In the internet age, it’s a marvel how something like Svend Gade and Heinze Schall’s 1921 silent Hamlet can be simultaneously ubiquitous and unheard of. The complete film is available on YouTube, making it probably the most instantly accessible film version of the play. Yet it’s not uncommon to see even detailed commentaries on the cinematic history of Hamlet that omit this film altogether.
That’s a shame, because this German production has a lot to offer, chiefly because of how utterly dissimilar it is to all the other film versions. Clocking in at 2 hours and 10 minutes (which seems quite long for a 1921 film, though brisk for Hamlet), this adaptation telegraphs its intentions to be different with its second title card: “Asta Nielsen als Prinz Hamlet.”
Nielsen was one of the first international film stars, and was so popular in her native Germany that she was known only as “Die Asta” (“The Asta”). Nielsen had an incredible life outside the silver screen — which included providing funds to assist persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany — but she is best remembered for her dark eyes, inscrutable face, and comparatively naturalistic acting style. Given her penchant for playing tragic figures, it was perhaps inevitable that she would try her hand at Hamlet — although I’m sure it didn’t seem obvious at the time, since Nielsen had to form her own production company to fund the film.
Unlike most cross-cast Hamlets, Nielsen’s Prince is born a Princess (“Ein Prinze fur Danemark?” “Nein! Es ist eine Prinzessin!”). The infant’s birth is shown, in fact, during a prologue scene that cross-cuts with some exciting footage of Hamlet Sr. smiting sledded Polacks on the ice. To avoid disappointing her husband, and to secure her child’s inheritance of the throne, Gertrude decides to lie about her infant’s gender to her husband; thus Hamlet becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Prince of Denmark.
None of the other characters deduce Hamlet’s sex until Horatio discovers the truth, somewhat indecorously, upon her death. But the film’s directors manage to explore the implications of a cross-gendered Hamlet none the less, particularly with respect to her relationships to Horatio (a smouldering, forbidden love) and Ophelia (a stolidly heterosexual disinterest). The whole notion of a female Hamlet was proposed in print by Edward P. Vining as a chauvinistic justification of the Prince’s inability to strike out vengefully against Claudius, but Nielsen does not come across as weaker or more passive than your average melancholy Dane. Instead, her performance is mysterious and magnetic, flirting with madness and tragic romance without committing too deeply to any particular mood.
The opening scenes I mentioned are merely the tip of the interpolation iceberg: a full 30 minutes of this Hamlet unfolds before we see a single moment that appears in Shakespeare’s play. Freed from the constraints of text, this silent film delves into key moments from Hamlet’s past: his youth, his family life (including Uncle Claudius, whose affair with Gertrude starts long before he usurps Hamlet Sr.), Hamlet’s budding friendship with Horatio at Wittenberg, her rivalry with Laertes, and a strong sequence in which she receives news of her father’s death and returns to Elsinore to find the castle turned to riot. At 30:35, Nielsen powerfully vituperates Claudius and Gertrude, using her whole body to express her disgust at the couple’s hasty nuptials.
Even once the film catches up to Shakespeare’s text, there are plenty of surprises. Most astonishingly, this is a Hamlet without a Ghost — except maybe in a dream sequence. Instead of being handed the truth via supernatural courier, Nielsen’s Hamlet ACTUALLY DOES SOME DETECTIVE WORK to prove that Claudius killed her father. During the early scenes, we get to see that Claudius’s regicide involves unleashing into the King’s garden an actual snake, which he carefully extracted from a mysterious snake pit in an inexplicable cave (my favourite title card: Die schlangengrube! — “The snake pit!”). Shortly after her return to Elsinore, Hamlet tracks the snake to its source, and finds that Claudius dropped his dagger near the entrance to the pit. It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes-level deduction, I’ll admit, but I found it thrilling to see Hamlet’s mind working productively towards her goal, rather than spinning its wheels in soliloquy after soliloquy.
Speaking of soliloquies, they are understandably relegated to the background in this silent film, but in another strong and significant choice, Nielsen seems to deliver “To be or not to be” directly to Horatio. I’ve read about onstage soliloquies delivered to Ophelia, but never to Horatio. With the romantic tension between Ham and Hor (heck, let’s just call it sexual tension — Nielsen is a famously sensual performer), it’s an exciting choice; I’m not sure it’s the right choice otherwise, but it does inspire me to look for other ways to bring Horatio closer into Hamlet’s confidence throughout the play.