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.

2 thoughts on “Girl Interrupted: Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet

  1. Pingback: York International Shakespeare Festival Launch 2015 | Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

  2. Pingback: First Weekend of the First York International Shakespeare Festival: A Musical Interlude | Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

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