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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

to be or not to be: Maximilian Schell as Hamlet

Not to be.

I’m easing myself into my Hamlet marathoning since it’s such a downer of a story — sheesh, what was with this Shakespeare dude, anyway? — so I’m starting with the only version of the tale of the crazy Danish prince to be sent up by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys: a 1961 version, Hamlet, Prinz von Dänemark, produced for German television. (It’s in the Volume 4 DVD set of MST3K, and the episode itself dates from 1999.) As always, thank god for Mike and the bots, because this is a take on Hamlet that could otherwise be construed as cruel and unusual punishment. Only modern snarking could get anyone through this deadly dull interpretation.
Weirdly, whoever conceived this production thought it would be a good idea to translate the Bard’s language into German… and then it’s been translated back again for this dubbed version (Ricardo Montalban does the dubbed voice of Claudius! really!). Yet it still has an oddly Germanic posture to it, as if it were all about a planned Nazi invasion of Elsinore. And the Nazis weren’t exactly known for their sensitivity in the realm of drama, never mind in the real world.

And so that must be why Maximilian Schell’s Hamlet makes other Hamlets — well-conceived Hamlets, I mean — look positively happy-go-lucky. He shuffles around, moping and moaning and dishelved, looking a great deal like Ben Stiller in a humiliation comedy, after he’s been shat on and spat on and kicked around:

We could call it Meet the New Parents, Worse Than the Old Parents. (At one point, one of the bots snarks, as Hamlet and Claudius appear onscreen together, “You’re not my real dad!” *snort*)

Horatio looks like Norman Bates, and the Ghost looks like something out of Plan 9 From Outer Space:

But those are all just indications of this movie as a product of its time, and probably no more fairly made fun of than the hairdos of the day (not that that stops Mike and the bots). But what director in his right mind would have Hamlet deliver his to-be-or-not-to-be speech while staring facedown at a flight of stairs?

Alas, poor Yorick, bored to death by a brooding overgrown adolescent:

Boy, do I miss MST3K

[buy at Amazon]

[part of my “summer of David Tennant and ‘Hamlet’” series]

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