Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 188
In 1921, Asta Nielsen, one of the world’s biggest movie stars, had just formed her own production company, and decided to open it up by playing Hamlet. Plenty of women had done that on the stage in the 19th century, but Nielsen’s performance had a twist. Inspired by a mysterious American’s quirky book, Nielsen decided to make a version of Hamlet where the lead character was born a woman, a fact that was kept secret from nearly all of the play’s characters for her entire life.
We talk about this film and Nielsen’s remarkable career with Pamela Hutchinson, a writer and film historian who recently curated the British Film Institute’s Asta Nielsen film festival about Nielsen’s Hamlet.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Pamela Hutchinson is a freelance writer, film historian, and curator. You can read her film writing in Sight & Sound, Criterion, and in The Guardian. She’s a regular on BBC radio. Her website, devoted to silent films, is Silent London. Visit the British Film Institute’s website for information about their recently concluded Asta Nielsen film festival.
Find Hamlet and more of Nielsen's films on the Danish Film Institute's website.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 12, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “What Woman Then?,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Ali Gavan at Brighton Road Recording Studios in South Downs National Park, West Sussex, England.
MICHAEL WITMORE: In 1921, the biggest female movie star in the world had just formed her own production company. For their first project, they decided they were going to tackle Shakespeare.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
When Americans think about female stars of the silent screen, we probably think of Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish. It’s fair to say that the name Asta Nielsen does not come up. That’s because, in the 1910s, her films were considered too sexy for American tastes. Most of them were banned outright. Or they were too hot for distributors to carry. In Europe though, and Asia and South America, no woman was a bigger star than this mesmerizing performer who could do comedy, melodrama, thrillers, and everything else.
At the height of her fame, Asta Nielsen decided she wanted to play Hamlet. Plenty of women had done that on the stage in the 19th century, but Nielsen’s performance had a twist. Working from a script based on a quirky book by a mysterious American, she decided to make a version of Hamlet where the lead character was born a woman, a fact that was kept secret from Ophelia, from Claudius, from Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern; basically everyone, for her entire life.
The British Film Institute has just wrapped up an Asta Nielsen retrospective. It was curated by film historian and writer Pamela Hutchinson who joins us to talk about Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet and the rest of her remarkable career. We call this podcast, “What Woman Then?” Pamela Hutchinson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: The filmmaker got this idea from a guy named Edward P. Vining. What was Vining's rationale for this theory that Hamlet was a woman?
PAMELA HUTCHINSON: Edward P. Vining's idea in his book, an attempt to solve an old problem, was that Hamlet must be a woman for three reasons, actually. One, because of his procrastination over avenging his father. Two, because of the way that he is so callous and dismissive towards Ophelia. Three, because of his close connection to Horatio.
BOGAEV: Oh, interesting. So, he had a number of preconceived ideas that he brought to this text. [LAUGHING]
HUTCHINSON: I always thought it was because Hamlet is funny, but it turns out that he had a slightly different idea of what a woman was, a Victorian idea.
BOGAEV: Well, now the version that I watched of him of this silent Hamlet started with a title that claimed that Vining was an eminent Shakespearean scholar. Was he?
HUTCHINSON: Well, he was a Shakespearean scholar. I guess once you get your name in the prologue of a major movie, then you're pretty eminent. He wasn't, maybe, what you'd think of as a Shakespearean scholar. Some versions of the prologue have down as a professor. That's definitely not true.
He worked on the railroads. He was a senior, very senior at the Union Pacific railroad, but he was an amateur scholar of things, including Shakespeare. He wrote a book about how Buddhist monks discovered America before anyone else. But the book that he wrote about Shakespeare came out in 1881. And five years later, Yale gave him an honorary degree, so, you know, he must been doing something right.
BOGAEV: I'm getting more and more intrigued by Edward P. Vining as you speak. Okay, there's a lot there. Buddhist monks founded America; that's one I haven't heard.
HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, maybe we should have all paid more attention the output of this eminent professor.
I think, you know, he's sort of a character that we can all identify. Someone who's got lots and lots of hobbyist interests, takes them all desperately seriously. You know, a lot of people have thoughts and not many people research and write a whole book about them, so he does get our respect in that regard. And he obviously knew an awful lot about the railroads that can't be denied.
So, I mean, in a way he's just a convenience, sort of peg for them to hang this film on. But I bet you, if you dig into his life story, he’s really fascinating. He's king of the nerds.
BOGAEV: So Asta Nielsen's producer or her director, I'm guessing, was maybe searching out or stumbled on this theory of Vining’s in order—so that Asta Nielsen could be a woman playing a man.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. At this point, Asta Nielsen is a massive star. She's one of the first, truly international film stars. By 1920, when she made this film, she'd been working in the cinema for 10 years.
So, she had her own in production company, and she was looking for ways that she could play the great roles and literature. She was interested in Strindberg, she was interested in Ibsen, but of course she was interested in Shakespeare. And if you're interested in Shakespeare and you're Danish— because Asta Nielsen was Danish—you have to play Hamlet.
She worked together with her screenwriter to try and find out how they could make this happen. They used Edward P. Vining’s theory and they used some historical references, and they came up with this story that is Hamlet, but not quite Hamlet.
BOGAEV: Right? You know, as wacky as it sounds that Hamlet is a woman, it does give this whole new spin on a lot of plot points. But first we should probably explain how the film sets up this idea of Hamlet being born female, and it happens in the prologue. There's a battle and there's a birth.
HUTCHINSON: Yes. Fortinbras and Hamlet are on the battlefield and it looks like Hamlet—old king Hamlet—has been mortally wounded. Around about the same time, as we crosscut, Gertrude is giving birth to a baby, the heir.
When she thinks that her husband might not make it, she doesn't want to leave Denmark without a king, without a claim to the throne. So, she makes the decision then and there to pretend that she's given birth to a boy, when really she's just given birth to a girl. This is where the terrible secret begins.
BOGAEV: A lot follows from this terrible secret. This fact that this poor little girl Hamlet has to live a lie, but it is interesting what it does, for instance, to Hamlet's relationship with his/her mother, Queen Gertrude. Tease that out for us, how Hamlet being born a girl informs the tension between them that is in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
HUTCHINSON: Obviously the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude is always fraught in any telling, but this is particularly special. Gertrude is now not just the woman who betrays Hamlet's father, but she's also the person who has inflicted this secret life upon her. Also, she's the only person that Hamlet can talk to about it.
You have these scenes with Hamlet and Gertrude in which Hamlet says things that are really, really painful. She says that “You gave me life, but that gave me such a bit of grief. That I am not a man, but I'm not allowed to be a woman. I'm like a toy who's not allowed to have a heart.”
In these scenes, you see that it's not just sort of matter of court expediency or some kind of Shakespearean-style crossdressing scene, but it's really about someone whose gender identity is a terrible burden to them.
And… I might never want to give everyone's spoilers for an obscure little story like Hamlet, that they might not know how it ends, but Claudius's involvement in the final scene is sort of usurped by Gertrude. It becomes, instead of it being this battle between him and his father or his new father—his stepfather—it is Hamlet versus Gertrude right to the end, really.
BOGAEV: Well. Yeah. And picking up on the trans aspect of this film, it's especially layered and interesting in the scenes of Horatio and Hamlet at Wittenberg. It's very much these boys being boys at college except Hamlet's not a boy, so why don't you describe the scene where Hamlet appears to be very much flirting with their friend Horatio.
HUTCHINSON: Well, when Hamlet first meets Horatio—and unless I misremember, I'm going to keep calling Hamlet “her,” because that helps me keep it straight in my head, if you know what I mean.
When Hamlet first meets Horatio, they have a classic kind of scholarly meet-cute. Two students sitting next to each other and Hamlet drops something on the floor and Horatio goes to pick it up. They bump heads and Hamlet tucks a little bit of hair behind her ear, and it looks like flirtation.
It's interesting because I see Hamlet is dressed as a boy, but Asta Nielsen was known to be one of the slenderest, thinnest film stars. Even her male clothes also accentuate her femaleness, because she's wearing this narrow tunic and these very tight tights all the time. You know, her face is small and delicate compared to Horatio, who's quite broad shouldered and who looks very manly.
So, they look like a couple. You'll see them later in the film lying on a grassy hill together. And if you didn't know, you would definitely think there were a couple.
BOGAEV: Yeah. It’s very romantic. And, you know, if you buy that Hamlet's in love with Horatio, it really does explain why Hamlet is just not that into Ophelia.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. I mean, yeah, exactly. He's not that into Ophelia. But Ophelia becomes incredibly important because wooing Ophelia is obviously some kind of mask, for, you know, Hamlet's true gender identity and his—her feelings towards Horatio. (See? I get it wrong.)
And also there's that thing because Horatio is in love with Ophelia. This becomes a kind of love triangle that they're in and really exemplifies the torment that Hamlet is in regarding her feelings towards Horatio. There's a point after Ophelia’s death, Horatio is holding onto Ophelia’s veil and it really just seemed to be this pointed symbol of, like, the fact that he's got this love and it's directed in the wrong direction. It's not directed at Hamlet. It's one of the moments when Hamlet comes closest to revealing her true gender identity, just with her clothes sort of falling open, and it's all sort of brought about by Ophelia.
BOGAEV: I feel a little bad for this Ophelia. They do paint her out in this movie to be dopey and kind of moony.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. It's not a great Ophelia, you know. I think Ophelia in the play obviously has these beautiful speeches and that's not something that comes out here. Even though you do see a little bit of her death, you know, so we open out in that way. It's not a good Ophelia
BOGAEV: Now, maybe this, it does suit the plot of this play, but do you think it has anything to do with who Asta Nielsen really was, as a prima donna or a diva? She's center stage in all of this. Ophelia just can't steal her thunder.
HUTCHINSON: I think you are a hundred percent right there Barbara. Actually, she was known as a diva because of the way she acted on screen, but also because of the way that she carried herself in the industry. You know, she broke into the industry and absolutely dominated it.
She just liked things done her own way. In this film, in particular, being made by her own production company, a big budget, you know, when she was in Berlin, it's was really exciting time and a really great time to be making films. She was calling the shots. If you look at her films, you'll very rarely see a second female lead.
Later in life, she made film where the second female lead was Greta Garbo, and Aston Nielsen was at pains to dismiss Greta Garbo performance in every way. So, you know, she didn't like sharing with another woman.
BOGAEV: Well, she does do such a star turn here with these scenes; that flip from her pretending to be a man, which is her public face, and then when you see her alone— and I'm thinking specifically, especially this one scene where she's in Wittenberg at college—and then you see her alone. She drops her act and she just shows this private female face and everything changes: her expressions, her body language, her posture. What do you think made her so effective in these gender switches?
HUTCHINSON: Well, one of the things I think is really interesting is that when Asta Nielsen is playing Prince Hamlet the man, you don't see her puff out her chest and pull back her shoulders and walks stiffly. She doesn't do any of the cliche things that a woman trying to act like a man might adopt.
Yet when she drops her androgynous act—rather than a masculine act— she's got an added femininity. Her face becomes a little bit more frail.
She uses her hands really well. She has very delicate and expressive hands. And I was noticing when I was looking at the film that she's got her nails pointed, not painted, but pointed. When she uses her hands, especially if she clutches at her chest or she's putting her face, you see this almost exaggerated, femininity and elegance within them. And as you absolutely say, she nails this gender transition absolutely.
BOGAEV: Yeah. She is really beautifully natural, and natural in responding to the actors around her. I know American bias, we think, “Lilian Gish created acting for the camera,” but other critics have said, “Oh no, Asta Nielsen really predates her.”
HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, I bow to no one in my love for Lilian Gish. I mean, you don't really need to argue over the details, but Asta Nielsen made her first film in 1910. And immediately people said, “Well, this is a new kind of acting.”
Her films were distributed in America, but not that much for various reasons. They were either too risqué or there was just a sort of bias against importing German or European films. I'm sure that if she'd have seen Lilian Gish she'd have noticed a few sort of kindred spirit things.
But because she came out with this splash when she made her first film, which really blew people away, because it was very sensitively acted, but also very scandalously risqué, I've got to say, with a very racy dance sequence. People immediately could see that this woman who'd spent all her career so far on the stage, knew how to slow down for the camera. Knew that you didn't need those broad gestural movements that characterized stage acting at the time, which you still see vestigially in silent film. She used small, small gestures.
Of course by the time that she's doing this, both her and Lillian Gish have learned that you can go it down to very, very tiny gestures and really make them work on screen. And make them pop, you know?
BOGAEV: Yeah. And I want to talk about that film in a moment, but I want to follow up on a few more small points about Hamlet. And one of them is something a film critic explored in terms of staging: how the scenery designers highlight Hamlet's gender. The way this critique described it is that, “There are male spaces where Nielsen acts male and there are neutral or female spaces where she acts female.” Can you unpack that for us?
HUTCHINSON: The sets are very deliberate. There was a sort of mode in German cinema that has sometimes been overstated, but there was just a merging at this time of German expressionism, which obviously comes from the stage, comes from architecture, and arts and all kinds of things, where set design is very obviously stylized and it's done in a way to represent what the characters are thinking.
So there's very formal architecture in the castle, for example, which frames Hamlet, so that when Hamlet arrives in court, they don't look like a princess. They look like the king, you know?
BOGAEV: Right. She's wearing a long cape and there's a grand hall.
HUTCHINSON: Oh yeah.
BOGAEV: Right. And she looks so strong.
HUTCHINSON: People have compared this to, sort of, Darth Vader/Kylo Ren kind of thing, she's wearing a long cape and she's perfectly framed by the arch so that she looks like she's making the grand entrance. When in a way she's—in this particular scene—she's coming home to mourn her father and she's sort of stumbling across her mother's wedding. It's not in any way a grand moment for her, but she has that grandeur because of the setting.
She's very often—yeah, as you say—in these very different spaces, either sitting at her books where she has people come and visit her, so she's sort of posing as a kind of scholar king. Or, you know, you'll see her in these softer spaces, like her mother's room.
She's very often on the edge of spaces, and photographed really well on the edge of spaces: sitting on a wall or the scene you were talking about earlier, where she's looking out the window, and she sees all these young women outside, who are very excited, possibly excited to see the prince. Then, inside, she has to interact with her fellow students who are all men and want to go out and see the pretty girls. She has to have a completely different way of talking when she's inside the walls of the university, obviously a male-only institution in those days.
BOGAEV: Of course, the costumes play a big role as the film goes on. Her costumes get skimpier and her tunic get tighter.
BOGAEV: As if the films preparing us for this final, big revelation, even though we know a lot. It is a little weird, though, to see Hamlet with breasts. I mean, we do from the start.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah, I mean, dramatic irony courtesy of the wardrobe department. Because her clothing is so tight and slim, even though it's male drag, it sort of invites you to see whether you could guess. She's got her hair bobbed, similar to a lot of the men actors.
But the attention paid to her legs, and the way she moves her legs around independently, is quite pointed because that's often the point of fixation on, like, seeing a woman in drag, is the fact that you can see that leg properly, because they're in trousers, at this time. I mean, you know...
BOGAEV: Shocking. Yeah.
HUTCHINSON: I know, but of course for modern audiences, I think it is the chest and the breasts that you're thinking, “Don't. Don't!” because the neck lines get looser or lower. She might wear something that might unbutton a little bit or just seeing the little bit of collarbone emphasizes her delicacy a bit.
There are a couple of moments where you think it's going to be exposed and a couple of moments where she draws attention to her physical shape when she's, you know, in secret with Gertrude.
BOGAEV: That's true. I want to walk that back. Actually.
BOGAEV: It's not weird. It's wonderful. I want to see women who are handling… that’s what I've always wanted.
BOGAEV: And many theatergoers too.
HUTCHINSON: But it's also wonderful. Yeah. It's just unusual because we're so often used to women playing Hamlet as a man here. Here, we are getting to see an actress who'd already been quite famous for cross-dressing roles actually saying, “No, no, no, this is the greatest role in literature. This is the big role for any actor and I'm going to take it on and I'm going to play as a woman.”
When you see her clutch her chest, when she's with Gertrude, it's reminding you that this is the story of a woman, which is the reason that Asta Nielsen, the diva, is going to play this part so well. So yeah, I completely agree with you.
BOGAEV: And I think we have to say there are also a lot of things missing from a normal Hamlet, which is kind of interesting. Maybe you could run them down for us… Like the ghost.
HUTCHINSON: Well, there's no ghost because we start with the battlefield. There's no ghost because, when Hamlet hears the voice of her father in a dream, it's just conveyed purely through Asta's acting and not through any kind of super-imposition or special effect, which would've been easily achievable at the time.
I do wonder whether a special effect might have been considered to sort of pull focus from Nielsen's performance. Nielsen absolutely prided herself in being able to convey the most complex idea through acting and without the titles.
Obviously the thing is, there're no words, which is obvious in a silent adaptation. But there's not quotation in the captions, in the intertitles where you might expect there to be. They'd been making silent Shakespeare adaptations for years at this point and were quite popular a genre. Quite often you get little illusions or direct quotations in the captions.
But in this film, not at all. It is almost quite overconfident the way they just think they can breeze past the dialogue, breeze pass the poetry, you know? The “To be, or not to be,” moment is quite literal, with Asta Nielsen pointing a dagger at her wrist.
BOGAEV: Yeah. Yeah. That's true. The other thing that's different is that Hamlet tells the audience—he, she, they—they're going to pretend to be insane as a strategy, and tells Horatio this.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Yeah. It's almost as if this is a Hamlet who needs to confide in people because she's got so many secrets.
HUTCHINSON: And I do think that... I've always sort of thought that—and I suppose I never really sort of put it into words—this is Hamlet, she's got so many secrets that she's going to confide in Horatio.
Obviously another example of how close she is with Horatio, how we have to keep remembering that—sometimes people sort of snigger when they see the two boys together, when they're watching this film. And fine, anyone's reaction is valid. That's totally fine. It's dramatic irony. But the film just wants us to remember that this is a true love bond.
BOGAEV: Yeah. At the end of the film, finally, Horatio figures out Hamlet's gender. He's literally the last person to figure this out. Describe how he does that.
HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, spoiler alert, Hamlet dies on the steps. It's because of Gertrude’s poison on the rapier. And Gertrude has drunk the poison, so she's all alone. The other person who knows the secret is dead. And Horatio clutches his dead friend and finds the breasts and his immediate reaction is, “Too late for us to be lovers.” This is really tragic.
BOGAEV: Yeah. Although unfortunately he has this oversized comic look on his face when this goes down.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, I struggle with this film sometimes because I love it so much because you know, it's Hamlet as a woman. It's Asta Nielsen's great performance. But there's so much about the tone that's quite odd. Partly because there are moments of comedy in the film, as there are in Hamlet. But particularly in this, that to modern eyes just doesn't really play out of the sort of moment of pathos that it should do.
I've never known it not get a laugh. To be honest, it is quite ridiculous to modern eyes. I think it maybe was taken a little bit more seriously at the time. I think people took it in more or sincerely, but yeah, it doesn't play beautifully.
BOGAEV: I don't know if Hamlet was the first film that Asta Nielsen made with her own production company. You said earlier that she got it because she made a big splash with her first film, but a lot of people make a big splash and they don't necessarily get their own film studio. How did it happen?
HUTCHINSON: No, you are completely correct. In 1910, fed up with not having any big success on the stage, she agrees to make a film. She makes The Abyss and it is an overnight success. It's an absolute smash. Everybody loves it. Her expression of female sexual desire drove audiences wild, wherever it wasn't banned. It was a hit.
BOGAEV: This is the one that has this amazing, sexy dance in it, in which she is dressed in cowboy clothes with a cowboy as a partner. And she has a lasso and she ropes him in and ties him up.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. She, she ties him up with a rope and she dances around him rubbing herself up and down his entire body, and one part of his body in particular.
BOGAEV: A lot of hip action for this era.
HUTCHINSON: Mm-hmm. A lot of hip action, her hips are incredible. And then she sort of pushes him to the ground and bites his neck. I mean, it's incredible.
She said two things about that scene. She said, one, that her partner couldn't dance, so she just had to dance around him [LAUGHTER] —I know, right? Perfect excuse. She also said that she didn't realize that films had censorship, and restrictions, so she just thought she could get away with anything. It's good to know that that was in her all along. You know, if you think that her wearing tight tights in Hamlet looks a bit risqué, it's nothing to how she started.
BOGAEV: Wow. Oh no. She's in like a circus costume. You see everything really.
BOGAEV: This was a big hit.
HUTCHINSON: She was working with a director and writer called Urban Gad on that film, who she would very soon marry. They were lured to the German film industry by a massive offer: huge amounts of money, build a whole studio, make a lot of films that are the all-star vehicles. Of course, she took it because she sort of said, “You know, the doors are opening for me all over Europe. This is fantastic.”
BOGAEV: Right. She made bank.
HUTCHINSON: She made a lot of bank and she made a name. She made a name in Germany, where they loved her. She was “die Asta” to them. But also because her films were being distributed all over Europe and a little bit in the U.S. as well, but all over the world: Australia, South America. She was this universally beloved figure. Famously, soldiers on both sides of the conflict had her pinup photo in their trenches.
It was a little bit depressing for the Danish film industry that was going through a good moment at that time, that their biggest star immediately left. But then she was settled in Germany, and it's 10 years of success and prestige and triumph in the German film ministry before she gets the chance to start her own production company.
BOGAEV: And she did that because she married a rich guy, right? She married someone else. She dumped—what was his name?
HUTCHINSON: Urban Gad.
BOGAEV: Urban Gad.
HUTCHINSON: Husband Number One, gone.
HUTCHINSON: Husband Number Two comes along, and he is a shipping magnate. His family owns shipping, so he's very wealthy. If you are a real fan of Asta Nielsen, you can see him co-starring in a couple of her films. A film called The Eskimo Baby.
It's his money that allows her to set up her production company. She calls that “three glorious years,” where she could do what she wanted. Of course, she meets a hunky young Ukrainian actor in a few years and therefore no more husband, no more production company, but it was fun while it lasted.
BOGAEV: Well, her bohemianism and her daring performances. I mean, it does make a sense when think of German expressionism at the time. Berlin was a center for film. This is the culture leading up to the bohemianism of the Wiemar Republic.
How bohemian was she in her private life? I mean, is there any indication that she was gender fluid? It's clear, she switched partners a lot, but what about her sexuality?
HUTCHINSON: You know what, it's really interesting because on stage gender fluid is exactly the word you would describe for her. But there's no suggestion that she was that way in her private life at all. She's very tight lipped in her autobiography. She mentions all of her husbands, but she never mentions that she was married to them or in a relationship with them, so she's not giving away anything about what she gets up to.
But it is clear that she constantly makes films that allow her to embody this modern woman that was this very shocking and much talked about type in German culture at this time: women in male spaces. Women who are in journalism, in politics, who were in businesses. Women who dress up as men to take advantage of their advantages in life.
Obviously there's the cross-dressing and the gender fluidity in the roles. And she was in charge of her entire career. She was, you know, living a life of, kind of, artistic freedom and artistic, sort of, almost, superiority in Berlin. She was spending time at all the right parties and soirees and salons with the intellectuals and artists at the time. There were pictures in magazines of her, in her gorgeous Berlin apartment. And she was always seen with the right people.
When she went on stage, as she did increasingly in the 1920s, that was a very serious business for her. She was very much her own creation, which you definitely see in the autobiography and the story she tells about her career. She was incredibly famous and she did have much more leeway than anyone else. But as far as, you know, her sex life goes, we can only assume that it was straight.
BOGAEV: Well, she was a real “It girl,” as you say. Later in her career, she was so big, she attracted Nazi fans.
BOGAEV: Goebbels apparently offered to give her a movie studio. How did she deal with that?
HUTCHINSON: Well, I mean, you know, so the Nazis take over the German film industry in the early ‘30s, obviously shortly after they get into power. It rapidly becomes a place where they say, “No Jewish people can work here,” and you have to sign up a certain amount of allegiance to the Nazi party to keep working there.
Goebbels obviously really believed in film as a medium for propaganda, or for just messaging, shall we say, so obviously, he approached many big German or German-based film stars and offered them these unparalleled careers of—you know, the kind of thing that Asta Nielsen had been offered in 1910—if they would make films in the German film ministry, in the Nazi film ministry. Nielsen was not having this.
She was invited to this tea party, sat next to Hitler and Goebbels, and in a version of her memoir, she writes that she stood up and gave them a piece of her mind. That they'd given her all these compliments saying that, you know, she could say more with one gesture than Hitler could say in a speech and all that kind of thing. And then she just turned them down. We know she did tell—
BOGAEV: Huh… I think…
BOGAEV: You must take this with a huge shaker of salt. I mean, if you stood up and told off Hitler that way.
HUTCHINSON: Do you know, if anyone could have had the nerve to, it would've been her. But I suspect she probably thought, “Really? No, no. And I heard you asked Pola Negri first. How dare you?” That kind of thing.
BOGAEV: I think she told off Hitler in her mind.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. She told off Hitler in her second draft of her memoirs. So, you know, it's a great story.
But, obviously, she did leave Germany soon after. During the war, she did her part to support Danish people who are interred concentration camps. There's no evidence to suggest that she was ever going to want to work for Hitler.
BOGAEV: Yeah. She showed more backbone than a lot of other stars, right?
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Now, turning to her legacy, because she didn't act so much after she left Germany. What do you think she brought to art of screen acting in this early era that was unique?
HUTCHINSON: What was unique about Asta Nielsen, I think was, almost as if she turned up to film with a fresh eye, but she also turned up to cinema with an intuitive idea of what it could become.
She didn't try to act like other movie actors. She looked at the camera, she looked at the setup and she said, “Right, I'm going to act slower. I'm going to act smaller.” And she worked and worked on all these micro gestures. She had this ability to make these small gestures mean, you know, one flutter of an eyelid to sort of maybe drop her shoulders a tiny bit. To use her hands and expressive way.
She saw that quite early on. It's almost like she preempted the close-up with the way that she acted, and yet she didn't stop working on it. Those early performances are magnificent, but the later performances are absolutely breathtaking.
I think that a lot of people saw her films and realized they had to change. They had to start thinking about acting for the screen in a whole different way.
BOGAEV: Hmm. What film do you send people to if they are unfamiliar with Asta Nielsen and want a good introduction to her? What film does her justice?
HUTCHINSON: The problem with Asta Nielsen is that not all the films are easy to see, which is why we were so pleased to be able to program the season of at the BFI Southbank in London, because people have only seen a few glimpses of her work.
Almost always I tell people to start with Hamlet, because it will arrest your attention and make you realize this woman is so, so unlike anyone else you've seen on the silent screen.
I often tell people to go for The Abyss, the first film. It's so widely available, and also because you can't ever forget seeing her in this. We talked about the dance scene, but the finale is pretty incredible.
But if I had my way, if I could just get someone into an archive, or I'll pray for Blu-ray release… There's a film of hers from the early twenties called The Decline, in which she plays a woman who waits and waits for her lover to get out jail. Her performance in that is devastatingly brilliant. That's the one I'd love everyone to see.
BOGAEV: And that is an amazing film to see. This has been just a wonderful conversation. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for coming on the podcast.
HUTCHINSON: Thank you for having me. It's always wonderful to talk about Asta and Hamlet.
WITMORE: Pamela Hutchinson is a freelance writer, film historian, and curator who’s been writing about Silent Shakespeare films since college. You can read her film writing in Sight & Sound, Criterion, and in the Guardian, and she’s a regular on BBC radio.
Her website, devoted to silent films, is Silentlondon, one word: silentlondon.co.uk. That’s Silentlondon.co.uk.
The British Film Institute’s Asta Nielsen festival has ended, but there are places you can go if you want to watch Hamlet and more of her films. The best place is the Danish Film Institute’s “stumfilm.dk.” That’s stumfilm.dk. Click on “English” then “Search” and type in “Asta Nielsen.”
You can also go to the British Film Institute’s website for information about their Asta Nielsen film festival. That’s bfi.org.uk. Some of the movies are also on YouTube, but not always with English intertitles. We’ll have all these links at our website, folger.edu.
Our podcast, “What Woman Then?,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Ali Gavan at Brighton Road Recording Studios in South Downs National Park, West Sussex, England.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. That really is the best way for people who don’t know about the podcast to learn about it.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.