Asta Nielsen: Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson

Nielsen as a cross-dressing Hamlet

Nielsen as a cross-dressing Hamlet

Hamlet (1921) 111 min., Die Filmprimadonna (1913) fragments, B&W with color wash; DVD released by film und kunst Ltd. and Deutches Filminstitut-DIF 2011, Edition Filmmuseum #37,

The boxed set that contains Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet and the fragments that remain of her performance as a film diva in Die Filmprimadonna is less a presentation of the films than it is a celebration of the astonishing talents and enterprise of the Danish actress, Asta Nielsen (1881-1972), who began her professional life on stage in Denmark, but whose film career was spent almost entirely in Germany. Nielsen is considered one of the first international movie stars, a sex symbol in her day whose erotic presence on the screen led to the banning of her films in the United States. Despite the breadth and depth of her popularity all over Europe, however, she was one of the stars of silent film who could not make the transition to “talkies” and stopped making movies after only one sound film. In 1936, she left Germany and returned to Denmark, although it appears that Joseph Goebbels offered to give her a studio of her own. Her flight from Germany was politically motivated, and, from Denmark, she attempted to help the Jews who had been imprisoned in concentration camps by using a young Danish friend who had remained in Germany to funnel money for food to the inmates. Although she never acted in film again, she did work on the stage and wrote on both art and politics during the remainder of her long life. Little known in the United States, Nielsen deserves much better than the near oblivion to which she has been relegated. For that reason, this boxed set should be of interest to cinephiles.

The set contains a disk of “extras” that include fragments from Die Filmprimadonna and fragments of film taken of Asta Nielsen in her private life: black-and-white frames of Nielsen and her daughter and sister; Nielsen on tour with her third husband, Danish director Urban Gad in Frankfurt; Nielsen at the beach with Gad; and color frames of Asta as an old woman with a number of unidentified friends. There are also fragments of film in color showing the musicians working on the new score written especially for the restored print of Nielsen’s Hamlet. Of special interest are the scenes in the German film studio in which much of what remains of Die Filmprimadonna is set, giving us useful information about the technology of early film. However, the primary disk in the box, which contains the 1921 film in which Nielson plays Hamlet, is a historical curiosity of greater magnitude.

Access to Nielsen’s Hamlet has been brought about by a Lazarus-like return from the dead, since there are no known negatives of this film in existence. This Hamlet was brought back to life through the restoration of a distribution print owned by the Deutsches Filminstitut which has been augmented by some frames from a French version of the film struck from the same negative as the German print. The English intertitles derive from German censorship records and are not only well translated but also very easy to read. Many of the black and white frames are liberally washed with a variety of colors.

But the most riveting feature of this silent screen cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare is the way it plays freely with the official version of the play. Influenced by the ideas of an American professor named Edward P. Vining, who insisted that Hamlet was in fact a woman, the film features Nielsen playing Hamlet as a woman in deep disguise, whose identity has been hidden from everyone (except old King Hamlet) by Queen Gertrude for political reasons. For Nielsen, it’s a tour de force. For Vining and those who followed his crackbrained logic, it is an attempted solution, as laughable as it may be to most of us, to the question of why Hamlet found it so hard to kill Claudius. In Vining’s words,

[I]f we imagine that the poet here portrayed a woman incapable of accomplishing the revenge which the perturbed spirit of her father had imposed upon her...suffering from a hopeless love that she might never reveal [for Horatio]...incensed far more at the sacrifice of personal purity made by her mother in marrying again...than even by the murder of her father...that which before seemed at variance with all ordinary [italics mine] modes of thinking becomes an exhibition of the deepest human feeling.

“Ordinary” is the key word here. Professor Vining subscribes to the mainstream discourse of the times, which imagines women to be lesser than men. And, of course, Vining’s loopy insistence that Hamlet’s hesitation in all things must mean that “he” is a “she” also provides a clear, if simple-minded, explanation of why Hamlet is just not that into Polonius’s daughter Ophelia, and why it is Fortinbras, not young Hamlet, who is destined to take the reins of leadership in Denmark. Nielsen’s dark, boyishly slim “Prince” of Denmark, with her sleekly bobbed hair unfairly regards curly-haired, fair, curvaceous Ophelia as a kind of dopey cow, as well as competition for Horatio, with whom she is in love. And she’s too preoccupied mooning over the unattainable love of her life to think of the kingdom. But women are like that, according to this film. So it is no surprise that in the Vining-verse, Queen Gertrude is a sex-crazy shrew, who looks like a demonic Margaret Dumont, and who never wanted a daughter to begin with. This Gertrude is explicitly dramatized as Claudius’s willing accomplice in the death of old Hamlet and Laertes’s willing coconspirator to kill her own child with a poison drink during a duel. Once noble old Hamlet is gone, Denmark is kaput.

Nielsen’s performance is as magisterial as the altered tale of Hamlet is fatally flawed. While American film historians are fond of saying that Lillian Gish invented acting for the camera, or at least the way women do it, Nielsen, in both her Hamlet and the fragments of Die Filmprimadonna, is a revelation. Gish wasn’t the only pioneer of movie acting. Nielsen is, as Gish was, fluid, natural, and compelling. In addition, she has the wicked imp buried deep in her eyes that Irving Thalberg famously said was necessary for movie stardom. She acts effortlessly with every cell of her body, from her toes to the top of her head, in large as well as minute actions, as when her small but telling gestures reveal the birth of her passion for Horatio when they meet for the first time at Wittenberg, and when, during the mousetrap play, which she hopes will cause Claudius to incriminate himself, her entire body is transformed into that of a snake slithering toward her guilty mother’s second husband as she observes him closely.

The script for Nielsen’s Hamlet is another thing. In order to employ Professor Vining’s oddball theory, the film begins the story at the birth of Hamlet while old king Hamlet is away at war fighting the Norwegians. Queen Gertrude receives news that he has been fatally wounded by Fortinbras’s father in battle just as she is giving birth, and, thinking that her husband is dead, she lies about the sex of her baby to reassure the kingdom that the royal succession is secure. When old Hamlet returns alive, they decide that they have to keep up the pretense. Like the utterly ridiculous narrative twists and turns in the recent film Anonymous, which willfully distorts much of English history in order to establish Edward de Vere as the person who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, this Hamlet blithely ignores Shakespeare’s narrative to turn its protagonist female. The result is a bad version of the “woman’s picture,” which is saved by Nielsen’s performance and the atonal score written for the 2011 release of this film; it works beautifully to cut the syrupy texture of this weepie and give it an ineffable kind of depth.

For some, the worst byproduct of the way that Hamlet’s femininity, and femininity in general, is blithely blamed for everything that goes wrong will be that this adaptation finds no use for the ghost of Hamlet’s father and omits him, which substantially diminishes Shakespeare’s masterpiece. In the script that has come down through the ages, the ghost destabilizes the action and locates Hamlet’s ambivalence and confusion in the indecipherability of the universe. Without him, Shakespeare’s play shrinks to a pattern of mere misunderstandings brought on by cross-dressing. Another byproduct of the ludicrous sex change of the melancholy Dane is an unintended humor in all too many scenes, for example in the scenes in which Polonious schemes to cure Hamlet of “his” madness by sending Ophelia to him. Gertrude’s strong opposition to Polonious’s plan knowing that it can’t work on her daughter plays as farce, though, of course, it isn’t supposed to. And Ophelia’s attempts to woo Hamlet have the archly comic force of the scenes between Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night, which is completely inappropriate here. Similarly, Horatio’s attraction to Ophelia, which leaves Hamlet steaming with jealousy, while “his” friend remains clueless about Hamlet’s mugging and seething, breathes the aroma of a Victor/Victoria schtick. But none of these can hold a candle to the obligatory moment of recognition when Horatio discovers Hamlet’s true nature, which, as it must, occurs after she is dead. Embracing Hamlet’s corpse, Horatio discovers her breasts, and the resulting expression on his face would not have been out of place in a Marx Brothers movie. Thankfully the passionate, intense, newly minted atonal score undercuts the burlesque nature of this moment.

It must have been a delicious irony to Nielsen, who had to combat the prevalent sexism of the time to become and remain a success, that a Danish woman was able to play the most famous Danish man in history as a princess in disguise. But it is unfortunate that the film had to be presented as a corrective to previous performance history instead of as a variation on an old theme. A “suggested by” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, plus a new title and minus the baggage of Edward Vining’s perverse literary analysis, would have made this a more viable film, inflected by its own blend of comedy and tragedy instead of a travesty of a recognized masterpiece.

Martha P. Nochimson, an Associate Editor of Cineaste, is the author of five books, including Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (2007) andThe Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997). She has just published World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2