Hamlet (1921)

Barbican,  London 

                                                                  6 March 2016

(Warning – Contains spoilers throughout)

This 1921 version of Hamlet (Dir. Svend Gade and Heinz Schall) was shown at the Barbican in London as part of their ‘Shakespeare in Silent Film’ season, with live musical accompaniment by Robin Harris, Laura Anstee and Aaron May. 

Production of the film was something of a pet project for Danish actress Asta Nielsen, who founded her own production company to see the endeavour through. While she may not have been the first actress to take the role of Hamlet (as early as 1900 Sarah Bernhardt portrayed Hamlet on the screen in a short, two minute French adaption, Le Duel d’Hamlet) this was the first time that a production had actually portrayed Hamlet as a woman.  Inspiration for the film came from the 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet; An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, written by American railway employee and amateur Shakespearean Edward Payson Vining.  In his book, Vining argued that Hamlet had been born female and disguised as a male in order to preserve the royal lineage.    

For many years Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet was available only in a black and white version which had been shot for the export market.  But in 2005 a tinted copy of the original German release version was rediscovered.  This was restored by the Deutsche Filminstitut, using additional footage from a French distribution version held by the Centre National de la Cinématographie. The restored film had its premiere at the 2007 Berlinale Festival. 

The film begins with the King of Denmark (Paul Conradi) leading his army against Norway while his pregnant queen (Mathilde Brandt) remains at home.  Just as she gives birth to a daughter, news comes that the Norwegians are defeated but that the King is mortally wounded.  Fearful for the future of the throne without a male heir the queen announces the birth of a son and heir.  But the king does not die.  Trapped now in their lie, the King and Queen decide to go on with the pretence and their daughter is raised as a son, Hamlet (Asta Nielson).  Hamlet is sent away to school where she meets and is immediately attracted to fellow student Horatio. She also meets Fortinbrass, the Prince of Norway (Fritz Ackterberg). 

Back in Denmark, the King’s brother, Claudius (Eduard von Winterstein), has his eyes both on the queen and his brother’s throne. Together he and the Queen conspire to murder the king.  Returning for the funeral, Hamlet is shocked to discover the same ceremony also marks the marriage of the Queen to Claudius.  Hamlet is suspicious of Claudius’ role in her father’s death and feigns madness in order to investigate without arousing suspicion.  Claudius’ advisor Polonius (Hans Junkermann) sends his daughter Ophelia (Lilly Jacobsson) to distract Hamlet but Hamlet is not interested.  Horatio however is attracted to Ophelia, provoking Hamlet’s jealousy and prompting her to feign interest in Ophelia to avoid loosing Horatio. 

When a group of travelling players arrive, Hamlet bids them put on a play for Claudius about a king murdered by his brother.  Claudius’ rage at the play confirms Hamlet’s suspicions.  But unable to kill Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius in error which convinces Claudius that he was the intended target.  The death of Polonius brings about Ophelia’s madness and suicide causing Polonius’s son Laertes (Anton de Verdier) to plot revenge. 

Meanwhile, Claudius dispatches Hamlet to Norway with two henchmen and a secret order for the King of Norway to execute Hamlet.  But along the way Hamlet discovers the message and alters it so that on arrival in Norway it is the two henchmen who are executed.  Hamlet returns to Denmark and kills Claudius. But in a duel with Laertes, Hamlet is mortally wounded by poison placed on Laertes’ sword by the Queen, who herself dies after mistakenly drinking poison she also intended for Hamlet.  It is only at Hamlet’s death that Horatio discovers she was in fact a woman and realises why he felt so deeply for her.   

OK, so a film version of Hamlet in which the title character is a woman rather than a man is clearly playing somewhat fast and loose with Shakespeare’s original story and there are other significant differences as well (for example, Claudius dying in a fire rather than directly at Hamlet’s hand and there is no sign of Hamlet senior’s ghost).  However, that’s not to say that this is in any way a botched film version of Shakespeare.  In fact, it’s a cracking good film and much of the credit for this must go to Asta Nielson.   Not only did she set up her Art-Film production company expressly to make this film but she appointed two directors for the film who she had previously worked with and over whom she almost certainly had considerable directorial influence. 

Added to this, Nielsen’s performance in the central role is excellent.  She was an actor credited with helping to transform film acting from the overtly theatrical to a more subtle, under-stated and naturalistic style and this is certainly in evidence with her performance here. Her acting style is in stark contrast not only with other Shakespearean dramas of the time but also with other performers in this film, particularly Claudius and Queen Gertrude, who tend more toward the traditional style of acting with grand theatrical gesture.  Nielsen, on the other hand, skilfully conveys meaning through a casual glance or a sideways look.  One scene in particular stands out, when the King of Norway Fortinbras looks at her questioningly having just read the letter from Claudius apparently calling for the execution of the two henchmen, she gives a wonderful ‘strange, but nothing to do with me guv!’ shrug back to him before turning to the two henchmen with a look of self satisfaction as they are led off.  She also shows herself to be adept at coping with some genuine on stage drama when, in the scene where she is altering the letter carried by the two henchmen, the quill pen she is using catches fire.  Yet she calmly extinguishes the flames as if it is all part of the scripted scene.  The inclusion of this scene in final edit rather than a retake is surprising even in today’s era of ultra-naturalistic film making. 

Danish born Nielson (1881-1972, image left) began her film career in 1910 (after a theatrical training and subsequent stage acclaim) with The Abyss (Aufgrunden) (Dir. Urban Gad). The film was important in establishing what became key elements of the Nielsen legend: outrageous eroticism and a more naturalistic acting style.  In 1911 she and Gad moved to Germany where she was to remain for nearly 25 years, making almost 70 films, most often portraying strong-willed passionate women trapped by tragic circumstances. Her immense popularity made her Europe’s first silent film diva, often known simply as The Asta.  But Nielsen failed to make the transition to sound films, completing only one picture.  She left Germany in 1936 in protest at the rise of the Nazi party, returning to Denmark where she continued to act on stage and also embarked upon a literary career. 

As well as highlighting Nielsen’s acting talent, Hamlet is also a visually impressive film, reflecting the scale, sophistication and capability of German film production of the time.  There are no wobbly cardboard sets here and no expense has been spared on the large cast of extras, costuming and crowd scenes.  Much of the location shooting apparently took place in the German medieval town of Goslar and the interiors, in particular the main hall of Hamlet’s palace, are stunning both in terms of scale, design and lighting.  The scene in which Hamlet descends a grand staircase lit by soldiers carrying flaming torches is particularly impressive. 

But quite apart from any of the performances in or the staging of this film, a key factor in making it so fascinating is the very premise of the story, that Hamlet is in fact a woman disguised as a man.  What does this do to relationships between key characters in the film, for example between Hamlet and Horatio?  The film positively brims with issues of gender and sexual identity, underlined by Hamlet’s cry from the heart that “ I am not a man and I’m not allowed to be a woman!  I am a toy that is not supposed to have a heart. “  At their first meeting Hamlet is clearly attracted to Horatio, indeed she is very obviously eyeing him up, yet it is only at the finale when Horatio discovers that the now dead Hamlet is a woman that there is an indication of his feelings, saying “Only death betrays you!  That you had the golden heart of a woman!  Too late to be lovers, too late!” as he embraces her.  And what of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia?  Despite her advances, Hamlet has no interest in her until Hamlet jealously realises that it is Horatio who is attracted to Ophelia, subsequently feigning interest in her merely to distract Ophelia from her beloved Horatio.     

When Hamlet was first released it was apparently not a critical success, with reviewers unsympathetic to the liberties taken with the original Shakespearean plot, although there was praise for Nielsen’s performance.  However, the film was a box office success both in Europe and the United States.  Seeing the film today it comes across as a cogently plotted and structured stand-alone film, unlike many early silent adaptions of Shakespeare, which were little more than a record of a play’s key moments, relying heavily on an audience well acquainted with the bard’s work.  Yet even without any such prior knowledge this film would make perfect sense and, with the additional premise of Hamlet being a woman, this serves to add another dimension to the story. 

This screening also had the benefit of a superb live accompaniment from Robin Harris, Laura Anstee and Aaron May.  Robin and Laura are multi instrumentalists (piano, accordion, percussion, xylophone and many more, including something which sounded like a musical bicycle pump!) while Aaron is the electronics wiz, sampling and remixing the playing of the other musicians.  Together they create a complex collage of acoustic and electronic sound which complemented the film beautifully, perfectly capturing the drama and tension as well as the lighter moments. 

(Hamlet is widely available on DVD released by Edition Filmmuseum.  The same tinted version can also be viewed on YouTube.  Additionally, the film will be screened on 17 September at Gloucester’s Guildhall with live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley.)