Hamlet (1921)

  • Thur Sept 14
    Sage Chapel
Hamlet (1921)

live score performed by the Filmharmonia Duo (Michael Tsalka and Dennis James) and mezzo soprano Marija Bosnar
 Free admission
pre-show presentation on the score at 7:15

Sven Gade, Heinz Schall
Asta Nielsen, Mathilde Brandt, Eduard von Winterstein

The great Danish actress Asta Nielsen produced and starred in this silent version of Hamlet based on an 1881 book that argued Hamlet was a woman. A prologue shows Gertrude lying about the infant’s gender in order to secure Denmark’s crown for her child. On the continent, ‘Die Asta’ was the Garbo of her day and the film led Germany’s box office the year of its release.

There is a long tradition of women playing Hamlet, from Britain’s great Sarah Siddons in the 18th century, to American Charlotte Cushman in the 19th century (even more famed for her Romeo, her Hamlet rivaled that of Edwin Booth), to Sarah Bernhardt at the launch of the 20th century (also the first filmed Hamlet.) Contemporary women actors to essay the role include Frances de la Tour and Diane Venora. However, as Gary Morris writes in Bright Lights Film Journal, “Asta brings a subtle twist to her version [of Hamlet] not by playing a man, but by playing a woman disguised as a man, adding another level of gender complexity… At first the effect is more puzzling than effective, but the actress’s strategy becomes evident in sexually charged scenes between Asta/Hamlet and Horatio, who caress and coddle each other in what surely appeared to viewers of the time (as it does to modern audiences) as a gay tryst. Asta brilliantly imparts the gender-unstable nature of the character in these scenes with Horatio and others with Fortinbras, whose encounters with Hamlet are also clearly coded as gay. The actress’s effortless creation of these subtle, sympathetic homosexual tableaux gives a tremendous vitality to this production. The fact that the film was truly hers—being the first film she made with her own production company—shows just how daring and modern she was.”

The original color-tinting was restored in 2007 by the Deutsche Filminstitut (after the discovery of an original print), using supplementary footage from the French distribution version in the Centre National de la Cinématographie.

The Filmharmonia Duo was commissioned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC to create the score and its source music was selected from the compositions of the Sons of Bach (C.Ph.E., Joh.C. and Wm F.), making up an all-18th c. classical keyboard works compilation. The Filmharmonia Duo features international historical keyboard specialist Michael Tsalka on piano and harpsichord and Dennis James on organ. They will be joined by mezzo soprano Marija Bosnar.

The event is presented with the Dept. of Music and cosponsored by the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies.

New Digital Restoration
DVD color
1 hour 50 minutes
release year/country
1921 Germany