Girl Interrupted: Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet

What an extraordinary film.  Asta Nielsen rocks…

22nd February, 2011, Berwick Saul Building: Judith Buchanan, of the University of York, gave a graduate seminar on this 1920 German silent film adaptation of Hamlet starring the Danish actress Asta Nielsen accompanied by Michael Riessler’s 2007 score.

Judith started by thinking about the ‘paradox’ of a silent Hamlet/Hamlet.  After all, the play is, fundamentally, made up of spoken language, and explores spoken language: ‘it is concerned with private thought and public utterance, with acts of listening,’ and in terms of [performance or reception?] with privileging ‘the verbal over the gestural’.

Yet the play is full of these tensions between oppositions around speaking (Buchanan)

*encripting/laying bare

*linguistic revelation/willed suppression of language

*sustained voice/delay before speaking

and this tension between ‘linguistic expression/suppression’ is summed up in the dumb-show, the ‘aperitif’ to  The Mousetrap. 

Asta Nielsen mimed Ibsen at drama school, indicating that the transition to film in the silent era found her ‘organically in her own medium’. However, in her film, this tension between linguistic expression/suppression gets extended to gender and sexuality.

There had been a long tradition of female Hamlets preceding Asta Nielsen’s, the most famous being Sarah Bernhardt’s some twenty years earlier.  These female Hamlets emphasised the ‘sensitivity’ and ‘thoughtfulness’ associated with the ‘feminine’, as opposed to masculine action (see also the Arden 3 introduction). However, as far as I understand, Sarah Bernhardt was playing the Prince of Denmark as a man.  In this film, however, Hamlet is a girl recast as a boy by her mother, who disguises her daughter from birth in order to maintain the royal line.  Thus, Hamlet is imprisoned in a false identity.  This transformation has multiple repercussions, resulting in ‘ a remarkable and beautiful film (ie absolutely not a recording of a stage performance), […] an eyebrow-raising/interestingly re-gendered interpretation of the play and a significant landmark in the history of Hamlet performances’ (Buchanan, email 19th Feb, 2011).

These re-genderings are truly mind and gender-bending.  They significantly change the dynamics between characters, of course.  Thus, Hamlet’s literal, physical ‘brush off of Ophelia’ and his/her ‘tenderness for Horatio’, I would argue, reinstate a heteronormative reading of the play at the same time that it flirts with same-sex love through Ophelia’s and Horatio’s adoration of the ‘prince’.  Judith sees this transvesti performance itself in a context of  ‘a willed suppression of androgyny’ in a world where the ‘boyish flappers’ illustrated how the ‘social construction of gender was on the move’.

Judith also indicated how the use of Expressionist film sets, alongside Nielsen’s Hamlet’s minimalist black tunic, underscored the adaptations central themes and the relationship between the central character and the mise-en-scene.  For example, windows [and shadows cast by windows] ‘demarcated spaces’ as ‘circumscribed spaces’, underscoring Hamlet’s ‘fettered life’ and his/her emotional and political separation from the court.  Again, the casting of Hamlet as a woman ‘exaggerates the Hamletian situation’ .  We focussed on the image of Hamlet and Gertrude in the closet.  Gertrude and all the other characters are stage medieval in brocade tunics or conical hats.  Hamlet in her black clothing against the ornate backdrop of arras and chair appears to be ‘rubbed out’.

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet on Youtube:

Judith has spoken on silent Hamlets before (see my post for Hamlet without English from November 20, 2009), focussing on Forbes-Robertson and Ruggeri’s films.

Ideology shaped holes.


Romanian Flag, 1989.

Healy, Thomas. “Past and Present Shakespeares: Shakespearian Appropriations in Europe.” Shakespeare and National Culture. Ed. John J Joughin. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 206 – 232.

Thomas Healy’s article, “Past and Present Shakespeares”, explores the issues around contemporary localizations of Shakespeare’s culturally and historically specific texts, and the concept of a “universal” Shakespeare in relation to expressions of national identity.  He opens and closes with re-visionings of Shakespeare in post-Communist Eastern Europe: a Bulgarian Romeo and Juliet and a Croatian Titus Andronicus. The former, a near silent, experimental production, is celebrated as a critique of any attempt at nationalist hegemonic appropriations. Having been absorbed initially as a symbol of European resistance to Ottoman culture, Romeo and Juliet had a highly politicized reading in this Bulgarian context, and under its later Soviet influences.  Although Shakespeare was then “celebrated in the Soviet world as a heroic representative of the progressive historical will,” (Healy in Joughin, 1997: 208), it nonetheless continued to be read as a symbolic representation of “the struggle for national self-determination against a controlling power.” (207)   Quoting Bulgarian critic Boika Sokolova, both she and Healy liken the silence in the production to the symbolism of protestors in neighbouring Romania cutting a hole in their national flag during the 1989/1990 protests against the regime, the hole literally removing the symbol of the Communist Party:

“This largely silent production exemplified a past no longer complete, a future still undecided, and, most prominently, a present where known theories and structures for understanding known happenings were displaced, yet where nothing had confidently replaced them.” (208)

Healy explores the second production through an article by Croatian critic Janja Ciglar-Zanic, “Recruiting the Bard: onstage and offstage glimpses of recent Shakespeare productions in Croatia” and both production and article cause him considerably more unease as they transform the text, and understanding of the significance of texts by Shakespeare, “to address a contemporary Croatian political and social climate.” ( 223)  Healy is “disturb[ed]” that here, “this essay illustrates the dangers of the protean, placeless Shakespeare”, the very same protean, placeless Shakespeare that is fashionable in the world of Shakespeare conferences and festivals at the moment.  His concern is that Shakespeare “ is open to co-option to every history” (my emphasis,  223).  Ciglar-Zanic reportedly asserts that Central Europe is really Western Europe in “spiritual” terms; in other words, it is in opposition to the East, both Russian and Near Asian, including Serbia:

“what actually underlies Ciglar-Zanic’s argument, however, is a desire to have a Croatian use of Shakespeare seen as evidence of this country’s proper participation in ‘a common European cultural unity’, allowing this nation’s perspectives to be legitimised is being authentically European.” (224).

He goes on to argue that:

“Shakespeare is recruited by a specific national platform because it is hoped this gives European, or even universal, cultural approval to its politics: civilisation is on our side.” (224).

What is different in this Croatian example is that the “climate”, in which the former Yugoslavia descends into religious, cultural and ethnic “cleansing”, is much less palatable to Healy, and to most readers, than Romania’s rejection of Ceausescu’s vision, or Bulgaria’s identification with an ideology shaped hole at the centre of the psyche of former Eastern Europe (although I remember feeling sick at the execution of the Ceaucescus a week after their capture).

Other than its specific local details, what interests me here is, to what extent do we, as critics, stand back from the politics of our material?  How differently do we respond when Shakespeare is appropriated by the ‘wrong side’? Dobson addressed this in a lecture at the University of York when he explored British POW Shakespeare productions in German prison camps in WWII.  What about the ethics and politics of prisoners who put on The Merchant of Venice, with costumes and sets provided by their captors? Can we, with hindsight, view them as anything other than collaborators? (York, November 2009)

Returning to the Croatian appropriation, I wonder if Healy is arguing against the validity of any form of making Shakespeare our contemporary, because of the dangerous political uses to which his works can be put?    This isn’t expressed in the main text, but is there in the subtext.  He compares Ciglar-Zanic’s argument to the content of an article by Milan Kundera: ‘A Kidnapped West or culture bows out.”  According to Healy, Kundera identifies a spiritual geography thus: ‘the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West, opposing the Orthodox Slavs.” (Healy in Joughgin, 1997: 225)

“on the Eastern border of the West –  more than anywhere else –  Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilisation, an other civilisation.” (Kundera in Healy 225)

What bothers me about Healy’s argument isn’t that he disagrees with Ciglar-Zanic’s and Kundera’s standpoint, but that he rejects it out of hand as a “fatuous […] line of argument…” (Healy 225). Without compromising our own values, do we not need to try to understand the contexts of such attempts to redefine national identity, even whilst rejecting, in the case of Croatia, the emerging politics? I suppose that for me, it’s not the rightness or wrongness of appropriations that interest me in the context of my PhD.  I don’t feel great anger that “the Bard” is usurped.  This is because on the one hand that is allowing my liberal thinking to co-opt him to my own liberal agenda (which I confess I do as a teacher).  Communist societies in transition were alien and admittedly fascinating societies to me as a lefty teenager growing up during the Cold War.  So, on the other hand, looking at the politics of these alien societies through the lens of plays that are familiar to me from my own culture, gives me a way into trying to begin to understand the contexts of those very other experiences.

As usual, I have skipped down a side alley in my thinking.  However, how will I deal with the politics of a nation that is alien to me and presented in terms of an other civilisation by Western media and analysis?