German, female and silent – a different take on Hamlet
Did you know that Hamlet in fact was a woman in disguise? The only reason that she was dressed like a guy was that her mother was taking measures to secure the succession of the throne. At least if we’re to believe a certain Dr Edward P Vining who in 1881 published the book “The Mystery of Hamlet”, where he presented his ideas.
This book is the source of inspiration for what probably is the oddest version of Hamlet I’ve seen in my entire life. Not only is Hamlet played by a woman (a Danish actress named Asta Nielsen, who was one of the first international movie stars). Hamlet is also German and doesn’t say a word since it’s a silent film.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m happy to have a film club in my city, which not only has access to an old fashioned, gently renovated theatre; they also show silent movies once in a while with live music to go with it. In a world of conformity, worldwide releases and box office records, it offers something different – the flavor of experiencing something exclusive, something not everyone else has access to or is able to enjoy.
You’re like people who frown at bag-in-box wine, importing their bottles directly from a special castle no one else has heard of. You’re like someone who won’t eat a bar of chocolate with less than that the cacao beans have a sort name and specified origin. It’s the very opposite of mass consumption.
Not taking this aspect into account, just looking at the film as such, I have to admit that it ended up with an average rating. For sure it’s interesting to watch the androgenic Asta Nielsen and the music was beautifully performed. But my interest dropped as time went by and the uncomfortable (though historically correct) seats started to have an impact on my bum. One hour would have been fine. Two hours and 13 minutes was a little too much of the goodness, regardless of how different it was to the films I usually watch.
Perhaps there is a truth in what the silent film fans who recently were guests at Ryan McNeil’s podcast In Between Days. Their recommendation for a beginner of silent film watching was to leave out the drama and go for the comedies, since they’re way more accessible. A 2 hour + Hamlet adaption might be something that mostly speaks to the more experienced hardcore fans.
My greatest enjoyment of the night turned out to be a short bonus film, The Film Primadonna. This film, or should I rather say fragment, consists of the 250 or so remaining meters of what once had been a full length feature film. The other 1500 meters have been lost on the way. Like Hamlet this film also stars Asta Nielsen, but here she plays a contemporary film star. So essentially this is a film about film making in 1913, and that’s what made it so interesting. You can read and learn every so much about the childhood of the movies or you can watch Hugo for that sake, but it feels more real when you watch a film set through the eyes of another film maker from a century ago.
Hamlet (Sven Gade, GE, 1921) My rating: 3/5
The Film Primadonna (Die Filmprimadonna, Urban Gad, GE, 1913) My rating: 4/5