Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #31 - The Abyss


Every Year In Film #31 - The Abyss

Thoughts On: The Abyss (Afgrunden, 1910)

Today we explore the beginnings of Danish cinema.

So far in the Every Year series, it has been clear that France (Europe more generally speaking) and America have been leading cinematic innovation for quite a long time--from the birth of cinema. During the silent era, this competitive relationship between European and American filmmaking remains very relevant and quite strong with silent films and silent filmmakers and actors finding their way all across the world in a manner that, once the sound era dawned, would never be known in the same respect. From WWI onwards, however, it is generally accepted that America, more specifically Hollywood, rose to dominance and stayed there - arguably, to this very day. However, pre-Hollywood American filmmaking trailed behind European filmmaking for much of the early silent era. We should then be familiar with France's significance between 1895 and 1915. But, between the late 1900s and 1915 numerous European film industries rose to prominence and, together as a European industry, provided the mentioned competition for Hollywood throughout the 1910s and 20s. Examples of these European countries are Germany, Sweden, Italy, and our subject for today, Denmark.

Continuing our exploration of the development of early silent cinema into feature-length standards that resemble modern cinema, it is very important to touch on Denmark as its film industry was a key player in extending the average film run-time and popularising longer movies. However, it must be noted that Danish filmmakers weren't the first to make long movies; as we have discussed, feature-length films emerged from 1906 and Australia before spreading across Europe and America as a developing phenomena. In 1910, however, Danish filmmakers were making longer movies that attracted large international audiences in a manner that no one else at the time really was; whilst Americans and Italians were pushing the epic, and in turn the bounds of cinema, around WWI, Danish films preempted this expansion without epic scale. This briefly made the cinema of Denmark one of the most important cinemas, and the second biggest industry after France, in the world around 1910. Today, we will then be exploring a few of the Danish films of this time, their unique characteristics and what they imply about the evolution of cinema.

Before we can jump into this subject matter, we should trace a few of the steps that the Danish film industry took to get to 1910. Thus, we must start with Peter Elfelt.

Whilst Elfelt wasn't the person who introduced cinema to Denmark (the first screenings would have been in 1896), he was the first Danish filmmaker and remains the only known pioneer of the early cinematic period that was working in Denmark. Between 1896 and 1912, Elfelt made over 200 films, most of which would have been documentaries. Very few examples survive today, but his first known film, Driving with Greenland Dogs from 1897, is considered the first Danish film ever made...

Clearly inspired by Lumière street scenes, Elfelt would have shot a plethora of actualities like this as well as performances of dances such as Pas de Deux and Tarantellen af Napoli. Some of his most notable surviving films (as the official royal photographer) are actualities, or newsreels, that captured significant events such as Emperor Nikolai II's Arrival in Elisnore or Queen Alexandra's Arrival to Toldboden. However, one of the most important steps that Elfelt would take in 1903 would be with Capital Execution:

Only a minute of this 15 minute short survives today, but this is considered Denmark's first fictional narrative film. Reminiscent of Porter's Execution of Czolgosz and Zecca's History of a Crime this seems to fall into a somewhat world-wide trend of the early 1900s in which filmmakers bridged away from actualities with social dramas that resembled newsreels or reconstructed newsreels - this is even said to be inspired by an actual French court case concerning a woman who had killed her children.

Presumably, Elfelt's fictional films weren't as common as his actualities and so, from 1897-1906, the infant Danish film industry was represented almost singularly by him and his actualities. However, this is where Danish film history opens up to Ole Olsen.

Embodying a classical rags-to-riches tale, Olsen was born into impoverishment and, from the mid-to-late 1800s, would spend much of his life between odd jobs, probably uneducated due to his dyslexia, and with a couple of short terms in prison. However, around 1890, Olsen began touring through Scandinavia as an entertainer with a troupe of Africans, which is where he began on his road to success. After getting married and running an amusement park (where he gained more success), Olsen would move to France in an attempt to enter the ever more increasingly lucrative film industry. However, he was turned away from Pathé (his to-be long-time European competitor) and so he decided to go back to Denmark, buy his own film equipment, found cinemas and start his own film company: Nordisk Films Kompagni.

One of the first filmmakers that Olsen would employ would be Viggo Larsen.

Little is written about Larsen, but, during his earlier life he was trained as an army officer before, in the mid-1900s, he was employed by Olsen in his first cinema, Biograf Theatret. In 1906, however, he began working at the Nordisk Films Kompagni (which, as you would have assumed, later become Nordisk Film) as an actor and director. He would have made over 200 films between 1906 and 1921, but, unfortunately, most of his early films, whilst they are catalogued, are very difficult to find online. Many of his early Nordisk Film shorts would have ben fictional: comedies, trick films, dramas, etc. However, his most important, successful and controversial film is the 'documentary', The Lion Hunt:

This is a film we covered recently in the series and so we won't delve into its content again. Nonetheless, this is an example of a film that Larsen both stars in and directs, and it was among the first Nordisk Film shorts that made the company a lot of money (it sold over 250 prints). What we didn't mention during the last time we touched on this film is that, though it appears to be an ethnographic film, it is actually a fake. This was mostly shot in the Copenhagen zoo with a group of actors. The actual shooting of the lion took place on an island in northern Denmark with two elderly lions that Olsen brought from a zoo in Hamburg. When the Minister of Justice at the time, Alberti, was protested to by the Danish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he tried to stop film production. Olsen and his crew didn't care, however, so they shot the lions and ran off to Sweden with the film. Some crew members were arrested (the cinematographer) and the film was banned from being shown in Denmark. Moreover, as punishment, Olsen lost his licence for his cinema, Biograf Theatret.

Meanwhile, however, the film sold well internationally and Olsen waited until the next year when he got the licence for his cinema back and the ban revoked. The film then opened in 1908 and Nordisk Film became one of the most successful film companies in the whole entire world (Olsen was still trailing behind Pathé, however).

In 1908 Nordisk Film expanded and began producing an increasing number of films (over 100 a year) whilst setting up offices around the world with the German, English and American branches being their most important. With the growth of Nordisk Film, other studios, such as Fotorama, began popping up. At this time, the world was, of course, moving even further away from basic trick films and street scenes; and this is signalled by the increasing numbers of multi-reel films as well as more complex filmmaking and storytelling. It is now, then, that we come to one of the very first multi-reel Danish films The White Slave Trade.

Whilst I would normally just show you this film and then dive into its details, I feel obliged to explain it as the inter-titles are a little ambiguous and, without knowing the plot, this is a little difficult to follow (at least, that is what I discovered). That said, The White Slave Trade is about a girl from a lower-class family that is offered a good job in London. She, despite her fiance not wanting her to, leaves for the job, only to find herself in a brothel where she is forced to be a prostitute (a white slave). The girl manages to fight off a customer, but she is trapped in the house. After some time, she convinces a maid to send a letter home. After receiving the letter, her fiance rushes over to London and helps her escape out of a window. But, as they run away, the pimps/slavers re-capture her and plan to sell her aboard. Their plot is foiled, however, on a boat when the fiance shows up with the police, and thus we have a happy ending.

Slavery of various forms is, of course, a prevalent part of cross-cultural human history. In the West around the start of the 20th century, and after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in the earlier 1800s, there were increasing movements made by Europe and America to prevent and suppress white slavery. Some of the first acts were made in 1904 in Paris, but this would have still been a social issue in 1910 when the agreements made in Paris where revised and ratified by over 45 countries. The White Slave Trade is very clearly utilising the momentum of this movement, which would explain its international success when it was first released in 1910.

What you would have just watched is the Nordisk Film version of The White Slave Trade. However, this film was originally made and released by their national rival, Fotorama. This version of the film is in fact considered a shot-for-shot remake. So, though the production of this film, and the early three-way split-screen...

... are very impressive, credit should not necessarily be given to its director, August Blom. It is difficult to give credit where it is due, however, because the Fotorama version of The White Slave Trade has been lost. What we can nonetheless pick up on with this film is that it was not just its length that made it successful; its relevance to current events that where emphasised by melodrama would have made not only the original version of this film popular, but also its shot-for-shot remake of the same year. As a result, The White Slave Trade is perceived to be so important - probably more important that the first Danish films and the first successful Nordisk Film shorts - because it is one of the key founders of the 'erotic melodrama'.

The melodrama of The White Slave Trade is evident, as, to a lesser degree, is its eroticism: its focus on sexuality, prostitution and the preservation of a young girl's virginity. Whilst it is easily argued that the sexual themes of this film aren't necessarily there for the enjoyment of the audience, this combination of sexuality and melodrama remained present in the most successful Danish films of their Golden Age - which we are now in as we move through the 1910s. To explore this, we are going to take a look at one of the most pivotal films of the early Golden Age that also emerged from 1910, our subject for today, The Abyss (also known as The Woman Always Pays). This film's plot is easily followed, but, if you like, here is a link to a summary.

Romantic melodramas of this kind have always been apart of cinema, but The Abyss preempts a strong building of this genre in the later 1910s and the 1920s that would be best represented by great silent films such as Blind Husbands, True Heart Susie, The Crowd, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and, most pertinently, Pandora's Box. All of these romantic melodramas carry the motif of a love triangle and/or some kind of rupture in the bond between husband and wife. However, few of these films utilised eroticism like The Abyss does. Within this film, there is a very strong tension between promiscuity and exploitation - which implies that this is to be a tragedy. However, there is a question of: Who are we to sympathise with and care for? After all, the girl, Magda, decides to run away with a brute of a man. It is surely hard to blame her for the abuse she sustains, but at the same time, it is hard to find sympathy for a girl that is clearly using people.

We find this same tension in Pandora's Box from 1929. Are we supposed to care about Lulu, and if so, why? Much like Magda, Lulu uses her sexuality with an apparent naivety; the goal in both The Abyss and Pandora's Box seems to be to depict men taking advantage of women who are merely expressing their sexuality. And, considering many of the mentioned silent films in which females are the focus and the point of the narrative is to sympathise with them, it seems that the kind of feminism that would find it way to the screen around the 1910s and 1920s was partly concerned with allowing women to express sexuality and/or naivety whilst chivalrous expectations of male characters would be projected as a counterbalance. Narrative films such as Pandora's Box thus depict the idea that women should be more free and better respected/protected by men.

This idea is obviously very crucial to The Abyss, but this is also where its narrative discord emerges: the female lead is merely utilised as a rather empty femme fatale by writer-director, Urban Gad (who later married the lead actress). Thus, Magda tests men and lures them into traps that she is eventually ensnared in herself. However, these traps are all pretty transparent: she chooses to run off with another man for obvious and shallow reasons and meets an obvious and rather shallow end because of this. Nonetheless, the purpose of this narrative is somewhat subverted by its erotic facade.

This infamous scene alone, whilst it bears the chivalrous feminist subtext that we have discussed, is also meant as a clear attraction for, and provocation of, the audience. In such, and I believe this to be the case with Pandora's Box too, one of the reasons why the makers of these films tell these female-centric stories is for the way in which they can tell them: with beautiful women. Whilst there are numerous examples of films throughout film history that combine stronger subtext with a beautiful lead actress (many of Monroe's best films in my opinion), this basis of the erotic melodrama in early Danish films is weighted too much towards eroticism for the subtext to matter much. And this is reflected in the way in which films like The Abyss were received as erotic melodramas.

As Marguerite Engberg suggests in an essay on "The Erotic Melodrama in Danish Silent Films", understanding where these films come from requires the recognition of the developing feminist movement in Denmark from the mid-1800s up until the 1910/20s. In such, from around 1870 to the 1920s, Danish women fought for legal equality (for example, the vote). The right to vote was won in 1915 and erotic melodramas, as argued by Engberg, were caught up in this movement towards the re-representation of women in society. In such, whilst erotic melodramas may not have been about women's suffrage, they represented a different, rather new and liberal, perspective of women that wasn't necessarily shared by other countries.

With women being depicted as more free to express their sexuality in Danish erotic melodramas, there was a sense of liberation in the films that other countries saw as distasteful. When we look to The Abyss and the infamous dance scene we have then picked up on, it should be noted that countries such as Norway would just cut it whilst other nations, such a Sweden, would ban films starring Asta Nielsen.

Upon raising the name, Asta Nielsen, we have to pick up on the fact that The Abyss gave rise to one of the very first European film stars. As mass media was becoming more and more inherent to the modern world around the 19th and early 20th century, so were celebrities. Emerging from millennia of living under democratic states, monarchs, kingdoms, tribes and the most basic communal systems, humans with newspapers, various other tabloids, photographs, phonographs, and, now in the 1900s, film, could elect new 'leaders' and new 'kings' and 'queens'. The focus of communities and countries then didn't have to be on a flag, a king or a political leader, rather, anyone who caught the imagination of the people - after all, they now knew of the wider world beyond the 'official' word of law and government with mass media. Thus, we have the celebrity.

Early films, as we have discussed, created early 'film stars' by simply putting famous people and/or political leaders and monarchy on film. Look for instance to Sandow in Edison's 1896 film...

Or Méliès' reproduction of the Coronation of King Edward VII from 1902...

In Denmark, we see the same paradigm present with one of the first Danish pin-up girls, a singer called Dagmar Hansen, being put to film by Peter Elfelt in 1903 in a short that has since been lost.

However, approaching 1910, America was producing their first genuine stars: Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford for example. That said, actors and actresses were not promoted or given credit by studios (such as Biograph). Thus, they were merely screen personalities; they were not allowed to become public figures. At least, this was the case until the 1910s which saw actors receive screen credits and American studios realise that, by creating stars - despite the hassle of celebrities in film - came an awful lot of money and massive audiences. This is why, by the time we reach the 1920s, figures such as Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks, when they traveled around the world - especially together - would amass some of the largest crowds of fans that the world has ever seen.

Caught up in the developing phenomena of a film celebrity in 1910 beacuse of The Abyss was Asta Nielsen. Her ability to project sexuality and eroticism with subtle intensity, as Engberg suggests, is grounded in her skill as a stage actress. The manner in which this was caught on film by Urban Gad and August Blom in her subsequent features at Nordisk Film gave her international recognition, and before long, she moved to Germany, where she was known as The Asta (Die Asta). A key quote from the producer, Paul Davidson, that brought Nielsen to Germany says much about this phenomena of her celebrity:

"... I saw the first Asta Nielsen film. I realised that the age of short film was past. And above all I realised that this woman was the first artist in the medium of film. Asta Nielsen, I instantly felt could be a global success...I built her a studio in Tempelhof, and set up a big production staff around her. This woman can carry it..."
With this quote, Davidson describes Nielson as both an artist and a commercial attraction. There is a question, however - and this question remains to this day with most big actors/actresses - of if she was a star because of her talent, or because of her looks and sexual prowess.

Without delving too deeply into this subject of celebrity in the early silent film, we should come back to the fact that erotic melodramas, such as those that Nielsen would star in, defined Danish filmmaking for international audiences. Thus, the idea of a "Danish film" carried connotations of sexuality and/or immorality that stemmed from Denmark's liberal capital. Considering the success of the erotic melodramas, we are then lead to question the manner in which Danish films and feature-length films evolved. It seems, as Davidson suggests above, that stars "carry" longer films. What this implies is that it is not the story that makes a film worth seeing, but the actor. So, again, we come to the tension between talent and sexuality: did feature films evolve because of erotic attraction or art?

This is a topical question that has been raised continually by film theorists and critics, most famously, by Laura Mulvey with her concept of the "male gaze". We won't explore too much of this today, but Mulvey suggests that Hollywood is founded, essentially, upon the making of films that use women as objects for men to stare at. Thus, she sides with the idea that films evolved around erotic attraction. We can certainly see evidence for her theories in Hollywood and even in the Danish erotic dramas that preempted Hollywood's emergence and rise to dominance around WWI. There is much grey ground, however, when we consider that Danish erotic dramas are considered to emerged from a feminist context that allowed for the free expression of female sexuality, as well as the fact that it took talent and artistry for actresses such as Asta Nielsen to become stars and carry films.

When looking at Danish silent cinema, which, as we have said, was and is defined by the erotic melodrama, it is hard to suggest an absolute answer to the conundrum that we have presented. However, it is important when we consider film history to recognise that Danish cinema was pivotal around 1910 in building the feature film with the tropes that we have explored today. In such, as the industry moved on from 1910, Nielsen would be making more melodramas such as The Black Dream whilst August Blom made further erotic melodramas like Temptations of a Great City, ambitious epics such as Atlantis and some of the first vampire movies such as The Vampire Dancer.

Whilst we could push deeper and further into the Danish Golden Age of silent film and even towards the 1920s to cover the careers of Benjamin Christensen and even that of Carl Theodore Dreyer, we will pull things towards a close here with the purpose of this post in the series being the highlighting of the erotic melodrama and its place as a foundational cornerstone of the feature-length silent film. As we move forward in time, we then will no doubt see the topics of this post emerge time and time again as further complications between the dichotomy of art and attraction that is inherent to all of cinema. The final note that must then be made is that, whilst we are moving ever further away from the cinema of attractions, it seems that the essence of attraction never leaves cinema, rather, is integrated into its evolution.

Before we end, I of course encourage you to check out more about the films and filmmakers mentioned as well as explore more about early Danish cinema by finding the essay by Marguerite Engberg called "The Erotic Melodrama in Danish Silent Films 1910-1918" and reading beyond this post. This will certainly give you a strong foundation as we move on to explore more from Scandinavian and European filmmaking in the series.

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