Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

50. Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode 1009 [Franz Peter Wirth’s Hamlet] (1999)

I am going to pause amidst my round of tempesting to honor an old episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, in honor of this show’s return.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode devoted to Franz Peter Wirth’s 1960 German television version of Hamlet is rather dreamlike. The sparse set filmed in black and white is reminiscent of the Olivier version, but feels more like some sort of generic old film reel of Hamlet. That the film is dubbed into English makes it seem otherworldly, like a 1960s kung fu flick (Attack of the Flying Bodkins, perhaps).

Some of the acting and voice-overs seem adequate if not good, which makes the generic nature of this Hamlet seem almost pleasant. (The voice-over for Claudius was performed by Ricardo Montalbán.) The problem is that the title part is played by a young Maximillian Schell. If the name sounds familiar, then think of Dr. Hans Reinhart from The Black Hole.

In Hamlet, Schell looks like an especially manic and greasy incarnation of Klaus Kinski, and my guess is that he was performing the voice-over himself, and the vowels sound like he is chewing on them.

I will confess, though, I really enjoyed Gertrude’s wig in a totally non-ironic way.

Obviously, this Hamlet could not be truly good to serve MST3K’s purposes. The premise of the program is that a janitor of The Gizmonic Institute has been installed in a satellite in outer space and is forced to undergo scientific experiments involving him watching B movies—mostly horror and science fiction. This experimentation has been made tolerable with robot companions, with whom the janitor jokes about said putrid movies in order to make the experience entertaining. On Mystery Science Theater, one watches the janitor and robots watch the movies.

As I have stated in my essay, “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Media Consciousness, and the Postmodern Allegory of the Captive Audience,” published a decade ago in The Journal of Film and Video, I prefer the episodes with Joel (the first janitor to undergo the experiment) to those featuring Mike (the second janitor). As MST3K episodes go, this Hamlet isn’t bad, and if Joel were the experiment subject of this one, there is no reason to expect that the media-conscious criticism would have necessarily been more acute.

One can see this meta-Hamlet as being in a continuum with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead and Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’s Strange Brew. Since this is a deeply truncated version of the play to fit the time constraints of MST3K, one disappointment is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (the two idiots, forced to be observers, rather like the janitor and robots) barely appear. As Claudius is addressing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Crow asks (as if the voice of Claudius) “which one of you is Squiggy again?”

Some of the jokes are high-minded, and others are delightfully low, kind of like Shakespeare himself. With such a generic Hamlet airing on The Satellite of Love, Shakespeare’s play is rendered doughy and the opposite of sacred, which is, on the whole, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.