Even Hitler was a fan, but Die Asta was no fan of Hitler’s – and so she moved back to Denmark in the 1930s, where she confronted closed doors and eventual obscurity.
Propelled by a series of coincidences, the author of Asta’s Shadow, Eva Tind, also a visual artist, explores the traces that Nielsen left behind. This hybrid work includes meditations on art and identity, interviews and transcripts of phone conversations with Nielsen that were secretly taped in the 1950s, showcasing her wit and strong opinions. The excerpts below are some of Tind’s notes on Nielsen’s autobiography.
II. 1881. During a spell of poverty and illness, I enter the world in a small, almost empty attic apartment on Fredericiagade, just as I write in The Tenth Muse. Or rather: I’m born on Gammel Kongevej in a shared loft that serves as home for us and several others.
III. The way it’s told to me: I was born without eyes. A large dark mane of hair curtains my face, and my mother gasps with fright. The midwife brushes the tresses to one side and my large eyes swim into view. When I lie in my baby carriage and people poke their heads down into it, they jerk back with a screech because of the huge eyes they encounter upon the pillows.
IV. Johanne, my sister, is four-and-a-half years older than I. She suffers from recurring rheumatic fever; a diffuse inflammation of the joints, heart, blood vessels, skin, central nervous system. Johanne survives childhood, but her heart valves are ruined. Johanne with the long fair plaits, her eyes blue, her face narrow, her hands strikingly beautiful. There are just the two of us, Asta and Johanne, but there was one who preceded us and died, the firstborn, whom we cover with lilacs each year on the anniversary of death, white, purple, fragrant. The lilac, my mother’s favourite flower; the grave, a black square in the ground.
LX. 1964. It happened unexpectedly, as if someone cut through time with a pair of scissors: my son-in-law, Paul, died. It was chance that took him, a traffic accident. Now Jesta sinks into a heavy depression. I cannot pull her up. She eats almost nothing. Three months after Paul was torn away, she takes her own life. She leaves me a short note:
“Dear Mommy, sorry, but I can’t go on.”
LXI. My flat is a lonesome hole. I can no longer tolerate light. The dark rooms are full of carpets, tall porcelain vases and figures, gilt-framed paintings, dark, heavy furniture, the lipstick at the base of the mirror still red, all of it looks like itself but everything’s altered, I cannot sleep, I lie there at night and imagine movie scenes with no sound. It’s always the same scene: a white chicken lies motionless on a tree stump, held down by a man who looks like one of Lotten’s many uncles. The large, coarse hands, the downy white body, the axe striking lightning in the chicken’s neck, the head falling, the red earth. The wings flapping, trying to escape, but they have the body in tow. Even though the chicken is dead, it flies nevertheless, headless, in among the trees.
By Eva Tind
Translated by Misha Hoekstra
Eva Tind was born in Korea and grew up in Jutland. Residing at the junctures between film, fine art, architecture and literature, her work explores the nature of belonging and the forging of identity. Asta’s Shadow forms the basis for Tind’s film essay A Red Carpet for Asta Nielsen.
Misha Hoekstra has translated a variety of Danish fiction, including Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, which along with The Unseen was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. Misha has just been awarded The Danish Translation Award, the annual award given by The Danish Arts Foundation’s Committee for Literature.