Asta Nielsen: great actress, or greatest actress? She’s by far one of my favourite things about the silent era. Much has been written about her vitality, her versatility, and her charisma, so I won’t belabour the point – but it is easy to see why she became one of the first true international stars, fêted by the public and intellectuals alike (famously, Béla Balázs discussed her at length in early work of film theory The Visible Man, 1924). Even today, she is very modern and engaging.
Das Liebes-ABC (1916) sees her in a comedic trouser-role as Lis, a young woman who is engaged to be married, and has some definite ideas about how her future husband should be.
Unfortunately, her fiancé is in reality not up to this dashing, adventurous, interesting standard. Philipp is a total drip, and her face falls comically when she meets him:
She asks her father, “Is he really a true man, Daddy?” It’s not so much that she dislikes his appearance, but Philipp is just … boring. He’s just a bit square: placid and unassertive, not willing to match her energy, fussy about being all wrapped up (as someone always cold, I sympathize with him a little here), can’t smoke properly (“God knows, I will not marry a man who can’t handle a cigarette!”) … and not very smooth at kissing.
Lis is just generally not impressed with him.
But it seems she must marry him, so she resolves to improve matters: “I shall make a real man out of him”, she declares.
What this means is that Lis whisks him off to Paris for an adventure. A cross-dressing adventure! However, before she gets her drag on, we are treated to an incredible scene which already flips the gender script: Lis instructs Philipp in how she, playing the role of the man, should seduce a woman, as played by him.
Asta is genuinely quite erotic, I think, but the other thing that stands out is Philipp’s reactions: his campy bashfulness is really something. The choice for him to have such stereotypically feminized reactions certainly underscores the role reversal.
In order to show him how it’s done, Lis dons male apparel before they go out on the town. She looks fantastic, obviously. They go to the theatre, where Lis effortlessly attracts female attention, and before long has a couple of women sat in her lap!
I must admit, just when I think I’m king …
I really love cross-dressing films, or trouser-films as they’re sometimes called. They foreground the performative aspects of gender, as well as examining social roles and relationships. And of course, the role reversals and genderbending are also interesting for their queer potentiality . Das Liebes-ABC plays off that aspect; Lis is better at ‘being a man’ than Philipp is, and a part of that is shown through ‘heterosexual’ (but to the audience highly queer) engagement.
Her male get-up could’ve been a once-off, but Lis also needs to pose as a waiter later in the film for contrived plot hijinks. This time, instead of the dark hairpiece shown in the above GIFs, she wears one of the worst wigs I have ever seen. Here she is brushing it:
Even this wig cannot diminish her charms … but it’s not a good look, even if everything else she’s wearing is.
I was thinking about Das Liebes-ABC in terms of Chris Straayer’s concept of the ‘temporary transvestite’ film. As he writes, the audience gets the vicarious thrill of gender subversion, while the ending delivers them back to a conventional gender paradigm, thus solving the conflict between these two impulses. In his formulation of this type of film, cross-dressing is a “narrative necessity”, but I’m not sure if this totally applies to Das Liebes-ABC. This film seems to function a bit differently; the plot provides a reason for Lis to cross-dress, but at least initially, it’s not necessary in the usual sense of this film genre (i.e., providing an escape, getting a job, etc; a classic example would be Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressing as women to escape the mob in Some Like it Hot, although that film is in some ways atypical of the genre). Also, the reason – a woman teaches a man how to be more masculine – isn’t common in my experience, though I’d love to know of more examples of this trope.
That said, it is conventional in its ending; Lis finds posing as a man very stressful, and Philipp and her father play a trick on her by having a man pose as a woman, sitting and flirting with Philipp, to make her jealous. A charitable reading is that she is impressed by his moxie with this prank and decides he’s alright, but really it’s the laws of narrative convention more than anything that bring them together at the end of the film. In the last scene, Lis smiles approvingly as Philipp goes to buy the tickets for them at the train station (earlier in the film, he’d been helpless and she’d had to do it). Slight cringe at the imagery of him stopping her then going forward to care of business, but I suppose it’s good that he turned out not to be totally useless.
It’s a really charming film, and one that has some interesting implications. Really, the gender dynamics in Das Liebes-ABC deserve deeper analysis, but this is my one-evening-a-week side project, not a academic blog, so I’ll close with the following:
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Das Liebes-ABC. Dir. Magnus Stifter. Berlin: Neutral-Film GmbH, 1916. Available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.