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.

17 responses

  1. Do you have any idea whether (and, if so, where) the DVD of Asta’s “Hamlet” might be available for purchase? Thanks!

  2. All has gone quiet on the Asta Nielsen Hamlet since its festival screenings a year or two ago. Given the interest, and the special score which went with it, one would assume something was in the offing, but I’ve found nothing about it. I’ll certainly report something here the moment I do.

  3. Watch the Filmmuseum München and follow this link: info/p34_In-Vorbereitung.html
    In May 2009 the Filmmuseum München will release Die freudlose Gasse ( index.php/manufacturers_id/5 ) aka as Joyless Street. Finally people will understand that Greta Garbo was an important (supporting) actress in that movie, but Asta Nielsen was its star. Die freudlose Gasse (157′) will be shown in The Dutch Filmmuseum Saterday Feb. 7th 2008.

  4. You write that this is “not quite (to my mind) the best of those that survive.” Which do you think are the best silent Shakespeare films, and are they available on DVD?

  5. I would argue that the best extant silent Shakespeare film is the Italian AMLETO (1917), starring Ruggero Ruggeri. Unfortunately it’s not available on DVD, and because it is little known and the surviving copy has some nitrate damage it’s unlikely to be made available in that way. Judith Buchanan writes about it at length in the recent book Shakespeare on Silent Film. Of those titles available on DVD, I would champion the one-reelers THE TEMPEST (GB 1908) and RE LEAR (Italy 1910) as model examples of how to re-imagine Shakespeare in silent film form. Both are on the BFI/Milestone DVD Silent Shakespeare.

  6. Thanks for the tip. By the way, I wrote the Filmmuseum about the Asta Nielsen Hamlet release date and got this rather cryptic reply: “Unfortunately I have no idea when the DVD will be ready to be released. I hope the archive will get along until November but I’m not sure.”

  7. do you know where I can obtain a copy of AMLETO (1917), starring Ruggero Ruggeri?
    I’ve recently got into silent shakespeare and I would really love to see this film version of it.

  8. AMLETO (1917) is a terrific film, the best feature-length silent Shakespeare film to my mind, but unfortunately it’s not available on video or DVD and screenings are rare. The only surviving 35mm copy (that I know of) is in a French archive – the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, I believe – with a copy made from this held by the British Film Institute, but owing to the nitrate damage on the film it’s unlikely ever to appear on DVD or online. I did raise the possibility with the BFI some years ago, trying to drum up interest in a follow-up release to their successful Silent Shakespeare release, but nothing came of this. If you are in the UK, you can book to see the film through the BFI’s viewing services in London (any weblink to which seems to have disappeared fro the BFI’s redesigned website). It is an excellent film – well worth tracking down, if you can.

  9. Thank you Urbanora for your long and helpful reply.
    Unfortunately I live in the US, but if I ever visit Britain I’ll be sure to try and view Amleto.
    Even with the nitrate damage I still hope it becomes available or can possibly be restored.

    Also since you saw the film I was wondering if you could reply and tell me what you think of Ruggero Ruggeri’s Hamlet performance and how you rank it with the other Hamlet film performances you’ve seen?

  10. My memory of the film is fading, but happily I gave a talk on it back in 2004 at a Shakespeare conference, and I’ve just put the text on my personal website –

    Here’s one paragraph from the talk:

    “… AMLETO is no mere stage play performed before the cameras. What most distinguishes it is its consistent cinematic sense. In contrast to the 1913 Hamlet, which is so in thrall to the theatrical tradition, AMLETO applies an altogether far more cinematic approach. The camera is constantly engaged and alert to the nuances of the action. Although the acting is redolent of the theatre, there is a sense of a real place, real relationships, and a time and a reason for these things. The royal court is a credible place, in which the interrelationships integral to the drama emerge naturally and convincingly …”

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