Hamlet ’21 | Cinema Year One

Credit: Art-Film GmbH

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Cathy Brennan

This is an essay about two people. The first is an American railway worker and autodidact who had some ideas about Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy. The second is a Danish woman from a working class family who ended up becoming one of the first international stars of the screen. These two disparate figures would come together in a 1921 German adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a curious twist that it announces in a bombastic opening title crawl.

“Recently the American Professor Vining has given us a new interpretation. The key to Hamlet was, until now, a deep secret — Hamlet was really a woman!” The crawl is alluding to The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881), a book by that railway worker Edward P. Vining. The problem has to do with anxieties throughout the 19th century that Hamlet was really a manlet. Beginning in the late 18th century, performances of Hamlet started to emphasise the title character’s introspection over his role as an avenger. 19th century attitudes towards gender and the rise of sexology led to Hamlet being increasingly read as feminine. Vining’s book, with its thesis that Hamlet is really a woman, takes the Victorian era’s gender trouble with the Danish prince and makes it about sexual fact.

The resulting argument reveals more about Vining’s own sexism and homophobia than anything else. A significant part of his argument rests on the close relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Vining describes a speech Hamlet makes about Horatio as “characterised by a warmth of fondness and admiration far greater than is natural between friends of the same sex”. It’s safe to say that Vining had some bizarre ideas on the differences between men and women, in one instance claiming that Hamlet has “a woman’s daintiness and sensitiveness to the weather and to perfumes.” In a way, Vining is precursor to those angry guys who post online rants about feminism turning men into soy boys (Hamlet) and beta cucks (Horatio).

From what can be gleaned about Vining, he was a proficient baker of Hot Takes, following his book on Hamlet with a 787-page Orientalist tome about a fifth century Buddhist pilgrimage from Afghanistan to America (An Inglorious Columbus). Though comically outdated today, this take on Hamlet rippled out into the wider culture. Vining was even name-dropped in James Joyce’s Ulysses by the critic character John Engilton: “The bard’s countrymen are rather tired perhaps of our brilliancies of theorising. I hear that an actress played Hamlet for the fourhundredandeigth time last night in Dublin. Vining held the prince was a woman.” This is a reference to Millicent Bandmann-Palmer, who performed as Hamlet hundreds of times. International star Sarah Bernhardt first took to the stage as the Danish prince in 1899, and one of the earliest surviving filmed Shakespeare performances is a 1900 reel of Bernhardt performing the climactic duel scene. By 1921, when the Vining-inspired German film adaptation of Hamlet was released, having a woman play the title role was not in itself a revolutionary casting choice. What sets it apart is its notion that the character of Hamlet is a woman. 

The Danish actor Asta Nielsen plays the role of Hamlet in this adaptation. However, her interpretation of the character is not a carbon copy of Vining’s. Through her performance, she suggests a more complex understanding of gender. It is unlikely that she would have shared in Vining’s rather narrow perspective. Nielsen’s life would probably fly in the face of Vining’s conception of proper womanhood, having had a child out of wedlock at twenty-one while still working towards a career in the theatre. She was born to working-class parents in 1881. At that time in Denmark, campaigns for women’s rights had gained long-term momentum: women started being admitted to universities in 1875 and by 1915 were granted full suffrage. Nielsen’s first husband, and long-time collaborater, Urban Gad, was the son of the feminist writer Emma Gad. By the time of Hamlet’s production, Nielsen was an experienced performer nearing her forties. In fact, it was the first feature from her newly formed production company Art-Film. Given the social milieu she grew up in, the personal connections she would have cultivated, and the independence she had carved for herself as an artist, Nielsen’s relationship to Vining’s work is best understood as a point of departure rather than as absolute scripture.

It takes the film twenty minutes before it reaches the point where the action of the play starts. The film takes time to set up Hamlet’s circumstances. Her mother Gertrude gave birth while her father, old Hamlet, was wounded in battle against old Fortinbras, the King of Norway. Thinking her husband is on the verge of death, Gertrude is advised by her nurse to announce the baby girl as a boy to ensure the line of succession. After a miraculous recovery, the King returns to Gertrude by which time the baby’s gender has been announced to the people and so the royal couple agree to keep up the pretence. 

The patriarchal custom of male succession enforces itself onto Hamlet’s body from birth, circumscribing her life thenceforth. The film then goes on to depict Hamlet’s adolescence as the King and Queen send her off to study in Wittenberg. At this moment the film makes it explicit that Gertrude and Claudius are banging behind the King’s back. At Wittenberg, Hamlet meets Horatio, Laertes, and buries the hatchet with the young Fortinbras, the son of her father’s old adversary. 

The Wittenberg segment is important because it establishes Hamlet’s crush on Horatio. Crucially, it also shows that Hamlet’s angst predates her father’s death, opening up new avenues of inquiry into its source. Laertes is introduced as a perpetual student; a true ladiator who always gets the quad vods in. When Laertes goes out with a group of women (after borrowing money from his prince), Hamlet forlornly watches from their dormitory window. The intertitle “inhibited wings” speaks to Hamlet’s sense of isolation from her peers, a feeling that she is Different from the Others. That silent impulse to hide who she truly is from her peers is easy to read in terms of cis heteronormativity, those unspoken codes of existence so thoroughly drilled into us as children that it seems instinctual despite the uncertainties that may plague one’s mind.

When reading Vining’s book, it is easy to scoff at him from our vaunted 21st century perspective. His ideas about gendered characteristics seem so much a product of the 19th century to appear absurdly comical when they are dressed in scholarly vernacular. Given how the academic obsession with gender continues to rage among charlatans, perhaps one shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Nonetheless, Nielsen’s film represents the triumph of cinema over the written word as it makes Vining’s theoretical musings palatable, encouraging audiences to ponder their implications on a deeper, more personal level. Such a victory is down to the innate power of silent cinema as an expressive force, and Nielsen’s talent as an actor. Her Hamlet can hardly be called dainty. She is not a woman because of her love for Horatio, rather because of something within herself, a subjectivity that belongs to her alone. It is in the ambiguities of shadowy gestures that the audience may find liberation from the prescriptive hang-ups of an amateur scholar from the 19th century.

Writing for Sight & Sound in 1973, Danish essayist Elsa Gress described Nielsen as “the force that shaped the language of the new, raw film medium with her unique blend of intuitive spontaneity and documentary observation.” Norwegian writer Thomas Krag was equally vigorous in praising Nielsen, saying that “she tore a piece of quivering human flesh out and held it toward the light for all to see.” What both appraisals hint at in their mentions of “documentary observation” and “quivering human flesh” is Nielsen’s ability to root her art to human experience. Beneath the inherent artifice of life etched in celluloid must be the seed of something genuinely felt.

When Hamlet plots to reveal Claudius’ guilt, there is an exquisite moment that harks back to the earlier scene in Wittenberg where she gazes out the window. With palpable melancholy, Nielsen’s Hamlet peers down from a shadowy room at the bustling royal court below. Here, that feeling of alienation from the realm of male heterosexualtity is given a far deeper meaning. Thrust into manhood from birth but truly a woman, Hamlet is not only inhibited in her sexuality, she must also bear the weight of expectation from a whole kingdom, from a people who can never truly know her.

Nielsen’s androgynous performance evokes the cultural figure of the Neue Frau, later exemplified by Otto Dix’s portrait of journalist Sylvia von Harden in 1926. This pleasingly clashes with the other costuming and performance choices in the film. The clothing of Horatio and Claudius are more period appropriate compared to the modernism of Nielsen’s Hamlet. Horatio’s clothing is florid and poofy whereas she dons sleek, austere black garb, coming closer to Caligari’s somnambulist killer than a medieval prince. While the rest of the cast revel in grandiose gesticulations and contorted facial expressions that are more suited to the stage, Nielsen exhibits much more control in her movements. Through both her dress and acting, Nielsen is, much like that Hall & Oates song, out of touch and out of time.

The way the film layers these signs that Hamlet is alien to the world and the people that surround her, speaks to a thick knotting of binaries: men and women, stage and screen, history and the contemporary. Watching Nielsen’s Hamlet one hundred years later in the UK, there is a powerful kinship to be found in her performance, particularly in those moments when she gazes out the window at a world she can never be a part of. When so much of British media is dedicated to framing trans people in terms of an impending threat to children, women, humanity itself, it can easily instill despair.

The experiment in Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet yields fascinating results. It is a work onto which individuals can interface with their own socialised notions of gender. Reaching out to his dying friend, Horatio learns the truth about Hamlet by accidentally grabbing some tit. In sorrow he exclaims: “Only death betrays your secret! That you had the golden heart of a woman! Too late, to be lovers, too late!” Perhaps the true tragedy of this Hamlet is that Horatio didn’t get to nut in his best friend.