Sunday, 13 November 2011

Asta Nielsen is... Hamlet (1921)

A new version of Hamlet has just opened at London's Old Vic theatre which places the play in a lunatic asylum and tries to "re-imagine" (is there such a word?!) the main character in this new context.

Sounds challenging and with an apparently amazing star turn from Michael Sheen - must see it. But it's far from the first time a radical re-interpretation has been attempted for this play. Try this for an elevator pitch: Hamlet's actually a woman and all the twists and turns in this drawn out tale of revenge are down to her uncertainty about revealing her true gender! How very bold and modern yet it was all the more so in 1921.

Asta Nielsen was so successful by this point (she was known simply in Germany as Die Asta) that she formed her own film company, Art-Film GmbH, specifically to make this film. Such creative dynamism is reflected throughout the production (co-directed by Heinz Schall and Svend Gade) but is encapsulated by her performance. I've watched a number of her other films but Hamlet shows her at the peak of her powers presenting a naturalistic, believable "prince" at the heart of this daring enterprise.

The film starts by detailing the difficulties in understanding Hamlet's character and mentioning the work of Dr Edward Vining who suggested that the reason for this is that prince was actually a woman. Hamlet's father is nearly killed in battle and in desperation to maintain the bloodline, his queen tells the world that their new baby is male.

The story then weaves itself around the usual narrative in interesting ways with a good deal of subversive sexuality thrown in; Hamlet's appreciative glances at Horatio are priceless whilst for Ophelia... let's just say that it's no surprise she loses it. The drama remains intact though and the freshness of the approach doesn't get in the way of the tragedy that must happen (are you watching Tom Stoppard?!).

Acting Shakespeare in silence was an exceptionally difficult task, so much is about the words, and yet Asta manages to convey the depth of this story without the over-elaboration of many contemporary films and, indeed, some of the players around her. Her eyes are darkly-immense and her range of subtle expression is exceptional: she is in virtually every scene and it's hard to think of a silent film more reliant on a single dramatic player than this (Joan of Arc...).

Her movement is fluid, commanding and assured. Dressed mostly in black with a huge flowing cape, she is the physically dominant figure in the film. In this way she is totally convincing; deliberately avoiding the urge to butch it up and over-elaborate on the guy/girl thing.

I've seen a few Hamlets in my time (Derek Jacobi in the late 70's, Kenneth Branagh in the 90's stand out) and Der Asta stands comparison. It's comparing (adam's) apples with oranges but she's true to the spirit of the play.

I watched the excellent restoration DVD from Edition Filmmuseum which has a great new score composed by Michael Riessler. In addition to a welter of extras it also features the first reel of the sadly incomplete, Die Filmprimadonna from 1913. This film is about a successful actress who takes control of the film-making process. Seven years later Asta did. What a talent she was.

I bagged the last copy from the BFI shop (more on order) but the DVD is available direct from Edition Filmmuseum or through Amazons.

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