Me, Claudius

I should explain. The prolific, restless and gifted Helmut Kautner’s DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN (THE REST IS SILENCE, 1957) is a modern-dress Hamlet in which Hardy Kruger plays the melancholy John H. Claudius, returned from the US to the Claudius Ironworks, now being run by his uncle who has married his mother and all that.

This might be my favourite movie Hamlet though I think the Olivier is smashing and that Russian one has some stunning effects. Some argue that Kurosawa’s THE BAD SLEEP WELL is based on Hamlet though if so it’s pretty loose in my opinion. (Haven’t seen HAMLET GOES BUSINESS or the big fat Branagh one.) This one departs in all sorts of ways, but only to sort of circle back. But it’s also up to various things that Shakespeare certainly never considered — the extraordinary thing is that it all works so well.

The movie looks at Nazi guilt — John H.’s father was pushed into supporting Hitler, while John himself spent the war in America. He’s been away for years and his father’s been dead for years and he’s never laid eyes on Fee (Ophelia — Ingrid Andree) since she was a baby, so that’s all quite different from the play.

Pohl (Polonius) is a smart old fellow, and quite likeable, which is also a change. It turns out to be quite an appealing one.

Laertes is called Herbert here, which seems only fair. (The only character in the play with no quotable lines.)

Claudius (well, technically they’re practically all called Claudius, but you know the one I mean) is Peter Van Eyck. Pairing him with Hardy Kruger is genius. Watched with a big grin. I love those guys.

Oh, and Rosenkrantz is now Mike Krantz, progressive ballet choreographer and coded gay (well, it’s not really code if you can make it out just by squinting), brought in to distract John Hamlet Claudius from his vengeful conniving. But this character is also compounded with the Player King so JHC can stage a ballet (entitled “The Mousetrap”) to catch the conscience of the managing director.

It doesn’t begin with a ghost. I was worried we wouldn’t have a ghost. It’s Christmas, we must have a ghost.

Another departure — JHC tells Horatio (he’s just called Horatio, why mess up a good thing?) that his father phoned him — after death. (Just like Ida Lupino’s deaddad — honest, I’m not making it up, I don’t think.) And we get a helpful silent flashback showing this. So, there’s a ghost! There’s a ghost on the phone!

Kautner, like his Hamlet, had just got back from the US, but unlike him, he had been directing Sandra Dee pictures. Really good ones! A bit of his Universal experience seems to have rubbed off when Kruger goes for a drunken drive in his tiny convertible and it’s all a bit WRITTEN ON THE WIND.

Kautner’s style is magnificently all over the shop. A mix of classical and jazz. Lap dissolves AND crash zooms. Expressionist-noir lighting and angles, plus an almost documentary look to the location work (it’s a GREAT film for reinforced concrete and bombed-out buildings and smoking factories, things I now feel should feature in every Hamlet adaptation).

Fee/Ophelia is set up as mentally ill or at least vulnerable from the start, which helps her character, and Ingrid Andree is very touching.

And of course Hardy Kruger — the perfect Hamlet! Boyish and smart, a bit dangerous and cruel and neurotic, handsome but offbeat (TOO boyish).


Hamlet doesn’t ACT mad in this one — his behaviour is incongruous enough on its own to make sectioning him seem like sound strategy. So they plot to send him to the Highland Falls Nervensanatorium, Glasgow.

This is a terrific show, just when I needed one (you can have too much late Terence Young). OK, the climax is rushed and they have trouble getting the necessary number of deaths into a modern boardroom setting, but the fade-out — featuring two characters who are dead by this point in the play — is DEVASTATING — and I’ve never found Hamlet all that moving, I’m ashamed to say.

Yes, maybe Kautner’s ending is better than Shakespeare’s.

THE REST IS SILENCE stars Capt. Potsdorf; Hans-Dieter Mundt; Zouzou Kuckuck; Mackie Messer; Inspektor Richard “Dick” Martin; and Adolf Hitler as himself.

15 Responses to “Me, Claudius”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Ever try the Enzo Castellari Western known in the US as JOHNNY HAMLET?

  2. Nearly every filmed HAMLET I have seen has its moments. The Mel Gibson/Zefferelli has a magnificent ghost interlude with a profoundly sad Paul Scofield (Sam Shepard’s King-Ghost is also affecting in the 2000 Almereyda film). The Jacobi BBC Hamlet has my favorite Ros/Guild sequences thanks to Jonathan Hyde and Geoffrey Bateman (Claire Bloom is also excellent).
    But I didn’t know about the Kautner, which I will be happy to hunt down.

  3. Roger Allen Says:

    There’s a silent Hamlet with Asta Nielsen in which – for complicated reasons – Hamlet is a girl raised as a boy…

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    I believe this film is recently available on a rare film site and I know where you can find a copy of LA STORIA SPORCA DEL’WEST (The Dirty Story of the West”) or JOHNNY HAMLET with Gilbert Roland as “Horatio”.

  5. Let’s not forget Ulmer’s Hamlet, STRANGE ILLUSION.
    I must see more Kautner!

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, I believe he was the focus of a Swiss Film Festival retrospective a few years ago. His immediate post-war films are really interesting.

  7. I keep meaning to see more spag westerns and Johnny Hamlet would be high on the list.

    Haven’t seen Asta’s but I have a good copy… also a recording of Burton’s stage H.

    Scofield is great (I wish I liked his Lear better but it’s in thrall to a very limiting reading of the play).

    The Nicol Williamson/Tony Richardson is ace. More people should admit this.

    I think my public domain Strange Illusion was too depressing in pic quality to look at, though it seemed interesting. Love some Ulmer.

    All the Kautner I’ve seen has been between interesting, at the low end, and terrific at the high.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    When one of my noir bootleggers was around , I was able to acquire a lot of pre-1945 and post-1945 Kautner that was possible. The immediate post-war years in West Germany resulted in some very interesting film appearing before the move towards “mindless entertainment” beginning with BLACK FOREST GIRL. Please pm .e if you need some sources. I’ve already posted one to the Kautner film on your FB.

    I’ve only seen the Williamson HAMLET once but fully agree with you here.

  9. This looks interesting. The one Käutner film I’ve seen is Romanze in Moll (1943), which is magnificent. So much in his filmography looks tempting.

  10. I saw a few of his films in Bologna but there’s just so much there!

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    Definitely so. And wasn’t Laertes a right “herbert, a former Nazi who deserved his 8 years in Siberia – to (jack) Boot.

  12. Yes, Nazi-era gullt and the war’s legacy manifests throughout the story in all kinds of ways.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    Kautner also played the title role in Syberberg’s KARL MAY (1974), that also featured survivors of the Nazi era such as Lil Dagover, Reichliechenmadnchen (sic?) herself Kristina Soderbaum widow of Veit Harlan, as well as an actor playing Young Adolf! I saw his LUDWIG (1955) on b/w on BBC TV decades before (with Klaus Kinski as Mad Prince Otto) but had to wait until two years ago to see it in its beautiful original Technicolour version.

  14. He turns up in this one as a drunk in a pub.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: