falderal : a moving images blog
Afgrunden (The Abyss) ; 1910  ·  Posted by Tallulah

Director: Urban Gad
Actors: Asta Nielsen, Robert Dinesen, Poul Reumert
Country: Denmark

Disclaimer: After reading Neko’s post on W., I was completely blown away by how beautifully it was written and how well she laid out her points. Sorry that my post won’t be like hers, but instead, you’ll get the usual Stephany-like post with the lost-winded falderal, synopsis, thoughts, whatever. I am sorry in advance for the rather long post.

The story is of Magda (Asta Nielsen), who is a piano teacher and meets her fiancé, Knud (Robert Dinesen), on a trolley. Knud instantly falls in love with Magda when she steps onto the trolley and when she gets off, he follows her to a little café. They both fall in love and later on when Magda is teaching a little girl, she gets a letter from Knud that him and his parents would love to have her come to his house during summer. Magda is excited and finishes the lesson early and responds to his letter enthusiastically. At the summer home, Magda is seen as a quiet type of girl, preferring to read a book rather than go on a walk/go out with her fiancé and his family, and finally she is persuaded to at least walk with him to the gate entrance of the house. After she waves him goodbye, she sees a circus and she immediately becomes intrigued and is handed a flier. When Knud comes back, she tells him that she wants to go, but Knud brushes it off and does not want to go, but in the end, he agrees to take her to the circus. After the circus, Magda wants to see the animals and the reluctant Knud follows her and Magda wants to learn a dance she saw. One of the circus ladies teaches her the steps and one of the male performers, Rudolf (Poul Reumert), becomes attracted to Magda right away. When he tries to talk to her, Knud takes Magda away, but Rudolf follows Magda and Knud all the way to their house, possibly in hopes of recruiting her. Knud and Rudolf get into a fight and in the end, Knud and Magda just go into the house with Rudolf being angry outside. Later when Magda is in her room, alone, Rudolf sneaks into her room through the window and while Magda is surprised, they kiss after he stifles her screams. Magda runs away with him and leaves a note for Knud, telling him that she has run away with the love of her life and that Knud should forget her. Then we see Magda as an unhappy woman and Rudolf giving his attention to other women. Magda is jealous and whenever she throws a fit, Rudolf puts her in place. By coincidence, Knud finds the unhappy Magda and they decide to be together, but when Magda packs and is about to leave, Rudolf finds her and charms her again. While they are embracing, Knud walks in and then leaves, knowing that Magda won’t leave Rudolf. Then it goes to a scene where the circus troupe is performing and Magda and Rudolf do a sensual act with them as cowboys (I think) and Magda performs a highly sensual dance. It is well received by the audience, but when they go back to the wings, Rudolf goes straight for one of the other female performers and flirts. Magda is jealous and tries to come between Rudolf and the other female performer, but Rudolf pushes her away and isn’t ashamed of his actions and goes on flirting. When the girl goes on stage and performs her cancan-like routine, Magda cannot control her jealously and lashes at the girl with a stick. Rudolf and Magda are fired and eventually Magda finds a job as a piano player at an outdoor café. When her and Rudolf come to the café, she doesn’t want to work, but he forces her to play the piano while he is smoking with some buddies. By coincidence (again), Knud also comes to the café and sees Magda performing. He leaves a note with the waiter saying that “a friend” wants to meet her. When she gets the note, she is reluctant to go and is dragged by her husband to go into the private room to meet the “friend”. When she sees Knud, she is shocked and looks upset to see him, and when he talks to her, she cries. When her husband eventually walks in, he recognizes Knud and a fight ensues, and Magda pushes Knud out of the room and fights with Rudolf. Rudolf pushes her and pulls her hair and in desperation, she gets a knife and stabs him. Rudolf dies and Magda is upset and cries over his body. She won’t let go and when Knud sees what happens, he leaves. The film ends with Magda being taken away by the police and Knud being by himself.

I was really excited to see one of Asta Nielsen’s first films, and at that, it was my first Danish silent! Was I disappointed? Not really. It was worth a watch, but I have to say that the film was nothing special. I’m not sure if I’ve actually watched a film created earlier than this one or around this time, so it is hard for me to put this film in perspective in relation to what was going on at the time in Denmark and in cinema. Maybe some cinematic techniques were new, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t any. There were many long shots (typical of older films) and I couldn’t find anything that was innovative. On top of that, it was Urban Gad’s first film, thus as an “amateur”, I wouldn’t/don’t expect much.
In my Weimar cinema class, I learned that the lack of funds led to creative sets using unconventional materials, such as the use of canvases for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and while the sets weren’t made of canvases for Afgrunden, it was quite obvious in some scenes that a set was built using as little materials as possible. I’m not sure about the economy in pre-war Denmark (and of course its economy wouldn’t be as terrible as post-WWI Germany), but I highly doubt that Gad would have gotten much funding for his first film. The flimsy walls of the private room are noticeable, and the doors are thin with painted on decoration to make it look as if it had some carvings. Despite the almost cheap looking sets indoors (the furnishings were nice though), the outdoor shots were rather beautiful.
The acting was incredibly realistic and the only time over-acting was seen was when Rudolf dies. I was so amused by Reumert’s exaggerated acting that I almost giggled until Asta ran and hugged his body, in which it made me a bit sad. He grabs his chest, twirls around, and sticks his leg out before he falls. It was almost cartoony, in my honest opinion. Nielsen is known for her subtle acting, such as a look telling it all, and I can definitely see the beginnings of this in Afgrunden; when she does the sensual dance; that look on her face is more erotic than her gyrating hips.
While on the topic of the “famous” sensual/erotic dance, what I noticed to be a bit odd was that the audience is on the right of the frame, yet it seems as if both the actors acknowledge the camera as if it was the audience and not the people who are not seen on the right.
It was fun to see clothes pre-1920s and the hats were FABULOUS. Asta’s clothes were beautiful as well and she looks great with a corseted waist and a long dress. Another fun thing for me to see was when she would dry the ink on letters by pressing them against some block. Since these are things that I’ve never seen (not the corseted waist, but Asta in such a dress and the ink blotter), it was all very exciting for me.
Now stepping away from the superficial aspect of this film, at first, I wasn’t even sure what I thought. It took a second for me to take it all in, and the “SLUT” intertitle at the end of the film made me confused. I was thinking, “WHAT?! Magda’s a slut?! What kind of intertitle is this? This beats Die freudlose Gasse‘s intertitle with ‘Orgy.’!” It was so odd and didn’t seem to fit with the story that I used a Danish online translator and found out it meant “Finished”, which made sense. So after I got over that confusion, I saw this film as a tale of a simple woman who has her emotions unleashed, which leads her to her ruin. Although the film starts all happy with Knud and Magda, with the intertitle to fit them “Young hearts”, everything seems all lovey-dovey and nice. But at the same time, the intertitle is like a foreshadow, implying (this is COMPLETELY my interpretation by the way so I’m not getting this from any scholarly material so take it with a grain of salt) that the relationship is like the one of young people: fleeting. The intertitle can mean that the scene is of two young people meeting and falling in love, but as the rest of the film shows, Magda’s love for Knud pretty much ends. Magda cannot exactly be called a rational woman, but she was probably a normal woman of the times, but she is also easily excited, as the viewer can see with her reaction to the invitation to her fiancé’s home. At the fiancé’s home, I saw it as a way for the viewer to see how mismatched the couple was. Magda wants to read but her fiancé wants to go for a walk; Magda wants to go to the circus and Knud goes unwillingly; Magda is interested in the circus dance and Knud is a tad disapproving of it. It already sets up for what is to happen and Rudolf sweeps her off her feet when he comes in through her window. Knud is the complete opposite of Rudolf: he is steadfast and is a “moral” person.
In the beginning of the film, Magda is seen only wearing corseted dresses, and although she is seen wearing corseted dresses later on as well, Magda’s emotions are completely released when she does her sensual dance and her non-corseted dress reflects this. She is letting go of everything and in that very scene, she also unleashes her emotions when she lashes out at the other female performer. Perhaps this can mean that a woman’s sensuality and emotions leads to a decline in character, a moral downfall, but while this is what the viewer may first think, it is also important to remember that Rudolf is a philanderer. I would be jealous and angry too if I saw my lover flirting with every other woman. I read on IMDb that eventually Magda goes into prostitution, but I did not interpret the last sequence like that at all. To me, I saw it as Magda being the breadwinner and she is forced to work by her boyfriend while he just chats with his friends. I can also see the prostitute argument because Magda does not want to see the “friend” in the private room and her boyfriend drags her there, which can imply that he is willing to sell his girlfriend’s body for money. It can go both ways and since I have not read anything about Afgrunden, I am not sure what Gad’s original intention was. In the end, Magda kills Rudolf and although this might add to the whole “SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WOMAN IS NOT RIGHTEOUS!” argument, it was completely out of self-defense, and I hope that contemporary audience sided with Magda. She doesn’t deserve to get arrested at all, but she is taken away by the police.
Knud is uneasy by what has happened and walks in and out of the room and out of the building. I interpreted his action of walking out of the room as him realizing that he could never have Magda. In the last shot, he looks at Magda and tries to reach out to her, but she is in a trance-like state and does not acknowledge him and with glazed eyes, she is led away from the building by the police. This final scene reaffirms his severed ties with Magda as she does not even look at him and perhaps he realizes that their relationship is over since he only reaches out, but never directly approaches her. Even through physical space there is a separation between the two characters.

So what is this film trying to say? Well, I don’t know. Is it a moral story? Maybe. Is it a tragic love story? Maybe. I’m not sure about the “message” of the film, but all I can do is speculate about what the scenes mean. For now, I see it as a story of a woman who goes with her passions that leads to her “downfall” (financially and emotionally). I would rather prefer not to attach any moral judgment on Magda, because is it a sin to run away with a man? To be angry at him for being a flirt? I don’t think so. I don’t see Magda as a bad person and is more upset with her staying with Rudolf. But there is no explanations for a person’s feelings, especially when it comes to “love” (or so I believe) and even though Magda may know that Knud is better for her, she still loves Rudolf nonetheless.

IMDb link: Afgrunden
Where to buy: Danish Film Institute Net Shop, Edition Filmmuseum

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