Hamlet (1921)

HAMLET (1921)
Article 4143 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-30-2013
Directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall
Featuring Asta Nielsen, Paul Conradi, Mathilde Brandt
Country: Germany
What it is: Shakespeare… with a twist

Hamlet swears revenge on her uncle for the murder of her real father.

I’m surprised I haven’t covered more versions of “Hamlet” in my journey through the realms of fantastic cinema; after all, the story is driven by the appearance of a ghost. This is only my second encounter with the story (the first being DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN), and I’m amused to consider the similarities of these two productions, in that 1) they’re both from Germany, 2) neither version I saw was dubbed or subtitled into English, and 3) they’re both bizarre variant versions of the story. DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN was a modern-day update of the story, and this one starts with a mind-bending premise, which is that Hamlet was actually a female forced to impersonate a male for the good of Denmark, hence the presence of Asta Neilsen in the title role. Now the last time I saw Asta Neilsen was when I watched and reviewed ERDGEIST, where I made the somewhat unflattering comment that she looked to me like a female impersonator, and the fact that I’ve just finished watching a movie where she plays a male impersonator leaves me speechless on the subject.

Nevertheless, as jarring as the premise is, it works. In fact, it works better if you’re already familiar with the story (which, given the fact that the subtitles were all in German, was crucial in helping me understand it), because you can appreciate how this change plays havoc with the character relationships in the original story. Horatio is no longer just Hamlet’s friend; he’s the unrequited love in Hamlet’s life, and Horatio’s love for Ophelia creates one of the weirdest love triangles I’ve encountered in years. There’s other plot changes that really fascinate; the real villain of the piece turns out to be someone else, the character of Fortinbras ends up being more than just a plot device in the final act, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reduced to nameless ciphers, and neither Osric nor Yorick appear. Yet, for the purposes of this project, one unfortunate other change has been made; the ghost of Hamlet’s father does not appear; though Hamlet seems to hear his voice from his tomb and dreams about him, it’s hardly a substitute, and so like DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN, the driving fantastic content of the original story is missing, so all you’re left for the horror content is Hamlet’s feigned madness. You know, I’m bound to see a straightforward version of this one someday.

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