Since the suppression, or even the regulation of language is tyranny, madness is a kind of freedom. A madman can say anything he wants. He can slip the bonds of court etiquette, political correctness, or suburban, middle-class restrictions against “talking about politics or religion,” and speak his mind while other people cower in fear or clam up like good Germans. Whether or not anybody listens to him is another question. To feign madness can be the act of a revolutionary. A man in full possession of his wits pretending to be out of his mind, whether he’s a poet or a fool, needs to have a better sense of what’s considered appropriate and what’s considered to be transgression than someone who never pretends to be anything but sane. King Lear’s fool spoke truth to power. Jesus was half crazy with rage when he kicked the money changers out of the temple. Can you imagine Arthur Rimbaud or William Burroughs saying as much as they did by writing a PHD thesis in sociology or a realistic novel?
When Hamlet returns to Elsinore after the murder of his father, he knows he’s walking into a potentially fatal trap. He’s next in line for the throne. His uncle Claudius, fortunately, doesn’t have any children, but that doesn’t mean a man who’s widely seen as a usurper wouldn’t consider his nephew, the rightful heir to the crown, a threat, and have him killed. There are spies everybody. Neither his lover Ophelia, the daughter of a fatuous court counselor, or even his own mother, especially his own mother, is trustworthy. A man like Claudius who murders his way to a throne certainly wouldn’t be above murder to consolidate his place on that throne. Even before he sees the ghost of his father, Hamlet has his suspicions. He’s faced with a choice. He can organize a coup, kill Claudius, and seize power, or he can end up locked up in, or, more likely, locked up in and strangled in one of Elsinor’s dungeons.
An Elizabethan Englishman would have understood that perfectly. A modern Englishman, or American, can be a bit more naive. Like Kay Corleone in The Godfather, he often labors under the illusion that “Presidents and Senators don’t have people killed.” Cinematic versions of Hamlet, therefore, such as the brilliant 1948 version by Lawrence Olivier, often dispense with politics altogether. They concentrate on family politics, forgetting that in Medieval Denmark, just like in The Godfather, politics are family politics. Sometimes, like Kenneth Branagh’s dull, messy 1996 film, they just get lost in Shakespeare’s cascade of words, unable to find a dramatic center among all the famous poetic tropes. Actors just wind up saying the words for the sake of saying the words, and the only thing that winds up being expressed is that some people are ACTING Shakespeare.
A Russian in 1964 wouldn’t have had that problem. He knew about purge trials, doctors plots, and secret police lurking around every corner in the Kremlin. Sergei Eisenstein’s brilliant Ivan the Terrible Part II — and Eisenstein was court poet to Stalin exactly the way Shakespeare was court poet to Elizabeth I — dramatized in shadow and light what Hamlet dramatized in words. So when I read on Dennis Grunes’ blog that there was a Russian version of Hamlet, the screenplay adapted by Boris Pasternak, that is fully the equal of, and perhaps even greater than Olivier’s 1948 film, I got a copy as soon as I could find one. My heart started to pound as soon as I heard the opening music, written by Shostakovitch — the man who wrote the Eighth Symphony that played in the streets of Leningrad during the long siege by the Nazis — but I was still a bit sceptical. The essence of William Shakespeare is language, more specifically, the English language. What’s more, as good as Pasternak’s translation probably is, I don’t speak Russian. So I’d have to read English subtitles of a Russian translation of a play from Elizabethan English. How much of Hamlet would actually be left?
Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet, which stars the Polish actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet, Mikhail Nazvanov as Claudius, Elza Radzina as Gertrude, Vladimir Erenberg, and Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Ophelia is a triumph that deserves to be better known in the United States. Had Kozintev’s just filmed a straight dramatization of Pasternak’s translation, he might have gotten lost in Shakespeare’s words just like Kenneth Branagh did. But he does more. Kozintev’s Hamlet is not just a translation of Shakespeare’s play into Russian. It’s a translation of Shakespeare’s play into light, shadow, music, geometry, into the language of cinema. At times it almost feels like Eisenstein’s poetic reconstruction of Stalinist terror wedded to Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, lingering camera work from Andrei Rubelev. Above all it’s a distinctly Russian take on Hamlet by people closer in spirit to Elizabethan England than anybody in the modern United Kingdom, Slavs rescuing an Anglo Saxon masterpiece from the Anglo Saxons, “cultural appropriation” in the best sense of the word.
The first thing you realize is that Kozintsev’s Hamlet is not an intimate, domestic, psychological Hamlet like Olivier’s. We aren’t introduced to the title character at his uncle’s and mother’s official wedding announcement, but riding into Elsinore along a beach. Northern Estonia fills in for Denmark. After Hamlet rides into the family fortress, a forbidding drawbridge over a deep mote is raised. We are now behind the Iron Curtain, cut off from the rest of the world. Suddenly it makes perfect sense when, later in the play, he asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why they’ve come to “prison.” Denmark is a prison. Canons are fired. Black flags, for the elder Hamlet, are draped over the ramparts. A herald, not King Claudius himself, announces the marriage. During Claudius’s early meetings with the Danish court genuine political business gets taken care of. They’re not just an excuse for Hamlet’s brooding. What’s more, we know we are at a royal court. Protocol counts. Ritual counts. Hierarchy counts. This is the seat of the Danish crown, not an upper-middle-class living room.
During Hamlet’s initial monologues, therefore, we are aware, not only of Hamlet’s isolation, but of the consequences of Hamlet’s isolation. “O God, God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” he thinks as he walks through a room full of haughty, scheming courtiers. They are thinking about power, money, self-preservation. He’s dwelling on his alienation. He has to get himself together quickly, or he’s doomed. What’s more, the Danish court seems like an oppressive place, for the Danish people, not just for Hamlet. This is a stylized, ritualistic set of Mandarins, not a boisterous democratic assembly. This is not Henry V’s Churchillian host amassed on the beaches of Normandy ready to do battle with the forces of evil. This is the twisted, repressed, secretive, secretively violently world of a tyrant. We are aware of, we dread the forces that lurk beneath the surface as much as Hamlet does. Something is waiting to spring out of the shadows, to consume the rotten state of Denmark.
In most productions of Hamlet, the elder Hamlet’s ghost is simply a messenger, the spirit that, “more in sorrow than in anger,” informs his son that he was murdered. Even in Olivier’s film, the ghost, while menacing, acts mainly as a Greek chorus. Not so in the play, where Horatio is justly concerned that the ghost could lure his friend to a precipice and so terrify him that he goes mad and jumps to his death. Try not to jump out of your skin when you see Kozintsev’s ghost for the first time. The music blares out. Hamlet, Horatio and their companions jump back in terror, the camera turns, and we see it, an enormous figure out of a nightmare, towering above Elsinore’s battlements, not only a messenger, but the return of the repressed soul of Denmark, the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
Dennis Grunes, in his otherwise positive review of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, expresses some disappointment that Olivier didn’t leave some ambiguity open about whether or not Claudius really murdered the elder Hamlet. Perhaps, he suggests, the ghost is merely a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, a demon who plays on his hatred of his uncle and his incestuous feelings for his mother to lure him to his destruction. In Kozintsev’s Hamlet, it really doesn’t matter. We are, once again, in the world of politics, not domestic politics. Claudius, whether he murdered the elder Hamlet or not, is still a usurper. He’s not the man to defend his kingdom from an invasion by Norway. His court is decrepit, old, ritualized, rotten. Denmark needs young Hamlet to organize a coup, remove Claudius, and release the repressed energy made so manifest in his father’s terrifying specter. Indeed, Kozintsev is so confident that in his reading of Shakespeare’s play that, after the players stage The Murder of Gonzago, and Claudius retreats to his study, the usurper confesses to the murder on camera, but Hamlet is nowhere to be seen. The famous “now I’ll do it pat, now he is praying” scene has been eliminated altogether. Innokenty Smoktunovsky’s Hamlet is a man of action, not a brooding melancholic. He goes right to his mother’s bedroom, brushing obsequious courtiers aside as he walks, and stabs Polonius, who he mistakenly believes to be Claudius, behind the heavy curtains.
That Kozintev is uninterested in the theme of incest is obvious by the actress he cast as Ophelia. Anastasiya Vertinskaya is a remarkably beautiful woman, not a sexed up tart like Kate Winslet in Branagh’s awful film. Branagh actually seems to take Polonius’ view, that Hamlet is just using Ophelia for sex. In Kozintev’s film, Ophelia is not a social inferior Hamlet is toying with as a sexual plaything. She looks more like a queen than Gertrude does. Kozintev’s Polonius isn’t as much of an obvious fool as he’s often played in English language versions of the play. He’s an obvious schemer. It’s clear that his “concern” over Hamlet’s attentions to his daughter is more a trumped up bit of drama he can use to get into King Claudius’ favor. He’s made his choice. He doesn’t see Hamlet as ever ascending the thrown — Or why wouldn’t he want his daughter to marry the next king? — but, rather, ending up strangled in one of Elsinore’s dungeons. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, therefore, makes perfect sense. It’s not just a semi-comical cockup. It’s the beginning of the coup that Hamlet has to organize if he wants to live. Unfortunately, it also destroys Ophelia, and any chance of an alliance with Laertes, a sympathetic, and forceful character Hamlet might have otherwise gotten on his side. Indeed, we can finally see what’s at stake when Claudius suborns the grief stricken young man to murder his nephew. Whether or not he murdered the elder Hamlet, Claudius is an evil, Machiavellian politician fully prepared to use his late counselor’s son to save his own skin.
If Konzintsev’s Hamlet has a weakness, at least compared to Olivier’s Hamlet, it’s the way he stages the fifth act. Perhaps it’s more of the logical outcome of the way he stages the first four acts than a weakness, but, in any case, Kozintsev’s Hamlet lacks the thrilling climax of Olivier’s. For the explosive, athletic Laurence Olivier, Act Five of Hamlet is the revolution, the moment when the man feigning madness throws off the cloak of his mental distress in order to overthrow the rotten monarchy in the state of Denmark. Olivier loudly forces himself onto Ophelia’s funeral procession. He’s an Olympic class fencer who choreographs one of the most thrilling duals in cinema. He’s undone, not through his own tragic flaw, which he’s now resolved, but through Claudius’ treachery. Before he dies, he leaps off a flight of stairs on top of his uncle, stabbing him repeatedly, a man who’s now decisively answered the question “to be or not to be” with “to be.” He wants to live but he’s dead. Innokenty Smoktunovsky’s Hamlet never quite makes it out of his brooding shell. He confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s grave, but never one ups his grief. I don’t even remember, for example, if Kontzinev even left the famous “should I eat a crocodile” monologue in the film. The final duel lacks the explosive grace of the 1948 film. Hamlet doesn’t so much overthrow Claudius as stand witness to the collapse of the Danish monarchy on the eve of a hostile takeover by Fortinbras and Norway. Claudius is sent to hell, but manages to drag the Danish crown down with him. Hamlet walks outside and looks at the sea. The camera lingers, Tarkovsky style. The landscape seems to overpower the dying king of Denmark. Has order been restored? We don’t know. A blight, Claudius, has been removed from Castle Elsinsore. Whether or not Fortinbras will prove any better is left to our imagination. But we suspect that he won’t.