Monday, 6 September 2010

1910 - Film's first sex symbol - Afgrunden (The Woman Always Pays) - Urban Gad

Silent film’s greatest strength is the universal language of the visual image. When this is combined with the fact that a global economic framework was beginning to develop and thrive for a brief few years before the calamitous events of 1914, the rapidity of the developing artistic maturity of the medium of film on a global scale becomes more comprehensible.

In 1909, we saw film’s from Italy, France and the USA begin to harness the dramatic consciousness of film. Yet only a year later, a Danish film called Afgrunden becomes the first film to flourish and exponentially expand this dramatic consciousness (please click on the video above to watch the other three parts of the film on Youtube).

Afgrunden explores and dissects the themes of desire and female sexuality. The film concerns a young piano teacher (Magda) who goes to meet her fiancé and her parents. When she goes to visit a circus with her fiancé, she is drawn to an artist working there and runs away with him.

At more than twice the running time of any film we have watched so far on the Film: Ab Initio list (the film’s running time is just under forty minutes), the ability to interrogate a broader range of ideas is expected. But the subtlety of action and complexity of emotions conveyed marks a quantum leap from anything we have witnessed so far.

The first five minutes of the film serves as a tribute to the Lumiere Brothers. The opening shot of the film, where Magda walks towards the tram, is reminiscent of an early Lumiere actuality film. And the scene where her train arrives at her fiance’s train station is almost identical to the Lumiere masterpiece, ‘Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat’. This homage serves the film well, as it is exquisitely shot. The growing confidence of director’s in selecting certain angles and unique ways of transitioning between scenes is a delight to see.

From the opening moments of the film, where Magda climbs onto a tram and meets her fiancé for the first time, it becomes clear that silent film may in fact be a more effective medium for exploring ideas about relationships and desires than talkies are. An overemphasis on body language and the removal of any verbal language heightens the visceral nature of the lovers’ bond. The deliberately misplaced glances and awkward physical movement of the two characters possesses a delicious ambiguity that would not be allowed to exist if the two characters could converse with one another.

Later in the film, Magda’s fiancé attempts to persuade her join him and his parents on a walk. As she refuses and watches them walk away, the screen is engulfed with the void of loneliness.  For now this sense of despair is silent, but as the film continues, this despair will be expressed in a far more physical manner.

Therefore, the film can divided in to three acts, with each act culminating in Magda’s reaction to a certain situation. If gazing onwards at her fiancé and his parents was her reaction at the end of the first act, at the end of the second act she attacks a girl on stage when she believes that her lover is making amorous glances towards that girl. And finally, when her lover tears her dress and physically confronts her after she is caught talking to her ex-fiancé, she stabs and murders him.

On each occasion, Magda refuses to either conform to or accept society’s pre-ordained role for her. Furthermore, the violent intensity of her indomitable spirit increases on each occasion. Magda repels each cage she is placed in: first the country house, then the circus until the film ends with her being led away by policeman to prison.  It is important to note that in 1910, Danish women would not receive universal suffrage for another five years. Magda’s irrepressible nature must surely have resonated with its contemporary audience, and the film’s English title ‘The Woman Always Pays’, is misleading. Despite the majority of the film involving her affections oscillating between the two male leads, she ends up with neither party. And although we have to assume she will spend the rest of her life in prison, it is the heavy price she ends up paying for her independence.  

Magda is quite comfortably the most complex and intriguing character we have encountered to date, and this is largely due to the fact that she is played by the magnificent Asta Nielsen – film’s first siren and sex symbol. During the first half of this decade, only Max Linder would rival her in terms of popularity. The excellent Bright Lights Film Journal highlights the scope of her influence as well as discussing her role in Afgrunden:
Some of the most memorable images from films of the 1930s are based on the idea of strong women who resist, even dissolve, gender boundaries: Dietrich, dressed in a man's suit, offering a rare lesbian kiss in Blonde Venus; Hepburn convincing us she's a boy in Sylvia Scarlett; Garbo as a mannish ruler, staring into the camera at the end of Queen Christina. If audiences were not entirely unprepared for such imagery, it was probably because of another star with a single name who was doing the same thing more than two decades earlier. This is not mere speculation; Garbo herself acknowledged the woman who co-starred with her in The Joyless Street, saying "she taught me everything I know."...
Afgrunden was important in establishing from the beginning key components of her legend: scandalous eroticism and a uniquely minimalist acting style... In a startling sequence of sexual intensity, she lassos her boyfriend and does a lewd dance, bumping and grinding against him. This vulgar "gaucho-dance" was what most viewers remembered, but critics of the time also applauded Asta's naturalistic acting, unknown in a silent cinema noted for its wild theatrical gesturing and overwrought grimacing. In her autobiography, the actress commented on this: "I realized that one had to detach oneself completely from one's surroundings in order to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film. The opportunity to develop character and mood gradually, something denied the film actor, can only be replaced by a kind of 'auto-suggestion." Throughout her career she used this trance state at key moments to force the viewer to respond imaginatively to what was happening — an effect that, combined with her masklike face and minimal gestures, gives the strange feeling of watching a present-day actress who has dropped suddenly into silent movies.

Much has been made of her ‘lewd dance’, but there is a moment of equally daring eroticism earlier in the film, where the artist breaks into her bedroom. After appearing to reject his advances, they then share a passionate kiss (see image above). It is a moment of forbidden passion where the viewer very much plays the part of the voyeur. 

Although it is not as risqué as the latter dance is, it is equally dazzling. Sensuality and desire are deconstructed and stripped bare in a manner that is unique to film. There is nothing suggestive or over-pronounced about such a moment, the carnal desire on display is electrifying.

Interestingly, Nielsen’s ‘lewd dance’ (see image below) was cut from both the British and American films, in what must have been one of the earliest examples of censorship in the film industry. But it would be a great shame for such a brilliant film to be remembered only for its most erotically charged moment. However, there is no denying that this dance is the most important moment of the film. Through the medium of dance, Magda is finally able to unleash her sensuality in a manner independent of either man. The potent symbolism of her lassoing her lover is undeniable.

The highest praise I can bestow on Afgrunden is that I can think of few films from any era that deal with its subject matter as well as it does. What a fantastic way to kick off a seminal decade in film history.


  1. Old Movie have the great sex apeal, nice story and thanks for it...

    have a good day

  2. @Porn Videos - I am glad you enjoyed this film, thanks for your kind words.

  3. very good.