“The Abyss”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

“The Abyss” features one of the most striking opening shots in early cinema (it was released in 1910). Taken from the center of a busy urban street, it shows a woman walking away from the camera as traffic throngs around her. The poetic quality of the image is betrayed by a sense of unease. The woman seems listless, otherworldly, lost. For a moment you worry she’ll be struck by the streetcar moving towards the camera or that she’ll stray into the path of a moving bicycle. But at the last second she stirs to life and climbs aboard the trolley. Temporarily, at least, she’s rejoined the world of the living.

The woman is played by Asta Nielsen, perhaps Europe’s first female film star, and that opening initiates the movie’s theme of self destruction brought about by willfulness and disaffection. Nielsen’s character is a single young woman living in Copenhagen; she supports herself by teaching piano to young children. The narrative kicks in when she’s courted by a man she meets on the aforementioned street car. He’s polite, fashionable, and wealthy enough to invite Nielsen to vacation with his family for the summer. She accepts the invitation but she retains her remote air; she’s bored by the family’s dry everydayness. When they go on group walks, she invents excuses to stay behind.

She only perks up when a group of itinerant performers visits the locale. As he did in his opening shot, director Urban Gad conveys the burgeoning conflict in visual terms. As the suitor’s family departs Nielsen’s company, walking into the distance along a country path, the group is diminished as it moves away from the camera. Concurrently, the troupers walking towards Nielsen grow larger as they come into focus. The message is clear: Nielsen is at a personal crossroads. The next shot gives us the troupe in more detail. It consists of clowns, scruffy men on horseback, and a gypsy girl with a little burro. Gad allows the lattermost figure to walk right into the foreground of the shot; he’s contrasting her vividness with the blurry ennui of his heroine.  The camera then pans to the right, slowly bringing Nielsen back into frame. Standing upright, the wind ruffling her white dress, she seems a changed woman. A man in cowboy garb rides up, doffs his cap, and continues on. This is the man Nielsen will run off with a few scenes later, thereby severing her ties to her suitor — and to her middle class existence — in one fell swoop. [1]

The next time we see her she’s wearing a modern, Oriental-style shawl — she looks like something out of a painting by Gustav Klimt. This tells us all we need to know about her situation: she’s taken up with a community of artists, and we all know what that implies. Yet it’s immediately apparent that she remains troubled. Her new beau, played by Poul Reumert, is the polar opposite of the old one. Not only is he unreliable, it’s implied that he mistreats her. The couple quarrels frequently.

We get a sense of what’s keeping her in the relationship during a scene depicting one of their reconciliations. Nielsen is threatening to leave Reumert and return to her old suitor. When she attempts to leave the room, Reumert grabs her arm, turns the motion back on her, and pulls her close to him in a movement that suggests a gesture from a well-rehearsed dance. He then draws Nielsen to a sofa, stares intently into her eyes, and slowly coaxes her to her knees, where she finally melts into blissful submission, the lovers’ faces pressed together tightly at the cheek (the composition again recalls Klimt). Here Nielsen embodies what Garbo would over fifteen years later — ecstatic sexual martyrdom. Seeing all of this, her former boyfriend merely bows his head and walks out the door.

There’s no escaping the moralism of all of this — but it’s a moralism that’s neither shallow nor cheap. Nielsen’s performance sees to that. Without the aid of close-ups or elaborate histrionics — and accompanied by only a few descriptive intertitles —  she brings you right into her character’s consciousness, allowing you to see how contact with the theater milieu has liberated something inside of her — how it’s put her in touch with her sexuality. [2]

This is most apparent during a stage show in which Nielsen and Reumert perform together. The scene begins with a backstage quarrel (Reumert has been flirting with another performer), then transitions into a dance routine which encapsulates the couple’s fraught relationship. [3] Clad in a clingy black dress, a lasso draped about her hips, Nielsen attempts to engage Reumert. When he refuses to comply, feigning interest in something offstage, she snares him in the lasso, binds him, and then writhes around him seductively, her body animating the dress as though it were an emanation of her innermost being. This dance, presented in one unbroken shot, grows more audacious as it goes on, and it’s the one time in the movie that Nielsen seems completely present, completely of herself. Reveling in the license provided by her assumed persona, she caps the performance by biting Reumert’s neck. She does this ravenously, like a vampire.

The way Gad cues us to the psychology inherent in this passion play is startling. The scene is shot from the side of the stage; the fictive audience is offscreen to the right. The dance, however, is directed at the camera — that is, at the real audience watching in the movie theater. This invites us to consider it both as a performance and as an expression of Nielsen’s inner life, and it underscores the theatrical quality that so often characterizes difficult relationships. When, after the conclusion of the dance, Nielsen attacks her real-life rival, we realize the performance is of a piece with her everyday existence. Perhaps it even represents its essence.

“The Abyss” has often been considered as a precursor to the “vamp” movies that became popular a few years later, most notably those starring Theda Bara as a black-clad destroyer of men. That’s accurate enough, but I can’t help but feel turned off by the gender studies rhetoric that so often accompanies that particular discussion. Yes, movies like “The Abyss” and the much less sophisticated “A Fool There Was” present female sexuality as problematic — indeed, as destructive of bourgeois normality. But then how should we expect Edwardians to have treated the subject? Perhaps it’s better to take the characters played by Nielsen and Bara as complicated, transformative figures, as revolutionary in their ways as Catherine Trammell, the chimera of female empowerment played by Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” [4] With a little squinting it may even possible to see them as compliments to the positive images of female sexuality that would flower during the 1920s — as the downbeat yins to the flapper’s ebullient yang.

[1] “The Abyss” is an early example of a movie using the device of the exciting performer who lures a woman away from a less flashy male partner. It was common in the circus film of the ’20s, then popped up again in the art films of later periods.  “La Strada” and “Capricious Summer” are two later examples that spring to mind.

[2] Early Danish films are renowned for their economy of expression and sparse use of intertitles. They refuse to spell everything out for a viewer, aiming instead for a realism based on careful staging and gesture. In this they anticipate Griffith. Whether Griffith was aware of the work of Gad, Nielsen, and others is impossible to know, though in the ’40s he told the Museum of Modern Art that he’d never seen a Danish movie.

[3] Throughout “The Abyss” dancing is used as a metaphor for sex, with particular emphasis placed on the role it often plays in unstable relationships. In virtually every scene in which Nielsen and Reumert quarrel, they are on the verge of dancing.

[4] Has Camille Paglia seen “The Abyss”?


The full movie can be seen here.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Performers, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “The Abyss”

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    After reading your review, I had to watch the movie. I saw “Skyfall” today and, man, I never would’ve guessed that a dance scene in a 100 year-old Danish silent would be sexier than anything in a contemporary Bond film.

    Great essay as always and a wonderful find, thanks.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Glad you liked the piece. Was “Skyfall” any good? I still don’t know what to make of the new Bonds. They don’t seem like Bond movies to me.


      • Blowhard, Esq. says:

        The beginning was too long, but I enjoyed it. “Skyfall” borrows a lot from the “Dark Knight” films, but unlike you, I like the Nolan Batmans. I’ve never seen that many of the classic Bond films to begin with, so I don’t have much invested in them, but I totally get why some don’t like the new direction they’re taking.


  2. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Some interesting stuff from her Wikipedia entry:

    “Due to the erotic nature of her performances, Nielsen’s films were heavily censored in the United States and her work remained relatively obscure to American audiences.”

    “Returning to Denmark, she was employed at Det Ny Theater from 1907 to 1910. Although she worked steadily as a stage actress, her performances remained unremarkable. Danish historian Robert Neiiedam wrote that Nielsen’s unique physical attraction, which was of great value on the screen, was limited on stage by her deep and uneven speaking voice.”

    “Nielsen began her film career in 1909, starring in director Urban Gad’s 1910 tragedy Afgrunden (“The Abyss”). Nielsen’s minimalist acting style was evidenced in her successful portrayal of a naive young woman lured into a tragic life. Her overt sexuality in the film’s ‘gaucho dance’ scene established the erotic quality for which Nielsen became known. Because of the film’s success, Nielsen continued to act in cinema rather than on stage. Nielsen and Gad married, then made four more films together.”

    “In 1925 she starred in the German film Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow), directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring the next Scandinavian diva, Greta Garbo, months before Garbo left for Hollywood and MGM.”

    “After the rise of Nazism she was offered her own studio by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Nielsen later described being invited to tea with Adolf Hitler, who tried to convince her to return to film and explained the political power of her on-screen presence. Understanding the implications, Nielsen declined and left Germany in 1936. She returned home to Denmark where she wrote articles on art and politics and a two-volume autobiography.”

    She married three times, the last time when she was 88, two years before she died.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Some good stuff, thanks.

      Supposedly, during the first world war, soldiers on both sides carried photos of Nielsen into battle. Possibly bullshit, but it conveys something of her popularity at that time. The contemporary Euro film star I can think of is Max Linder.


  3. Callowman says:

    The bourgeoisie really is perched in the middle, drawing its identity from the upper class’s ancient honor culture and its income from the Marxian/liberal/capitalist maelstrom engulfing it. Unleashing female sexuality is of epic significance in the honor culture. I look forward to watching this. Been watching Downton Abbey lately, where the honor culture attitudes of the patriarch and the butler are treated almost as kitsch, silly errors of thought to be got around, with no bittersweet recognition that the romantic tropes the series celebrates also have their roots in that culture.


  4. Great find, super essay. Looking forward to catching up with this one.


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