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part of a small rebellion | 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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  • Oh, this is my faaaavorite episode. I’ve watched it at least a dozen times. It gave me a moment of squee to see this headline pop up on the RSS, because I knew IMMEDIATELY which production you meant.

    “This place could use a shrub, or, hell, even a stick would cheer it up.”

  • MaSch

    Well, translating Shakespeare into German for a German production intended for a German audience, how dare they?

    Well, on the other hand, they probably took an already existing version, like Schlegel’s, and used that. And on the third hand, German translation of the Bard tend to be … often harder to understand than the original text. Oh, the last is true for the non-Nazi German native speaker who writes these lines here.

    So, using a German translation of Shakespeare for a German production intended for a German audience, how dare they?

  • MaryAnn

    Gee, I dunno: It seems to be that Shakespeare loses much of the point if it’s translated.

  • MaSch

    I guess that’s why you read Goethe in the original …
    Oh, so you *don’t* read Goethe?
    Well, can’t really blame you for that.

    You have a point that Shakespeare loses much of the point when translated, and I tend to take your side when arguing with a director who did Macbeth at our university theatre, but he had a point that it is better to have translated Shakespeare than none at all.

    But you forgive the Shakespeare translators every subtlety they could not get through to another language when you remember the sins of the translators of movies and television. And the people who choose the German movie titles. Oh, the horror, the horror!

    And now, I will discontinue this dissertation.

    Sincerely yours,

  • Jigsy Q.

    Ech. That’s actually one of my least favorite MST3k episodes. That and MST3k: The Movie.

  • Oh, so you *don’t* read Goethe?
    Well, can’t really blame you for that.

    Hey, now!

    Let’s not go picking on Goethe now. I found The Sorrows of Young Werther to be more enertaining than some modern romance novels I can mention and Faust, of course, is a classic. (Though given the way MaryAnn feels about the Gretchen question, I’m not sure she’d agree.)

    As for Shakespeare in German, I’ve read enough literature in translation–Homer, Cervantes, Dante, Tolstoy, etc.–to believe the problem is more similar to the way Verdi doesn’t quite sound right in English than the usual “those darn translators never get it right” problem.

    But, hey, to each his own–as long as you don’t pick on Goethe again…

  • MaSch

    Tonio, but picking on Goethe can be *such* fun. Especially when supported by arguments, which my comment was not.

    The point with translating Shakespeare (and the other classics) is that often there is no way for a translator to get it right: Much of the language of “Troilus and Cressid” circles around the word “true”, in both meanings. There is no German words which has both these same meanings; a translation of passages where the meaning shifts from one to the other needs a lot of linguistic contrivance in a translation.

    Of course, these are things one only realizes when comparing the original to the translation, at least when the translation is good. Sometimes, when watching an English movie dubbed in German, I have to guess what they said in the English original to make sense of dialogue. This indicates bad translations.

  • Poly in London

    am from Greece and have been living in England for 10 years. It is a provilige to be fluent in two languages and no translation can do justice to the original, even in lesser works than Shakespeare. But it is unavoidable, otherwise most people’s access to world literature and drama would be very limited. It’s a compromise and the hope is that you get a good translation.

    But translating Shakespeare to german and then translating back to english is truly perverse.
    Also, dubbing: I hate it. In Greece, all films and television programmes (except some soaps and some children’s shows) are subtitled, not dubbed. I learned english that way. Even if I had to rely on the translation to understand, you get the sound of the language, which in something like Shakespeare can make all the difference.

  • Jan Willem

    Actually, one of the so-called “sins of the translators of movies and television” is that they need to omit and condense as well as translate, or else the screen would fill up with four or five lines of text or the subtitles would fly by at lightning speed. So subtitle translations are invariably a compromise and you sometimes sacrifice literalness in the interest of reading speed. People who speak the language and can read the subtitles are uniquely equipped to spot such discrepancies and tend to call them mistakes. While I admit it’s possible to make crappy subtitle translations (and I’ve seen plenty, more on Dutch DVDs than on Dutch TV, though) this criticism is not always justified. And anyway, native speakers are not the audience for whom this aid to understanding the movie is designed.

  • MaSch

    Ahh, I get something: MaryAnn, am I right in supposing that the English dialogue has not much resemblence to Shakespeare’s text? I thought they would use the original for the English version, but if it’s the translation of a translation … Yup, *very* weird.

    On the other hand, Jorge Luis Borges (who also had highly critical views on dubbing, considering someone on screen with Greta Garbo’s body and someone else’s voice on par with the chimeira) had a tendency to “translate” passages of texts into shorter, more concise texts. I’ve read German translations of Borges’ Spanish translations of German texts, and I *see* some sense in it. Especially, since the original is given in the comments.

  • They can’t hide behind the translation. Akira Kurosawa produce brilliant versions of KING LEAR and MACBETH without using a word of Shakespearean dialogue. No pity for Max and his buddies!

  • Herb Metzler

    This reasoning is tortured: it is not “re-translated” back into English, dumkopf, it was a televised German production, dubbed into English with the original Shakespearean text (as adapted) for overseas distribution. The Germans have been notoriously proud of the Tieck-Schlegel translations that made them claim the Bard as one of their own; hence the boast, now often repeated as a joke “it is better in the original German.”

  • Oh! So never mind everything I wrote. I now see that this movie is awesome!

  • Danielm80

    It’s better in the original Klingon. Like the Bible.

  • Ray

    I thought that was Ricardo Montalban’s voice. Well, why not?

  • Flannery

    Hey guys………At least the German accent is close to a danish accent, where the story is supposed to be set.

    I am not against translated productions of Shakespeare, not if they are done right and carefully taken into mind. I think that this is a bad example of a badly dubbed movie, I think it can be well executed…besides, they always do translated productions of Shakespeare around the world nowadays.

    Am I the only one who finds Schell’s Hamlet to be sexy as shit? That soft spoken German accent and the brooding….rawr. And Branagh does have a similar accent to him in the 1996 version of Hamlet. And at least Branagh looks Scandinavian…………………………………Schell’s appearance is Laurence Olivier mixed with a young Timothy Dalton……….EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

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