Asta Nielsen and Fatma Girik's Hamlets: Old Mysteries, New Problems

Asta Nielsen (L) Fatma Girik (R)

Wherein Hamlet is no longer a neurotic male in princely guise but a woman invested with an identity crisis.

A Woman's Feigned Madness

The Female Hamlet -- perhaps because her gender is already inverted -- acts freely, much like a forthright '70s feminist.
In molding Shakespeare to Vining’s formula, Nielsen’s silent feature adds an explanatory prologue in which Gertrude collapses in despair after discovering her newborn child is a girl. “The crown is lost!” cries Gertrude in an intertitle. But her advisor has a devious plan: “Tell the people a male heir is born to the throne, and the people will believe it.” We fade into Hamlet fully grown, impersonated by Nielsen in a dark tunic and jet-black hair, her morbid bearing both tonally appropriate and gender neutral. Superficially, Nielsen’s tenebrous appearance might recall Conrad Veidt’s svelte somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose aesthetic influence had already spread by 1921. If expressionistic acting and décor intend to manifest and project interior states of being, we might be tempted to see in Nielsen’s gloom the heavy shadows of Romantic ennui. Despite Nielsen’s Caligarist facade, however, her performance owes little (if anything) to German expressionism. Her acting is subdued, graceful, and naturalistic (much unlike the ludicrous eye-bulging of Eduard von Winterstein’s Claudius), even if her silent, un-soliloquizing postures hardly express Hamlet’s layered angst.

Nielsen’s version also interposes intimate scenes that picture Hamlet and Horatio together studying at Wittenberg, evincing the implicit sexuality that, in Vining’s argument, underlies their relationship. They further transcend gentlemanly friendship when Horatio places his head in Hamlet’s lap as they lounge on the grass. As with most gender masquerades, we must wonder whether Horatio loves a male Hamlet homosexually or if he unconsciously “sees through” the disguise to love a female Hamlet heterosexually. In any case, it is through the male disguise that Horatio’s love for Hamlet arises, and when the “prince” is distraught over Gertrude’s treachery, s/he is comforted by Horatio in a manner generally reserved for heterosexual lovers.

The revisionist scenario also mandates a total alteration of Gertrude’s character and motivations. Because Gertrude is the engineer of Hamlet’s deception, Hamlet’s scorn for her takes on an entirely different meaning, while Hamlet’s femaleness obviously negates Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet’s neurosis. Needing to restore gender stability, the film’s climax ends the masquerade: when Hamlet is impaled in the final duel, Horatio rushes over and, in clasping her, discovers her covert bosom. Notably, there is no intertitle in which Horatio exclaims shock or reveals Hamlet’s secret; rather, Horatio kisses the mortally wounded Hamlet on the lips, presumably to the alarm of the lingering onlookers, who remain conveniently off-screen.

In Vining’s sexist paradigm, only a woman could be as neurotic as Hamlet seems to be. As a “genuine” man, Hamlet is unthinkable, but as a female man he becomes, as Vining says, “an exhibition of the deepest human feeling.” Nevertheless, Nielsen’s performance retains a shadow of neurosis, whether born of a gendered identity crisis or the filial duty she ideally would embrace were she in fact a man. On the surface level of action, Nielsen’s apparent subversion of impossible masculine ideals, like Hamlet’s contempt for contrived revenge plots, becomes moot. Her feigned gender, along with her feigned madness, must be finally revealed as a masquerade.

On the level of subtext, one could read the Nielsen-Vining argument more generously: the modern Hamlet-man, recognizing an ineluctable interior femininity, realizes the absurdity of Rousseauean striving, and it is this futility that becomes, in itself, tragic. But of course, any such reading, no matter how allegorical, still springs from the moldy, poisoned well of gender essentialism.

Fatma Girik as Hamlet (1976)

If a gender-inverted Hamlet cannot escape his bodily predicament, then a liberated Hamlet requires a new, non-Rousseauean body, one that mocks the usual binaries, even if does not transcend them. A differently imagined Hamlet arises in Turkish director Metin Erksan’s Female Hamlet (Kadin Hamlet, 1976), in which Hamlet is not a cross-dressed deceiver, but rather a murdered king’s daughter (albeit one outfitted in masculine garb, including a pinstriped suit and fat red tie that would make Al Capone blush). Erskan’s experimental, modern-dress production reduces Shakespeare’s prolix four hours to 86 minutes of expository and declarative statements and replaces tights, doublets, and cliff-sides with blue jeans, foxy '70s-era fashions, and beach parties. Though the film wanders into ludicrous camp, Fatma Girik, star of nearly 200 films since the mid-'50s, is a formidably charismatic distaff Hamlet, more attractive as a virile, resolute woman than Hamlet ever was as an effete, wavering man.

The film envisions Hamlet as single-minded, not vacillating, perhaps because Hamlet’s “femaleness” is now out of the bag, so to speak. To forestall any equation between the traditional Hamlet’s hesitations and this Hamlet’s biological femaleness, Girik employs a stylized and “masculine” delivery, with heavily falling syllables that create a thunderous impact. (Her performance is admittedly hard to judge, since the dialogue was seemingly looped in post-production -- but her visual magnetism remains.) A distaff Hamlet requires others among the dramatis personae to undergo a complementary conversion: Ophelia is now a dimwitted boyfriend, Orhan, who lacks money and whom Hamlet can no longer love, and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are now two female compatriots, Rezzan and Gul, with whom she frolics at the shore.

If “seeming-ness” and the vicissitudes of self-presentation are Hamlet’s traditional themes, Erkan’s film takes notions of performance to disarmingly blatant levels, either as a calculated strategy of deconstruction or through aesthetic clumsiness. To hammer home “performance” motifs, Girik stands in a field, sporting a mock-Beethoven haircut and conducting a magic orchestra of animated, player-less instruments before delivering, with flailing arms and bulging eyes, an abbreviated version of “to be or not to be”. (The scene perhaps implies her “orchestration” of the machinations to follow, but the metaphor is still rather on the nose.)

At every turn, Erksan’s avant-garde staging expresses (paradoxically) the theme of literality. While feigning madness, the female Hamlet appears in a fringed Roman helmet or in military regalia, blowing a bugle, to announce her warlike cause; she places herself, dressed in a prisoner’s striped uniform, voluntarily in an outdoor cage, acknowledging that she is a prisoner of both circumstance and genre itself; and she critiques a young child’s painting to nakedly declaim themes an audience would otherwise infer: “You only painted the visible… don’t look in from the outside, look out from the inside.” When not indulging in gratuitously skewed angles, director Erksan even has characters address the camera nearly directly (perhaps only ten or 20 degrees off-center), as if commonplace dialogues were slyly disclosed asides.

Sweeping away every Shakespearean ambiguity, the film’s “operatic” declamation reaches an apogee when Hamlet, trapped in the cage of her own making, answers a question from Rezzan and Gul. “Why do you hold yourself in this cell?” they ask. “To make lies truths,” she responds, as if even her feigned madness needed denuding. For all her talk about inverting reality, however, the Female Hamlet -- perhaps because her gender is already inverted -- acts freely, much like a forthright '70s feminist, accomplishing rather speedily what Toshiro Mifune’s Hamlet had distended into incompetence.

I’ve seen some commentators sloppily compare the experimental mise en scène of Female Hamlet to the spiel of Fernando Arrabal or Alejandro Jodorowsky, but Erksan’s film disavows their esotericism, metaphysics, and psychoanalytic pretensions, instead reducing the proceedings to low-budgeted, travestied pantomime. (Hamlet even sings a powder-faced vaudeville number before "The Murder of Ganzago"). The film treads a treacherously thin line between the avant-garde and the amateurish, and while Erskan’s declamatory style inhibits any unearned pretentiousness, much of the staging is hopelessly gauche, as if scholarly frat boys were putting on a pageant.

In his handling of the soundtrack, Erksin veers from clumsiness into perplexity, employing excerpts from Shostakovich’s pompous score for Kozinstev’s 1964 Hamlet, but elsewhere dipping into the nether regions of airheaded '70s-era disco. When Hamlet stops by the beach with Rezzan and Gul for a bikini-clad swim, “Get Up and Boogie” somehow infects the soundtrack, less as a Jarmanesque anachronism than as an insipid bemusement; and when Hamlet appears to the strains of "Fly, Robin, Fly", one desperately hopes the musical choice isn’t meant to be symbolic. Despite its veneer of chintz, however, the film is more or less Artaudian, rejecting metaphor in favor of concretism, reducing emotionality to puppet-like grimaces, and replacing human psychology with a colorful world of artificial, manipulable objects.

If the traditional Hamlet plays a youthful version of the Greek eiron (particularly in David Tenant’s incarnation), Socratically drawing out truths from unsuspecting dupes, Erskan makes the entire film ironic. Revisionist productions, especially those like Almereyda’s Hamlet, are meant to make Shakespeare “relatable”, as if it were the dress, and not the diction, that confounded later generations. But trudging through endless revisions, each more decorative than the last, only adds new crusts of myth and mystification to unpack, as overworked exercises of “relatability” become an academic chore in themselves.

Brandishing its chintz proudly -- almost as a weapon -- Female Hamlet reduces Hamlet to what it shouldn’t be, but still is: a pitiable revenge tragedy, as awkward, absurd, and ungainly as Dickens’ poor Wopsle makes it out to be. In his psychological deliria, Vining sought to “solve an old problem”, but merely compounded the mystification; abandoning the masks, Erksan finds a new solution in text, not subtext, in shameless exhibition rather than discreet camouflage.

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