Hamlet (1921)


Facts and Figures


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Cast & Crew

Director: Sven Gade, Heinz Schall

Producer: Asta Nielsen

Hamlet (1921) Review

Although shot in Germany in 1921, this Sven Gade and Heinz Schall version of Hamlet is one of the most bizarre and revisionist film versions of Shakespeare's tragedy you are likely ever to see. In this version, Hamlet is a woman, played by the early Scandinavian and German film star Asta Nielsen. In a burst of William K. Everson chutzpah, the New York Film Festival has exhumed this rare film in a wonderful restoration, featuring the original polychrome tinting, by the German Film Institute.

One of the joys and revelations in seeing the film is Nielsen. One of the first international film stars, most of her films are now either lost or hard to find, which is what makes Hamlet such an unabashed surprise and delight. Nielsen (then 37 years old) in Hamlet overturns any stereotypical thoughts of silent film acting as a style of over-wrought theatricality and facial contortions. Nielsen's acting is completely modern and naturalistic, her great dreamy, haunted eyes speaking for her soul. Nielsen's subtlety and quiet intensity carried over into the film performances of her contemporary Lillian Gish and in the films of Greta Garbo (who said about Nielsen, "She taught me everything I know"). Her influence continued past the silent era into the films of Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. This naturalism is on display throughout Hamlet in her tiny, quiet gestures, calm movements, and evocative expressions.

In the film, when a troupe of bad actors are summoned to Elsinore and one of the actors demonstrates his acting "talent" by smiting his brow, his hands grasping at the air, Nielsen calmly stops him in mid-emote and illustrates good acting technique to the pantaloon by simply pointing to her head and then to her heart. When Hamlet squares off against Eduard von Winterstein's Claudius (who acts with leers and facial contortions as if just stepping off the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it is an acting grudge match: Naturalism vs. Expressionism. Guess who wins?

With Hamlet being the perfect showcase for Nielsen, Nielsen as a woman playing a famous male theatrical character had to be addressed. As a result, Shakespeare is pulled and stretched and contorted to explain a female Hamlet. The film begins with a curious prologue citing various authors and literary critics criticizing the inconsistencies of Shakespeare's character (the best of the bunch featuring a Goethe quote calling Hamlet an ass). Then a pre-credit sequence begins detailing Queen Gertrude (Mathilde Brandt) giving birth to a daughter and, thinking the king has died in battle and not wanting to relinquish the crown, decides to tell the population of Denmark that she has given birth to a son. Ultimately, the King (Paul Conradi) survives, showing up at Gertrude's bedside, but they both decide to keep the fiction alive.

Nielsen makes her first appearance in drag as the male Hamlet and this gender warp tightens like a fist as the film progresses; Nielsen's austere male impersonation here echoing from Queen Christina to Boys Don't Cry. As the story unfolds, this gender bending gets creepier and creepier. Horatio (Heinz Stieda) is strangely attracted to his best pal and likes to put his head in Hamlet's lap. For Hamlet's part, he/she is attracted to Horatio but is stymied. Gertrude then eggs Hamlet on to make nice with Ophelia (Lilly Jacobson) in order to keep the secret alive and a scene in which Hamlet kisses and fondles Ophelia is ripe for a Sapphic film festival. But, doomed again, Hamlet cannot even accept Ophelia's sexual advances. Hamlet's pent up sexual passion keeps mounting until it finally manifests itself in a crazed vengeance against Claudius, who has killed the king and married Gertrude -- Reich couldn't have found a better case study for The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

Nielsen's Hamlet is completely contemporary and ripe for rediscovery. So come on boys! How about a real theatrical release; just shelve the next Amanda Bynes vehicle until Asta Nielsen runs her course.

Reviewed at the 2007 New York Film Festival.

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