From her dramatic international debut in “The Abyss” in 1910 with its infamously erotic “gaucho dance” sequence, Asta Nielsen’s smoldering dark eyes and wild hair contributed to making her the preeminent diva of the silent cinema throughout Europe, particularly in Germany. Yet Asta’s unconventional looks and marked sensuality both attracted and alienated viewers, creating a space for alternative constructions of femininity on the silver screen as the European film industry expanded. Over the course of Asta’s film career, several rising film stars emerged to fill this void, presenting Asta with potent competition for film roles, market share, and prominence in film history. In particular, the German actress Henny Porten’s compassionate goodness and the Danish actress Marguerite Viby’s witty, girl-next-door image offered wholesome alternatives to Asta’s erotic allures, while the Swedish actress Zarah Leander’s performances as a strong-minded femme fatale supported female empowerment. An iconic moment in Asta’s relationship to Henny Proten emerged during the casting of the religious drama I.N.R.I. (1923), when Porten was hired to play the Virgin Mary opposite Asta’s Mary Magdalene. Marguerite Viby’s film career commenced just as Asta’s was concluding, but her success in Danish screwball comedies, particularly the 1932 George Schneevoigt film “Tretten År” (13 Years Old) evoked Asta’s own early comic films, in particular “Engelein” (1913), albeit without the erotic elements. Leander took Asta’s place as the leading Scandinavian actress in Germany during the 1930s, emulating Asta’s business acumen, but charting her own course in relation to Nazi cultural politics. The competition between Asta and her contemporaries is more significant than a simple matter of professional rivalry, however, as these contrasting screen personas and their resonance among film audiences in northern Europe reflect a broader cultural debate about ideals of womanhood, femininity, and national identity in Germany and Denmark in the pre-World War II era.
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