Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet


Asta Nielsen

Just back from the British Shakespeare Association conference, where I was able to tell them about the International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio project that I’m supervising. This is an attempt at a ‘complete’ database of all Shakespeare-related titles ever produced in those three media, and so it will of course included all silent Shakespeare films. The ‘interim’ version of the database currently available doesn’t include any silents as yet, and you’ll have to wait for the proper release of the database in summer 2008 to see the full resource in all its glory.

The conference saw the first British presentation (on DVD) of the new restoration of the 1921 German Hamlet, starring Asta Nielsen. A tinted distribution print was discovered recently and has been restored by the Deutsche Filminstitut, using supplementary footage from the French distribution version in the Centre National de la Cinématographie. The film has long been available in black-and-white, but this the first time since the film’s original release that it has been possible to see it in its original colours, the processing work having been done by those acknowledged experts in silent film colour restoration, Haghefilm. The restoration then received its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Hamlet was made for Nielsen’s eponymous production company, directed by Sven Gade and Heinz Schall. It is the best-known of silent Shakespeare films, if not quite (to my mind) the best of those that survive. The extraordinary aspect of the film is, of course, that Hamlet is played by a woman. For this they found academic justification, basing their interpretation on the scholarly endeavours of one Edward P. Vining, whose 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet posited that the oddities of Hamlet’s behaviour might be explained by the fact that he was a woman in disguise. There had been (and continues to be) a tradition of female Hamlets, including Sarah Bernhardt, a glimpse of whose interpretation was filmed in 1900 (with accompanying sound effects).

Vining’s odd thesis helped legitimise Nielsen’s decision to play the part on film, but it is her luminous, intense performance that justifies it. She is extraordinary in the film, seeking to convey Hamlet’s agonising through diva-like dumbshow alone. The film has its dull patches, plus some unfortunate moments guaranteed to bring out the giggles in a modern audience, since a key aspect of the revisionist plot is that Hamlet is in love with Horatio (cue hoots of laughter when the astonished Horatio discovers, by manual examination, that the dying Hamlet is a woman). Shakespeareans may also be intrigued to find that Claudius dies in a fire, while it is Gertrude who administers the poison which she then drinks by accident – so all of those lying dead at the end of the film are women. The direction seldom rises above the routine, but there is a keen sense of palace life going on while the central figures progressively, and madly, destroy one another. It also gives no sense of a forced conversion from stage to screen – this is a wholly, and successfully reimagined work.

The best thing about the new restoration is its score by Michael Riessler. This blends conventional musical instrumentation with ‘archaic natural sounds’ and electronica. I found it extraordinarily haunting, and sympathetic to the film’s style and performances. The colour is colourful.

I don’t know when the restoration may get further UK screenings, but in the meanwhile, why not take a look at Tony Howard’s newly-published Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, which tells the history of women playing Hamlet is a most entertainining and informative way. It has much to say on the film, and has Nielsen on the cover.