Hamlet / Die Filmprimadonna Review

In reality, Hamlet was a woman!

“In reality, Hamlet was a woman!”
The above quote comes at the end of the introductory titles to this 1921 version of Hamlet. An outlandish claim, no doubt, but one backed up with reference to Edward P. Vining and his book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Age-Old Problem. The theory is that Hamlet was disguised as a male upon birth in order to save the throne. As this film’s prologue lays out, Denmark is in battle with Norway and its King, father of the newborn Hamlet, has been mortally wounded. With no male heir it is decided that the child should be announced as a boy. However, once the news has been broken to the people of Denmark it also perks the King back to a full recovery. Thus Hamlet is destined to live her life, to quote her own words, “not a man, […] not allowed to be a woman.”

For all the back up of a Yale-educated professor, the real reason Hamlet is a woman is because Danish movie star Asta Nielsen wanted to play the role. The same year as Hamlet she also played Mata Hari, Miss Julie, Cleopatra and Lulu in a pre-Pabst adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Clearly she had a fondness for the big parts and so it was that Hamlet came about thanks to Nielsen setting up her own production company, Art-Film, with the sole aim of bringing a gender-twist take on the Shakespeare classic to the screen. And yet there’s an obvious contradiction at play here seeing as Nielsen’s Hamlet, owing to the character’s sex change, is never going to be the Hamlet of the original play. What we have is a variation on the part in which certain elements of the blueprint remain. Indeed, the same could be said of the film as a whole: the characters are mostly present – we find Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, and so on – and the general trajectory of events is pretty much identical, but this isn’t quite Shakespeare…

Bringing the Bard to the big screen during the silent era unavoidably meant leaving out an integral part. Indeed, this particular Hamlet’s intertitles don’t even bother to resort to the text or even offer up a pale imitation of the Shakespearean style. In 2000 the BFI issued a VHS entitled Silent Shakespeare which contained seven shorts made between 1899 and 1911. The collection was subsequently released onto DVD a few years later (in the US it was handled by Milestone) and it makes for a fascinating insight into pre-sound approaches to the playwright. The very first adaptation was of King John, specifically his death scene, though here the film isn’t so much about plot or narrative as it is about capturing distinguished stage actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree on camera; reportedly the intention was to use these brief minutes as a means of promoting the stage production. Subsequent shorts did focus on the stories, essentially being a collection of the key scenes with explanatory intertitles, a kind of Reduced Shakespeare Company before their time. Of course certain plays, such as The Tempest, allowed for some visual invention to be introduced too, thus further justifying their cinematic rendering.

The Asta Nielsen Hamlet manages to combine all three. The main draw, arguably, is Nielsen in the lead role, both then and now. The audiences of the 1920s were drawn to the biggest international dramatic film star of the time, and the same is true of viewers in 2011 albeit with a slight retrospective twist. We too take in the immense presence, but with a dash of intrigue as we try to understand her massive success at the time challenged only by the likes of Chaplin and Max Linder. The plot, meanwhile, is certainly secondary, doing away with a number of key scenes and all of the key speeches. The basic thrust is now that of a standard revenge tale, although the gender issues at play result in some newly introduced elements as Hamlet must hide her love for Horatio and feign affection for Ophelia. Their presence makes sense, in a fashion, as they do at least bulk out this stripped down take on the original text. They also fit in well with the visual emphasis of the film; after all, it’s easier to convey romantic entanglements without words than it is the play’s complexities.

This emphasis is evident from the opening scene, the aforementioned prologue of the King of Denmark in battle. Hamlet isn’t quite cast-of-thousands material, but this scene and others are certainly extras-heavy enough to sustain a suitable sense of the epic. As well as the background players we also get some terrific sets – the scene in which Claudius ventures towards a snake pit is teeming with baroque atmosphere – not to mention Nielsen herself. Her Hamlet comes with an angular androgyny that works really rather well, and she cuts a striking figure when donning her mourning cloak too. Indeed, there’s something instantly visual about her presence which instantly brings her to the fore. The other performers simply do not stand a chance; there’s nothing bad about them, yet it’s likely you’ll struggle to remember Heinz Stieda (Horatio) or anyone else once the film is over. Furthermore, Nielsen brings a certain modernity to the role, not simply because of the gender swap elements (this was arguably the ‘queerest’ Hamlet until Celestino Coronado’s 1976 adaptation) but also owing to her mannerisms. It’s a nuanced performance certainly, though not in the same league as the overtly gesturing actors of previous silent Shakespeares. She’s physical – every shrug and backslap seems heightened – but without the same sense of theatricality. It feels like cinema, as opposed to simply setting up the camera before a stage.

It’s also very good cinema. This Hamlet may be strange as Shakespeare, but it makes for both fascinating and terrific entertainment. Indeed, this strangeness is part of the appeal. Perhaps it doesn’t all quite cohere into a truly satisfying whole, yet the combination of Nielsen, the gender swapping, the unconventional adaptation, the visual qualities and the overall freshness as a piece of silent Shakespeare cannot help but make an impression. A few congratulatory words also have to be made for the soundtrack composed by Michael Riessler. Mixing electronica and instrumentation it initial broods beneath the images, only slowing revealing its intensity as the picture builds. It also goes off on some unexpected tangents, much like Hamlet itself, making for a wonderful melding of music and movie.


Hamlet was filmed with two cameras simultaneously as a means of satisfying the needs for the international market and Nielsen’s fanbase. The German version was the definitive one, making use of the superior camera angles, but remained lost until a print was discovered in 2005. Sadly the original negatives remain missing presumably destroyed, but this new print did reveal itself to be far superior to the US import print held by MoMA. For starters it contained the better camera angles, though just as important were the presence of the original intertitles (both re-designed and re-worded for the English-language market) and the fact that this newly discovered print was tinted rather than black and white as per the MoMA holdings. Needless to say, Edition Filmmuseum have made use of the German-language print.

Visually, Hamlet is very good. The detail is more than satisfactory and the tinting really does impress. Damage is, of course, still present, though rarely sustained and never to a truly distracting degree. (Knowing the circumstances of the film’s loss and re-discovery arguably places the viewer in a more accepting frame of mind.) The framing would appear to be correct and English-language subtitles are available to accompany the original German intertitles. The disc itself, encoded for all regions and in the PAL format, offers no issues. It utilises a DVD-9 with all of the special features housed on a second disc which helps with any potential problems relating to compression.

The soundtrack was recorded live at a performance given for the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. (We hear the applause over the end credits.) Some may debate the relative merits versus a studio recording, though there were no issues that I noticed. We get the choice of stereo and DD5.1 mixes, the latter expectedly proving to be the more atmospheric. Do be warned, however, that things start off quite gently only to build as the film progresses. In fact you may barely notice the score at all during the early passages.

The special features package is superb offering up a number of intriguing bits and pieces from the archives. The main addition – it even gets its name in the disc’s title – is Die Filmprimadonna, a 1913 Nielsen vehicle that only partially exists. Two fragments survive, one from an American source, the other Dutch, with a little bit of crossover between the two. Combined they contribute 278 metres worth of the 1429 metre original, comprising some scenes from the film’s first act (of four). Given the placement of the surviving material it’s difficult to enjoy Die Filmprimadonna as a piece of storytelling, rather it’s Nielsen’s performance that sparks interest, especially as it’s so different from the Hamlet she would play eight years later. Note that the quality isn’t always great (at times the image goes all Decasia on us) and that the intertitles and inserts are all in the English language as per their US source. The final titles, a special note to viewers, are particularly charming.

Elsewhere the disc offers up some of Nielsen’s home movies from the 1910s and the 1970s. The former are a mixture of staged moments and more relaxed instances, whilst the latter are in terrific shape and look just wonderful in colour. Interestingly Nielsen seems less than happy to be in the camera’s gaze – a far cry from the earlier footage. A number of featurettes are also present including a 30-minute comparison between the German-language Hamlet and its English-language import incarnation. (Fifteen sequences are played side-by-side to note the differences in angles, intertitles and editing rhythms.) The other two featurettes consist of Riessler discussing his composition and another of behind-the-scenes footage from the Berlin screening that also plays like a trailer despite its seven-minute length.

Finally, we have various bits and bobs from Hamlet’s production and promotion. Some of these appear in the form of on-disc galleries whilst others are available as DVD-ROM materials. Here we find posters, production stills, various advertisements, pieces of correspondence, notes on the restoration and more besides. Some of this material also relates to Die Filmprimadonna. The majority, though not all, is English-friendly and it’s all more than worthy of a good delve. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything that this set could add.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Dec 14, 2011

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