Hamlet (1921), NFT1, 27 January 2011
Asta Nielsen’s silent film version of Hamlet was based on a theory expounded by an American railway engineer called Edward P. Vining in a book published in 1881 entitled The Mystery of Hamlet.
The railway engineer turned Shakespeare-Truther had decided on the basis of the available evidence that Hamlet was in fact a woman, or at least that the author had come to think of him in those terms when writing the play. After all, Hamlet doesn’t like fighting much, he’s bitchy to (other) women and only has kind words for Horatio. It all made perfect sense, thought Vining:
The question may be asked, whether Shakespeare, having been compelled by the course and exigencies of the drama to gradually modify his original hero into a man with more and more of the feminine element, may not at last have had the thought dawn upon him that this womanly man might be in very deed a woman, desperately striving to fill a place for which she was by nature unfitted, and, in her failure to do that which it was impossible for her to do, earning an admiration and a pity which no mere weakling, dawdling about his proper task and meanly failing to achieve it, could inspire.
It is not claimed that any such thought was in our immortal poet’s mind when first he conceived and put the drama into shape: the evidence is strongly to the contrary. It is not even claimed that Shakespeare ever fully intended to represent Hamlet as indeed a woman. It is claimed that in the gradual evolution of the feminine element in Hamlet’s character the time arrived when it occurred to the dramatist that so might a woman act and feel, if educated from infancy to play a prince’s part, and that thereafter the changes in the character and in the play were all in the direction of a development of this idea. Very possibly the poet half juggled with himself in the matter.
Edward P. Vining. 1881. The Mystery of Hamlet, p.59. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
So far, so barmy.
Asta seized on this idea to create a re-imagined version of the story with herself in the lead role. She set up her own production company, Art Film, and enlisted Erwin Gepard to write the script as well as Svend Gade and Heinz Schall as directors.
The BFI screening of a recently restored colourised print of the film took place on the 90th anniversary of the original’s premiere in Berlin in 1921. A piano accompaniment by Neil Brand replaced the advertised musical arrangement by Claire Van Kampen.
Despite the flakiness of the original premise, the resulting product is a fascinating reinvention of the play that delivers a powerful dramatic payload. The novel twist to the story effectively counterbalances the loss of character depth that results from a silent film having no dialogue and, more importantly, no soliloquy.
The film’s German intertitles make no reference to Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet’s only ventures into verbal lyricism come in scenes with Gertrude, when she expresses her loathing at having to live disguised as a man. But this relates to the reworked plot of the story, not the original character of Hamlet.
Whereas the play feeds us with verbal clues to Hamlet’s character, his intelligence and wit both in dialogue and concept-laden soliloquy, a silent film can only lay out the basic story and show us gesture, posture and facial expression. None of these can really convey the same information as “To be or not to be” or “What a rogue and peasant slave am I”.
But this film hits upon a way of supplying depth of character. Hamlet’s inner conflict, the social pressures upon her and the cruelty of her family are constantly kept in mind through the simple device of seeing her female form dressed in male clothes and being compelled to act like a man. A prologue, set before main action of play, shows the origins of the deception and the beginnings of Hamlet’s discontent.
Her physical presence, a slight black-clad feminine figure from which emerges a pale white face, is a constant reminder that all is not well. This permanent visual metaphor of Hamlet’s divided self acts as an underlay to the murdered father storyline and saves this silent version of Hamlet from being a one-dimensional revenge drama featuring a moody brat with issues.
In short, Shakespeare had taken standard revenge tragedy and given it depth by making the protagonist multi-dimensional, with his character revealed by dialogue and soliloquy. A silent film version would tend to strip this out. Having Hamlet as a woman forced to live as a man reintroduces this complexity of character.
The great irony is that whereas Shakespeare’s Hamlet laments that like a very drab he must unpack his heart with words, this newly imagined female Hamlet does the very opposite of relying on verbal expression.
The other genuinely inspired feature of the reworking is that its girl-as-boy plot device is an eminently Shakespearean one. It is as if the literary DNA of Hamlet has been spliced with genetic material from Twelfth Night and As You Like It to create a hybrid.
But whereas Viola and Rosalind only have to endure their cross-dressing and frustrated desire for a comparatively short space of time, Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet carries the burden of an entire lifetime spent looking in the mirror and thinking “I am not what I am.”
The film consists of a prologue and six acts.
A battle between the Danish and Norwegian armies results in Fortinbras’ death and King Hamlet is seriously wounded. In Elsinore, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl. A messenger arrives from the battlefield with the grave news of the King’s mortal injuries.
The Queen worries about the succession. One of her ladies suggests that she pass off her daughter as a prince. The proclamation of the “prince’s” birth is duly made. Back on the battlefield, the Danish victory gives the King renewed strength. On his return, he is told of the deception and hopes that it all works out for the best.
Entitled “Prince Hamlet’s Youth”, the first act begins with the King and Queen in the garden of their palace (exterior shots were filmed at the Kaiserpfalz palace in Goslar, Lower Saxony). The look concerned at the young Hamlet sitting all alone.
We get our first view of Asta Nielsen: with her short but still feminine hair and short leg-revealing tunic, she does not immediately appear that androgynous. However, her disguise is assisted by the fact that all the men in the film have hair of similar length to hers.
She casually swats and kills a fly, which struck me as a possible King Lear reference: Gloucester’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport.”
The King decides to send Hamlet to university at Wittenberg as a way of cheering her up. She stands next to her father and talks to him.
Claudius arrives and Hamlet throws him a nervous glance. He sidles up to Gertrude and kisses her lasciviously on the hand. Hamlet sees this and decides to escort the King away. As she takes her father up the stairs, she casts several long suspicious looks down towards Claudius. Her suspicions are well-grounded, because as soon as Claudius and Gertrude are alone they canoodle.
The action moves directly to a lecture room at Wittenberg where Hamlet ends up sitting next to Horatio. She drops her pencil and they bang their heads together when both go to pick it up. They laugh it off and introduce themselves. Horatio says he is from Provence. Hamlet looks longingly at him and says how wonderful Provence must be.
Laertes occupies the room above Hamlet, as she discovers when she investigates the noise produced by him shouting at his servant. Realising they are both Danes, they shake hands and become friends. Some girls outside in the street call up to Laertes and he suggests to Hamlet that they both go out. Hamlet waves her hand dismissively at the idea but gives Laertes some money so that he can enjoy himself. She looks longingly out the window as the others go off to have fun. An intertitle provides a simple description of Hamlet: “Clipped wings”.
As part of her all-round education, young Hamlet attends a fencing class with Horatio and is introduced to Young Fortinbras. The Norwegian prince goes to shake Hamlet’s hand, but withdraws and pauses. He then changes his mind saying: “My father was killed by a Danish sword, but we want to be free from our father’s hatred”. They shake hands vigorously and toast each other. This sequence was filmed shortly after the end of the First World War and it is likely that this is a statement about international relations.
Back in Elsinore, Claudius is determined to seize the throne. In a tryst with Gertrude, he vows to destroy what stands between them. He ventures down into the murky castle dungeon and retrieves a snake from a pit.
We next see Hamlet engaged in merry pranks in the Wittenberg lecture hall. A scene of general uproar, with books scattered over the floor, is interrupted by a messenger who asks to see Prince Hamlet and gravely hands over a letter. Hamlet reads it and exclaims: “My father, dead!” and begins to faint. She clutches at her head, then her heart, and is supported by others including Horatio. She grasps the messenger by the hand and asks how it happened. The messenger tells Hamlet that the King died from a poisonous snake bite.
Unlike the King in the play, this King Hamlet is actually killed by a snake rather than the snake being a cover story for an aural poisoning.
An intertitle tells us that Claudius married Gertrude shortly after the King’s funeral. A big, riotous banquet is in progress with Claudius leading the drunken carousing. Polonius is supposed to crown him, but he snatches the crown from him and triumphantly crowns himself with all the grace of Frankenstein’s monster.
Horatio has followed Hamlet back to Elsinore out of friendship, and when they both arrive outside the castle dressed in funeral black they are told of the combined funeral wake/wedding reception underway inside.
A fantastic shot shows Hamlet sweeping into the hall with her long cape billowing behind her.
Claudius dispenses with the last vestiges of mourning as Gertrude throws off her black widow’s veil. When Hamlet sees this she is overcome with emotion. She confronts the pair and makes a large dismissive gesture with both arms. She runs out of the hall into the small room containing her father’s sarcophagus. Full of grief, Hamlet hugs it saying that she is the last person left in Denmark to mourn him.
In the banqueting hall Gertrude and Claudius continue to feast. One of the revellers has wine poured over his head: this is reminiscent of the gravedigger’s account of Yorick pouring a flagon of Rhenish over his head.
Horatio finds Hamlet. She tries to wave him away and collapses on the ground still clinging to her father’s final resting place.
Outside on a bright day, Hamlet meets the old man who found her father’s dead body. He tells her that he also found the snake and it looked to him like one of the poisonous snakes from the castle dungeon. Hamlet becomes very suspicious. She gives the old man some money and wanders off pensively.
She goes down into the dungeon and finds her uncle’s dagger on the lid of the snake pit. This shock revelation serves the same function here as the ghost visitation does in Shakespeare’s play. Taking the dagger outside, she sits down to mull things over. She hits upon the idea of pretending to be mad in order to follow up this clue.
Horatio comes up behind her and takes her by surprise. She tries to hide the dagger, but he questions her about it. Hamlet tells Horatio that he is to be the only person to know that her madness is a pretence.
The intertitles do not confirm her telling Horatio about her uncle and the dagger. However, Horatio does appear to ask more questions to which she responds by stopping his mouth, thus preventing further enquiries about the reason for her change in behaviour.
This is possibly because at this stage she does not have proof positive of her uncle’s guilt, only a suspicion that requires further testing. This exactly parallels Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s doubts as to the veracity of the ghost’s story. Both Hamlets are cautious enough to require additional proof before they proceed.
The next intertitle reads simply: “The ruse”. Hamlet sits at the top of some steps with a collection of objects laid out on a cloth, furiously whittling with a dagger. She seems to be absorbed in play like a child. People pass by and look on mockingly, but she greets them normally. She spies Claudius and raises an eyebrow as her ruse is put into effect.
At this and other moments in the film the effect of a single, sardonic eyebrow raise is achieved by having her hair strategically combed over her right eyebrow so that when both are raised it appears to the camera as if only her left eyebrow is arched.
She attracts the King’s attention and shows him a paper crown. “With skilful fingers a crown can easily disappear in Denmark,” she says cryptically. She covers it with her hand as if performing a conjuring trick and crushes the paper crown before discarding it. She gives Claudius a penetrating, knowing look.
Claudius tries to leave, but Hamlet reaches out and takes hold of his hand, pulling him back. She takes the dagger and begins whittling again. With one eye on Claudius, she brings the dagger ever closer to his gaze so that he can recognise it. An intertitle makes it clear that he has seen his dagger in Hamlet’s hand. The King withdraws in shock and Hamlet realises her hunch was correct.
Claudius finds Gertrude and tells her about the dagger. However, he says that because Hamlet is mad he does not have to fear her. Polonius is told of Hamlet’s condition. The chamberlain ponders for a moment and says that Hamlet should be made to think of other things. He asks whether he should give his beautiful daughter Ophelia a hint (presumably that Hamlet might be interested in her). The Queen shakes her head disapprovingly but the King nods heavily in agreement.
Ophelia sits at a window embroidering. She looks pretty in her white dress and plaited hair. Ophelia finds Hamlet on the steps and moves close. Hamlet reluctantly nuzzles her head on Ophelia’s shoulder but then slopes away dejectedly. Ophelia persists and touches the top of Hamlet’s head and runs her hand down the prince’s back. Hamlet grabs hold of Ophelia’s other hand and becomes angry, telling her to go away because she is “false like all the others”. This excuse appears to be Hamlet’s standard get-out for being single.
Ophelia sits alone and cries. Hamlet is alone too: she looks down from her room into the hall when the feasting continues. She clenches her fist in resolution and takes Claudius’ dagger. She runs to her father’s sarcophagus and holding the dagger aloft cries out to him to give her a sign that she should avenge him.
Polonius makes another attempt to see if Hamlet is interested in his daughter. Spying the prince walking towards them reading, the chamberlain gives instructions to a very reluctant Ophelia. Polonius hides just out of sight, but Hamlet spies him and decides to pretend to be interested in Ophelia. She leans nonchalantly against the balustrade and calls Ophelia’s name. Hamlet bites her bottom lip seductively and plays with Ophelia’s hair. Polonius nods approvingly as his plan seems to be working.
But then Hamlet just yawns and returns to her book. She holds it in front of her and walks slowly past Ophelia as if she is not there. Ophelia again looks dejected.
An intertitle tells us that the King distrusts Hamlet’s madness and calls in a doctor to examine her mental condition. The doctor and Polonius visit Hamlet in her room as she studies. The doctor feels her head in what looks like an attempt at phrenology. Her behaviour is scatty and distracted. When asked to show the things she has made, Hamlet beckons them with two crooked fingers. She proceeds to stick an object on the end of Polonius’ nose and one on top of his head. The doctor points at his own head as if to say “nutter”.
Hamlet says something to them which fails to make sense: “What the one lacks, the other has too much. Being clever has made his head too small”. This is an attempt at a version of Shakespeare’s hawk and handsaw line.
Hamlet puts a sharp needle on the seat and forces Polonius down onto it. He narrowly avoids injury. The pair withdraw hurriedly convinced of Hamlet’s madness.
We move from feigned madness to real torment in the next sequence as Hamlet and Horatio go for a walk and lie down on a grassy bank. Positioned just behind him, Hamlet is overcome with the desire to touch him but forces herself not to. The pain of her situation plays across her face.
She sees Polonius and Claudius and nudges Horatio to get up. Hamlet lies face down on the ground to convince the arrivals that she is still insane. She creeps along the ground to Claudius’ feet and clambers up the front of his cloak until she is eye to eye with him. She tells him: “Your good appearance, uncle, gives me hope that the heavy crown is not oppressing you at all”. Claudius pushes her to the ground and withdraws in fear. Hamlet and Horatio sit close together and discuss what they have just witnessed.
As Horatio and Hamlet are walking in the castle grounds they meet Ophelia. Horatio points at her excitedly. He is obviously smitten with Ophelia and asks Hamlet what she thinks, but she waves dismissively. An intertitle announces that Hamlet is “Entangled in a web of deceit”.
Hamlet stands alone and closes her eyes in emotional pain. She wants Horatio but cannot have him and now she risks losing him completely to Ophelia. She has a spark of inspiration and announces that she knows how to separate Ophelia from him.
Hamlet stands under Ophelia’s window and calls to her. Polonius brings his daughter down the steps and Hamlet’s mad act continues as she slaps the chamberlain’s face. She takes Ophelia by the hand and leads her away. Hamlet is very tactile towards her and kisses her fingers and arm.
Polonius tells Claudius that as ever he has given the King good advice, because Hamlet is now ardently in love with his daughter. This remark has echoes of the play’s Polonius who makes a similar assurance of his wise counsel in 2.2. He points to Hamlet canoodling with Ophelia in the shrubs.
Ophelia listens to Hamlet’s wooing, but when she tries to take things further Hamlet backs away and leaves her wanting more. As Ophelia sighs for her lover, Hamlet spies on her and looks satisfied at a job well done. By making Ophelia love her, she has now got Horatio all to herself. Once indoors, Hamlet grabs her chest to indicate the desire that burns within her and stretches her arms out in triumph saying: “Now, Horatio, you belong to me”.
An intertitle tells us that the thought of avenging her father is giving Hamlet no rest. She lies in bed having a restless dream. Her movements indicate that she is engaged in a confrontation. When she awakes she says that she has seen her father admonishing her, and asks for the strength to avenge him. There is a possible echo here of Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he says that he could be bounded in a nutshell and call himself a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.
She takes the dagger and goes to the royal apartments. The guards do not stop her; they jokingly refer to her as “the mad prince”. She enters with dagger drawn and spies inside a scene of debauchery that she finds shocking. She despairs, puts the dagger away, and departs.
She sits outside and tries to cut her wrist with the dagger, but cannot. She bewails the fact that she is too weak to kill and too weak to die herself. She throws the dagger on the ground in disgust and collapses.
The next sequence is a fairly accurate visualisation of the encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia that she recounts in 2.1 of the play. Hamlet walks despondently through the grounds. On meeting Ophelia she takes her by the hand, grabs her face and stares at it intently. Hamlet then curtly waves her away. Ophelia goes off and Hamlet remains, swaying slightly on her feet as if in great distress.
Ophelia finds Polonius and Horatio in the garden and tells her father how Hamlet hardly recognised her. Horatio comforts Ophelia. Hamlet catches up and sees Horatio and Ophelia together, and realises that her plot to separate them has failed.
Polonius finds Hamlet sitting at her desk writing a letter. Having finished it, she folds the paper into three and uses Polonius’ tongue to moisten the seal. Polonius takes the letter and bows obsequiously. Hamlet bows in return, but impatiently chases him away when he insists on repeatedly bowing.
Once outside Hamlet’s chamber, Polonius opens and reads the letter. But to his chagrin, it is full of mad ramblings and insults Ophelia by referring to her as a blockhead and as “beloved fat little worm”. The mention of a fat worm here could be an echo of Hamlet’s speech about worms being your only emperor for diet.
Polonius takes the letter to the King and Queen. The Queen looks particularly worried and goes to confront Hamlet, saying that her shenanigans risk divulging the secret of her true identity.
On hearing this criticism Hamlet goes into a fury and clutches at her breasts in passion. An intertitle gives us one of her only two self-revelatory speeches in the film: “I am not a man and am not allowed to be a woman! I’m a toy that hasn’t been given a heart!”
The Queen tells Hamlet that she did all this to save her father’s throne for her. Hamlet realises for apparently the first time that the scheme was her mother’s idea. In one of the moments where an ability to lip read German is an advantage, she says furiously: “So it was you who did this?” and chases her out of the room. Hamlet staggers around in confusion and despair.
The scriptwriter Erwin Gepard was familiar enough with Shakespeare to realise that moments of great passion and emotion are often followed with light-hearted comedy. We next see Hamlet walking in the castle cloisters. She spies Polonius coming and begins staring intently at the stonework as if reading from it. Shivering with cold, she insists that Polonius put on his hat, then seconds later demands the exact opposite indicating that she is feeling hot. This scene therefore transposes the Osric sequence from late in Shakespeare’s play and gives the Osric role to Polonius.
Hamlet goes into a fit of ecstasy when she sees a troupe of players arriving, but Polonius is very disparaging. He gives the guards instructions to bring in the “actor rabble”. Hamlet meets the players and seems to know them. Polonius shows the King and Queen the stage being built in the castle grounds for the performance. The Queen looks happy that something has finally lifted her daughter’s mood.
From this point forward the sequence of events in the film more closely resembles that of the play, as the key constituent elements are all in place for the denouement.
In one of the funniest sequences in the film, Hamlet offers her Advice to the Players. She invites one of them to demonstrate some acting. The player begins sawing the air and emoting. She points with her thumb, looks at Horatio and then mocks the player by mimicking his exaggerated gestures and hamming.
She points at her head and then at her heart. This seems to be the silent rendering of Shakespeare’s advice that actors should use temperance to give smoothness to the torrent, tempest and whirlwind of their passion. The player has another go at the speech following Hamlet’s tips and she nods approvingly.
Hamlet notices the large prop crown and is suddenly struck with an idea. She asks if the actors could stage a play if she told them what to do. When they agree, she whispers conspiratorially with Horatio.
On the day of the performance trumpets sound and the King and Queen enter in grand style to sit on their chairs of state in front of the stage. Hamlet makes sure to tell Horatio to watch the King to see how he reacts. Hamlet sits by Ophelia and nuzzles her head in her lap, which is something that the text alludes to without actually staging it.
Hamlet’s play shows a murderer killing the sleeping king with a snake. Horatio watches the real King intently while Hamlet slowly crawls over to him (one of the features or ‘points’ of many older stagings of Hamlet).
The King is disturbed by what he sees, but when the player queen is seen cavorting with the newly crowned murderer, both King and Queen look shocked. The King angrily calls a halt to the performance. Hamlet tells Horatio that she is now sure of the King’s guilt.
Wracked with guilt, the King retires to his chapel to pray. Outside Hamlet decides to pursue him, taking Horatio’s sword and running inside to find him. When she finds the King deep in prayer she holds the sword above him. However, she has second thoughts and decides not to kill him. Hamlet says that her revenge should strike him “more deeply”: this is a brave attempt at summarising in a compact intertitle the reasoning given by Shakespeare’s Hamlet for his hesitancy at this point. She slinks away.
Gertrude talks with Polonius in her chamber. Hearing Hamlet coming, she gets the chamberlain to hide behind an arras. Her daughter enters quite slowly and stands next the seated Queen. An intertitle provides the second of Hamlet’s self-revelatory comments, again in relation to her disguise: “Mother, you gave me life! But never before has a gift turned into such bitter pain!” Her mood here is one of quiet resignation rather than fury.
This soon changes when she notices movement behind the arras. She stabs at it with the sword, which she then notices is bloodied. Peering behind the arras she sees that she has killed Polonius. She shrugs apathetically and wanders away, leaving the Queen looking very agitated and fearful.
The King leaves the chapel and encounters Gertrude who tells him about the slaying of Polonius. He realises that it could have been him. The body is carried out by attendants. Ophelia comes running to see her dead father and hugs him. Horatio turns up and comforts Ophelia.
The King sits at his desk and tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to Norway safe and sound and return alone. He thereby drops a big, unsubtle hint about what will happen to the Hamlet when she arrives.
Horatio finds Hamlet in her room and she returns his sword to him. But then he starts crying and explains that he loves Ophelia and her mourning aggrieves him. This causes Hamlet to despair at losing Horatio again.
Claudius dispatches a messenger to fetch Hamlet. When she receives the King’s command to attend, Horatio tells her that whatever happens he will remain a friend.
The King tells Hamlet that she must take a message to Fortinbras. However, he does not give the letter to her but rather to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet looks at this very suspiciously. Once alone, the King sits back looking smug. Hamlet leaves Denmark the same day on horseback.
Grief over the death of her father has caused Ophelia to become deranged. She gathers wild flowers in the castle grounds and gives some to Gertrude.
An intertitle tells us that Claudius’ bad governance has made the people angry. A mob of peasants forms outside the castle. Laertes arrives and asks them what happened to his father. On hearing the reply, he draws his sword and enters the castle with the mob to depose the King. This supplies a neat representation of the implied offstage action in the play before Laertes’ arrival.
The guards repel most of the mob, but enough of them remain to help Laertes break down the door to the King’s offices. The aggrieved son tells the mob to stay behind as he confronts the King. An intertitle shows us Laertes’ question “Who slew my father?” But no title is shown (or needed by any audience) to spell out the King’s two-syllable reply, which is filmed in close-up: “Ham-let”.
Laertes swears vengeance and rushes out, soon finding Ophelia in the grounds. She seems not to recognise him and withdraws in fear. Clenching his fist in anger, Laertes curses Hamlet, blaming her for his sister’s condition.
Hamlet and his companions stop for the night taking their first rest on Norwegian soil. She looks suspiciously at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and feels at her neck as if sensing a danger to her life. She sleeps on a simple straw bed in a room next to that occupied by the other two. She overhears their conversation through the timber wall, but they quieten down when they realise she can hear them.
Hamlet sneaks into their room when they are asleep. She takes the letter from the satchel hanging above their beds and returns to her room. As she strikes two stones together to light a candle there is a sudden jump cut and the candle instantly becomes fully lit.
Hamlet sees the seal on the letter, but realises that the dagger bears the same crest, which emboldens her to break it open. The letter is presented on screen in two intertitles. The first shows the verbose opening, which is just as Hamlet describes to Horatio in the play; the second shows the bottom of the letter with the brief instruction for Hamlet’s execution. She clenches her fist and seems both shocked and steeled with resolution.
We briefly see Claudius back in Denmark, drinking a toast to dear Hamlet’s health.
Hamlet is struck by an idea. She uses the dagger to scratch off her name in the letter and rewrites it to refer to her two companions. She seals up the letter using the dagger’s crest and returns it to the satchel in the other room.
The next day they arrive at the Norwegian royal castle. Hamlet makes another impressive entrance in her sweeping cape. King Fortinbras recognises his old student friend, saying her name which we read from his lips without an intertitle. After Hamlet has offered her formal greeting, they embrace warmly.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kneel before the Norwegian King and deliver the letter. He reads it (bottom half shown again as intertitle) and looks at Hamlet in puzzlement. Hamlet shrugs her shoulders as if none the wiser. This gets the biggest laugh of the evening and deserves praise as a great moment of comedy. The King then orders that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be taken to the executioner’s block.
Hamlet bows smilingly at the terrified pair as they are led away. Fortinbras puts his arm around Hamlet as if to console her about the imminent death of her companions, but she indicates her lack of concern with a dismissive wave of the hand. This detail seems to convey the same disdain that Hamlet expresses to Horatio in the play when he tells him: “They are not near my conscience”.
An intertitle informs us that King Fortinbras has decided to help his friend and free Denmark from the criminal king. The army is assembled and they all set off for Denmark.
After a brief glimpse of the Norwegian forces heading for Norway, we see Ophelia gathering flowers by a willow growing aslant a brook. She cries out: “Are you calling me dearest? I’m coming, Hamlet, I’m coming!” and walks straight into the water. Horatio is sitting by the stream with his dog and notices something amiss. He finds Ophelia dead at the water’s edge. We see another brief glimpse of the Norwegian army, after which Horatio goes to fetch Laertes, who cries over his sister.
Hamlet goes on ahead of the Norwegian forces. This enables Fortinbras to arrive after the decisive final action of the story. Claudius is still partying with his followers, and when Hamlet arrives she soon finds his drinking den. She walks in on the festivities and the King cannot believe his eyes. He goes to leave but Hamlet threatens him with her sword. However, the mood soon changes when she says to him: “Don’t worry, uncle. Let’s have a funeral drink together.”
As the carousing continues, Hamlet throws most of her drink over her shoulder and only pretends to indulge. But she makes sure to ply Claudius with as much drink as possible.
This debauchery is followed by a very touching scene in which Laertes mourns over Ophelia’s dead body, drawing back her veil and giving her a tender kiss before covering her up again.
The next morning Hamlet awakes amid the sleeping revellers. She takes a torch and uses it to set light to the room. Claudius wakes up and tries to stop her, but she fights him off. She leaves and bars the door behind her. The King gradually chokes to death inside the smoke-filled room.
Horatio gloomily clutches a piece of Ophelia’s clothing. As Hamlet rushes past, he grabs her and explains that Ophelia is to be buried that night. Hamlet looks upset. When she sees the fuss Horatio is making of Ophelia’s garment she snatches it away and throws it to ground in a fit of jealousy. Horatio grabs at her and in pulling on her clothes almost exposes her chest. She hastily pulls her top together and they make up.
Hamlet and Horatio get to the graveyard before the funeral procession arrives. Horatio wants to remain at the graveside, but Hamlet drags him away and they observe at a distance. The coffin is lowered into the ground and the priest tells his attendants not to kneel as the church does not offer prayers for suicides. On hearing this Laertes rushes forward and harangues the priest. Horatio looks on and want to intervene, but Hamlet holds him back. This neatly reverses the play’s graveyard scene to have an entirely different character tackle Laertes.
Laertes strews flowers into the grave and overcome with emotion jumps in on top of the coffin. Unable to take anymore, Horatio breaks free from his companion’s grip. Hamlet catches up with him at the graveside, but when Laertes looks up at the pair it is naturally Hamlet he seizes. He drags her down into the grave to fight with his mortal enemy. Horatio manages to separate them, but Laertes demands satisfaction for the deaths of his father and sister by challenging Hamlet to a duel the next morning.
Claudius and his drinking mates are found dead. Gertrude mourns over his body and is discovered by Laertes who asks who has died. When he learns of the King’s death, he tells Gertrude about the duel. She tells Laertes that the duel should avenge them both and that she can help him to win.
This sequence of events makes Gertrude into Hamlet’s final nemesis and not Claudius. It is an interesting choice as it is not required by any of the other alterations to the story so far introduced. Making Gertrude into an avenging villainess creates an interesting symmetry between her and Hamlet.
The Norwegian army has now reached the outskirts of the city. We see Gertrude at prayer in her chamber when Laertes enters. He produces his sword and she pours poison onto its blade.
The duel takes place in the throne room. Once again shrouded in mourning black for a dead husband, Gertrude tells Laertes that if he does not manage to strike Hamlet, their foe will drink death at the Queen’s hands.
With Horatio acting as her second, Hamlet tries out various swords for weight. She appears nervous but fatalistic when he asks her how she feels. She says: “I’m not a coward, but dark premonitions oppress my heart”. This contrasts with the play’s emphasis on Hamlet’s trust in providence.
The duel begins at a sedate pace, while outside the Norwegian army enters the castle grounds.
Gertrude spikes a cup with poison and places it on a platter behind her. Hamlet dominates Laertes in the duel, which makes the Queen nervous. Resting after her partial victory, Hamlet is offered drink by Gertrude, but she declines and seems keen to get started again.
The duel resumes and a servant refills the two cups on the platter, managing to swap them round. Gertrude inadvertently takes a drink from the poisoned cup and realising her mistake cries out that she has poisoned herself. Distracted by her mother’s cry, Hamlet turns away from Laertes, who seizes his chance and delivers a fatal blow to Hamlet’s chest.
Horatio tries to help his friend by unbuttoning her top, but she pulls it back together, as even at this late stage Horatio has no idea that Hamlet is a woman. Tension mounts as we see more of the Norwegian army arriving at the castle.
Hamlet is laid down on the steps of the throne and dies in Horatio’s embrace. He closes her eyes, and this smoothing motion continues down her cheek and onto her chest, whereupon Horatio makes the remarkable discovery that Hamlet is a woman!
An intertitle shows us his reaction: “Only death betrayed your secret to me. Your heart of gold was that of a woman. Too late, my darling, too late!” He then kisses her and sobs over her dead body before covering her respectfully with her cape.
This remark is interesting for what it tells us of Horatio’s previous opinion of Hamlet. He was obviously touched by her virtue and clearly felt something for her, even in disguise, as he is now making an avowal of love to her.
Fortinbras enters with the Norwegian army and reacts in shock on seeing a dead body. The Norwegian King asks Horatio where to find Hamlet. He points mournfully at the body on the ground. Fortinbras kneels by her and says: “I wanted to help you to the throne, but your wings were broken on its very steps.”
He orders his men to carry Hamlet away. They bear her on their shoulders and she is carried out under an archway of spears.
The final shot is a close-up of her face. The rest is silence.
It is worth noting that Laertes seems to disappear from the story as soon as he has killed Hamlet and nothing is said about the succession of the crown. As this question is left open, there is the intriguing possibility that Laertes becomes King.
The film provides a startling demonstration of Asta Nielsen’s mastery of silent film acting. She could move an audience with her passionate portrayal of a tormented mind and then flip into an equally convincing display of quirky, physically agile comedy. At one moment she was a tragic heroine, the next a clown.
She deserves to rank among the all-time great Hamlets.
The film is remarkable not just for her performance but also for the intelligence and audacity of the reworking of the story.