Hamlet (1921) screens at the BFI Southbank twice this week as part of the season, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. It’s a must-see, although I would say that. You can see the film on Wednesday at 6.15pm with musical accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch and on Saturday at 5pm with music by Meg Morley and an introduction by Professor Judith Buchanan.
Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.
From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.
Cross-dressing, particularly when it came to women in male drag, was far from unusual in either Weimar club culture or German silent cinema – from comic examples such as Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918), to Louise Brooks’s sailor suit in GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). In the words of silent Shakespeare scholar Judith Buchanan, Nielsen’s Hamlet “offers us androgyny as an appealing, and discreetly sexualised aesthetic”, in the context of a post-war German society transformed by women enjoying new freedoms in dress, consumerism, politics and the world of work.
Nielsen was one of silent cinema’s greatest stars – a tomboyish actress with large, soulful dark eyes and face that was often compellingly oblique. Instead of grand theatrical expressiveness designed to reach the back row, her minimalist style drew the audience closer, while she carefully used broader gestures to convey heightened emotion. Her first film role was in the erotic melodrama The Abyss in 1909, which showcased both her sensuality and her modern, intelligent performance style. It caused a global sensation, and Nielsen is generally considered to be the first truly international film star. She soon began working in the German film industry in Berlin, where mounted police had to hold back the crowds at her premieres, and Hamlet was distributed by her own company, Asta Films. It was to be the ultimate star vehicle for the reigning monarch of silent drama, the Danish princess of the silver screen.
This sharply photographed Hamlet, which was directed by Svend Gade, a fellow Dane working in Germany, has more to offer than its audacious premise and famous lead. The film’s Expressionist set-dressing offers a velvet backdrop to its star’s austere appearance, which Close-Up described succinctly as a “a white passion flower on a black stalk”. It succeeds both in opening out the story, and integrating comic interludes, as well as conveying the play’s essentially psychological narrative. Although the film wanders far from the original text, and reminds us repeatedly that this is not strictly Shakespeare’s story, it is one of the best silent Hamlets in terms of expressing a tragedy of souls, rather than bodies, in conflict.
Contemporary reviewers were very taken with the film, enjoying its lead performance as well as its adept mixture of dramatic modes, which recalled Polonius’s memorable “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” concoction. The New York Times listed it in their top 10 of the year, saying it “holds a secure place in class with the best”. Picture-Play described it as “beautiful and artistic, besides being one of the greatest novelties since films began”. Exceptional Photoplays praised Nielsen’s performance, saying “rare is it indeed to see so complete a suggestion of all physical means – appearance, gesture, even the movement of an eye-lid – to the sheer art of showing forth the soul of a character” and concluded that “all in all, Hamlet reaches a level not often seen in our motion picture theatres”.
• In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen continues until 15 March 2022.
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