Afgrunden (The Abyss/The Woman Always Pays) dir. Urban GadBracket Record:
- Round 1. bt Betty's Apprenticeship
Link to Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVQMYnvprRk&t=1339s#no
- Round 2 bt. Der Hausarzt
- Round 3 bt. A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway
- Round 4 bt. A Japanese Peach Boy
- Round 5 bt. In the Border States
- Round 6 bt. Two Kids on a Spree in Brussels
- Winners' Bracket semi-final bt. The Unchanging Sea
- Winners' Bracket final bt. Frankenstein
- Grand Final bt. Frankenstein
Across the wild, wide, pampas-populated plains of Jutland, mothers whisper to their daughters, "Child, beware the Danish gaucho, for he will appear at the window of your room riding upon a very tall ladder and whisk you away to a life of giddy excess, wild stage performances and suggestive dancing. Men will fight over you, women will be jealous of you and you will have to battle to keep your man. All of this is most un-Danish, find a nice vicar's son instead." This maternal lecture gave at least one Danish daughter a rebellious idea, armed only with a butter knife for protection, she sets off to the circus to learn the art of the lasso.
Welcome to the screen Die Asta. Asta Nielsen, in her debut film, plays Magda Vang, a vamp in a black dress and a range of flamboyant hats. A young lady with irrepresible urges that will not be satisfied by Sundays at church nor reading in her room. She is all slinky-hipped, heavy-breathed and has kohl-rimmed black holes for eyes, better for graviationally attracting men into her orbit. Her motive is lust. It doesn't take her long to escape the confines of her white Sunday dress to become clothed head to toe in black. This is a morality tale which directs the audience to paternally condemn Magda, but frankly they're just here for Die Asta's chest-heaving magnetism. Yet despite this thickly applied coat of desire, Asta Nielsen's acting is for the most part naturalistic. Compared to some of the rampant overacting, gesticulating, fainting and jumping-jacks of fury that goes on in films of this era, Asta Nielsen's acting style is more akin to what we'd see in something from decades after this.
The opening shot of this is something special. Just look at this composition. Magda, front and center waiting for the tram of destiny. Cameras in 1910 boxes that stayed still and filmed a fixed scene. There were occasionaly slow limited pans probably performed by a number of young men below the shot grunting as they laboured to turn the tripod physically, or maybe on an expensive, newly-fangled rotating camera. What there weren't any of, because it hadn't really been used yet despite being invented in 1907, were follow shots filmed on camera dollies. Following on from The Abyss's opening shot, Magda boards a tram in Copenhagen which then sets off. The camera follows... The camera is positioned directly behind the tram, filming the scene of gentle flirtation between the two innocent young people whose eyes meet on the the sunlit and open rear platform. Trams, as well all know, are inherently magical vehicles. Trundling magic boxes of intimacy and mystery with a backdrop of city scapes that jostle and jar plotlines into life. They also run on rails providing the ideal platform for a dollied camera. In Copenhagen trams can be double-headed and thus what Urban Gad must have done is mount his camera on the tram platform behind and filmed the scene taking place on the leading car, as sunny Copenhagen scrolls by. Quite the playful shot.
Also playful was the scene that got this film banned in Norway and Sweden, and restricted its distribution in the USA - presumably by the General Film Company. Again, innovative composition; a stage filmed from the side with the unseen audience off to the right. We can see four men, one dressed as a policeman, watching the two performers on stage. Their gaze is intense, fixed and male like the camera recording the scene. The performance is essentially the story of a tango stripped of its music and its steps. A fandango of lust, desire and power-exhange. Die Asta is in charge. Like Wonder Woman, she brings her man to heel and forces the truth from him. The dancing is not erotic, there is no mystery, it's entirely designed for male arousal. Physical foreplay. It's proto-bump'n'grind. Rubbing groins, locked eyes, pushing breasts, there can be absolutley no mistaking what Die Asta wants - even if her partner is playing hard to get. At the conclusion, bouquets of flowers spurt from the unseen audience as Magda drinks in her applause and her ability to render all men helpless. Although the gaze is male, the sexuality is female.
As a whole though, this film is a morality tale made painfully obvious by the innocent wearing white while the sinful dress in black. Apart from Magda, every other character, including all the men, are ciphers. Narrowly drawn caricatures that could easily get away without names in the credits, but instead be reduced to a word or two 'The Fiancé', 'Lustful Gaucho', 'Theatre Owner' etc. Given the short running time of most films, this isn't uncommon in 1910, but The Abyss has three-reels to use and it's all spent on Magda. Magda is the only fleshed out character. The drives, desires and decisions here are hers, even though they are written and filmed by a man. That is transgressive, even now, let alone in 1910. That's not even taking account of the kink on display. Although I'd argue that the film is neither pornographic (it's too chaste) nor erotic (it's too overt and overplayed) by today's standards, it is most definitely sexual.
Danish cinema was early out of the gates in cinema history. In 1910 there were a number of Danish releases, some of which I hope to be covering later. Their favoured subject matter was as moral and judgmental as the most preachy D.W. Griffith's melodrama, yet far more transgressive than anything else including any number of the female nude tableaux that were being made. For instance one of the films The Abyss conquered on its way to ultimate number one spot in this bracket is Der Hausarzt
(The House Doctor) by Johann Schwarzer, which is a few minutes of a woman undressing for a doctor's examination. It's developed enough for a certain national flavour to films to become apparent, which perhaps was only otherwise happening in France, Italy, Germany, the US and the UK at this point.
The final novel thing about this film is its length. It's 38 minutes long. In the one-reel era, this is at least three reels long. It's also one continuous, coherent narrative. The reels wouldn't make much sense on their own. They had to be shown together in order. This is unwieldy, expensive and uncommon in film up to this point. The first example it is the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang
made in 1906. Urban Gad could use his three-reels of film to take time developing the story. Scenes could be lingered over. He could afford time for Magda's character development, slow moments, as well as the infamous dance. He did not have to push his foot to floor on the plot pedal. This was an epic in 1910. A torrid one.
Two meta-moments for the modern viewer. For some reason that I couldn't fathom, a sign is hung outside an establishment later in the film saying 'Pause'. I'm assuming this a Danish 'Out to lunch, back in five minutes' sign, but in the context of a moving picutre it has oddly come to mean something that isn't intended. Also, Danish for 'The End' is 'Slut' which appears in big letters after Magda meets her fate. Unfortunately apt for English speakers, as this is indeed three reels of voyeuristic slut-shaming of the highest quality.Notes on the Vanquished:
- Betty's Apprenticeship is of the European variety of comedy/slapstick where an innocent, normally a child or young woman, causes chaos with a series of outrageous skits upending social norms.
- I've described Der Hausarzt in the text. Johann Schwarzer made a number of films with were entirely focused on female nudity. They were nearly all destroyed by the Austrian authorities later in the decade.
- Mounting a camera on a railed vehicle is not unique to The Abyss in 1910. A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway also does this but it is straight phantom ride footage filmed from a train. Interesting, but it's not using a moving camera in a way integral to a narrative, although it is sort of indicative as to what cinema is emerging from the UK at this point.
- A Japanese Peach Boy is an Edison film, the second film ever directed by Ashley Miller, presenting a Japanese folk tale about a childless couple. It is a broad telling of the tale and the racial stereotyping is typical of the 1910s.
The other films I will cover in future installments.