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Danish silent movie-star Asta Nielsen formed her own production company to make this film, in which new elements are combined with features (and a few lines) familiar from Shakespeare's version of the legend. The most important of these changes sees Hamlet made into a female character - a princess forced to masquerade as a man by her scheming mother; from this follows Hamlet's secret passion for Horatio and rivalry with Ophelia for his love. Queen Gertrude is here presented as conspiring in her first husband's murder, and the old king's ghost does not appear - young Hamlet merely hears a voice from the tomb and (apparently) dreams of him. In addition, Hamlet now kills Claudius (in a fire) immediately upon returning from Norway with an army led by old school- friend Fortinbras, and it falls to Gertrude to engineer Hamlet's death in the fencing match as well as kill herself by accidentally drinking the poisoned wine. Written by
Mark Doran <email@example.com>
Hamlet (1921) is a German silent film directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall. It stars the famous Danish actress Asta Nielsen as Hamlet. The movie is available on YouTube in 14 segments, each roughly ten minutes long.
This film was assigned as part of an honors Shakespeare on Film course that I'm auditing at SUNY Geneseo. When we discussed the movie in class, the most common adjective used about it was "interesting." It's true that the plot of Hamlet is inherently interesting. However, in this context, "interesting" was applied to the movie because, in this case, "Prince" Hamlet is actually a woman, who has been raised since birth as a man.
Many women actors--both before and after Asta Nielsen--have played Hamlet. However, I've never seen a version of the play starring a woman who is, in fact, a woman in the plot.
This makes for some complications which are, indeed, "interesting." Hamlet, who is heterosexual, is in love with Horatio. She abuses Ophelia because she perceives Ophelia as her rival for Horatio's love. In the same way, almost every relationship in this Hamlet differs from the same relationship in Shakespeare's Hamlet. This movie is often called "Asta Nielsen's Hamlet," which is fair enough. It's definitely not Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Having said that, I still think that Asta Nielsen's Hamlet is worth watching. Nielsen herself was a great star in her day. Today, more than 90 years later, we perceive her acting style as melodramatic. However, the professor pointed out that, in her time, Nielsen was praised for bringing a more naturalistic acting style to the screen. The professor also pointed out that this Hamlet reflects the fact that it was made in the era of German Expressionism. If you look at single frames from the film, this point becomes clear, although I hadn't noticed it when I watched the movie.
This isn't a movie for everyone. However, if you're interested in Shakespeare and in Hamlet, and if you want to see a great silent actress at work, seek out this version, watch it, and draw your own conclusions.
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