John Claudius, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, returns to his home in Germany after 20 years. As a young boy, he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Pittsburgh before World War II broke out. In his absence, his father built a financial empire with his munitions plant and became a respected member of the Nazi party. After Claudius senior was killed in a bombing raid, John’s mother Gertrud married Paul Claudius, the younger brother of her husband. The reason for John’s unexpected visit after 20 years is motivated by suspicions that his father was murdered by Paul and he is determined to learn the truth. Sound familiar? It should because The Rest is Silence (1959, German title: Der Rest ist Schweigen) is a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in a post-WW2 Germany.
Directed by Helmut Kautner, the film was criticized by many Shakespearean purists for taking liberties with the original storyline and characters in order to make a more contemporary version of the famous tragedy. Even more unforgivable was the fact that Kautner refrained from using or transposing any of the Bard’s famous dialogue for his rendition. Don’t expect to hear famous quotes like “To be or not to be, that is the question,” “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” or “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” As for the famous Hamlet soliloquies, the director reconfigures them as conversations between John and his friend, Major Horace (Rainer Penkert), a former German secret service member he met during time served in Korea and is now a European journalist. John’s inner thoughts and suspicions find a receptive sounding board in Horace (named Horatio in the original) and it helps expedite the essential details in a taut, satisfying manner.
Clearly Kautner had little interest in a slavishly faithful adaptation of the Shakespeare original. So he freely adapted bits and pieces of the famous play to create a timely morality tale about German guilt over their recent past. He also delves into the dark side of Germany’s economic miracle of the late fifties when the rich got richer and corporate and political corruption were on the rise. As a result, it is no surprise that the film was not a commercial success with German moviegoers.
Nevertheless, The Rest is Silence can still be accurately described as a tragedy and it is faithful to the spirit of Hamlet. It also works as a brooding film noir and is one of the most underrated German films made in the late 1950s. Kautner, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, took this oft-told tale and embellished his characters with traits and backgrounds that should have resonated with German audiences of that era. First of all, John (Hardy Kruger) is essentially an American and a stranger in his own homeland. As an outsider, he can’t fathom what led his father to become a loyal supporter of Hitler and the first half of The Rest is Silence unfolds like an undercover crime investigation as John analyzes documents, newspaper articles, audio tapes and newsreels about his father with the help of his friend Horace.
Some of Kautner’s alterations of certain key figures in Hamlet’s original cast of characters are particularly relevant for this modern retelling. In Shakespeare’s original Polonius was the elderly advisor to Claudius and Gertrude and he had a son, Laertes, and a daughter, Ophelia. In The Rest is Silence, Polonius is now Dr. von Pohl, a Freudian psychiatrist and valued family friend, known as “Uncle Max” (Rudolf Forster). Due to post-war financial problems, he is dependent on the generosity of Paul Claudius (Peter van Eyck) and Gertrud (Adelheid Seeck) and lives in their mansion with his children. Due to this arrangement, Uncle Max is also obligated to assist Paul in a plot to have John committed to a mental institution by reason of insanity. Max’s son – the Laertes character – is now Herbert (Heinz Drache), an embittered, former Nazi soldier who was captured and imprisoned in Siberia. His sister Fee (Ingrid Andree) is psychologically fragile like Ophelia in the original play but her childlike nature is emphasized by her doll collection and talent for raising orchids in her private hideaway, an abandoned greenhouse.
All of John’s family, friends and associates in The Rest of Silence are depicted as moving on with their lives with no desire to look back. Much like most Germans in the post-WW2 years, the general attitude was to get back to work and look toward the future. There was no point in dredging up an unpleasant past. Those who had been singled out, accused and reprimanded for being Nazi party leaders or supporters tried to divert the blame. They were just following orders, had no other recourse or didn’t really know what was going on. This general sense of collective amnesia and/or refusal to take any responsibility for what happened during the war epitomizes the moral decay and existential despair that underscores the narrative of Kautner’s film.
In one of the more original changes, Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have become Mike (Boy Gobert) and Stanley (Richard Allan), a gay couple who work together in the world of ballet. Mike is a former dancer turned director and Stanley is his musical collaborator and the “entertainment” they devise with John to expose the truth about his father’s death is one of the film’s visual highlights. Staged like some goth free-form jazz improvisation complete with machine gun and exploding bomb sound effects, the performance injects some avant-garde energy into the doom-ridden narrative. The sequence also works effectively as confirmation of John’s initial suspicions of his mother and stepfather and sets the stage for revenge.
The way in which Kautner reinterprets a crucial scene from the original Hamlet – the hero encounters his father’s ghost and learns of his murder – is also handled in a novel but unexpected manner. A flashback shows John having “an acoustic hallucination” in his room at Harvard. A phone call from his dead father wakes him from a nap and plants the seeds of suspicion. Did John dream it or did it really happen? And why did his father make him the sole beneficiary of his will instead of his mother? John does travel back to Germany for a request to sign over the family business to his stepfather but he has an ulterior motive. He wants to discover his father’s hidden safe because it contains a personal diary. After John retrieves it, he reads several entries that confirm his uncle Paul’s attempts to manipulate and undermine his father as well as evidence of Gertrud’s infidelity. Some of these passages are imaginatively dramatized in atmospheric vignettes including one where Paul almost pushes his brother to his death from the upper floor of a bombed-out factory.
[Spoiler alert] The biggest surprise of The Rest is Silence is Kautner’s departure from the original climax of Hamlet. Instead of the fateful confrontation that left all of the major characters dead from either stab wounds or poison, there is only one major fatality in this version. Paul attempts to shoot John during his fight with Herbert but Gertrud knocks the gun out of his hand. John retrieves it but is unable to kill his uncle due to his crippling aversion of taking a human life. Gertrud grabs the gun instead and empties it into her husband, which is truly a stand-up-and-applaud-moment for most viewers. Also, in the epilogue, Ophelia, now completely delusional, is taken away to a sanitorium, which is also a change from her original suicide by drowning.
The final shot of The Rest of Silence shows John walking slowly toward the deserted family steelworks amid a bleak industrial landscape. What does it all mean? Did exposing the truth provide some sort of catharsis for everyone? The reality is that the survivors are forever marked by the tragedy and permanently alienated from each other. According to one analysis of the movie by film scholar Douglas Lanier, “John’s pyrrhic victory reveals the difficulty with Kautner’s engagement with postwar guilt: he is unable to conceptualize what German society might look like after it has moved beyond silence and acknowledged fully its political past.”
Regardless of one’s interpretation of The Rest of Silence, it remains one of the most intriguing, non-traditional treatments of Hamlet on film. For his direction, Helmut Kautner was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and he also garnered a special mention at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. Unfortunately, this film was made when Kautner’s career was on the decline though he would continue to work in film and television for another 19 years (Black Gravel, a 1961 film noir, is one of his finest later efforts).
Kautner’s peak years were between 1948 and 1959 and his most famous, critically acclaimed films include the comic fantasy The Original Sin (1948), The Mistress (1952) with Hans Albers and Hildegard Knef, The Last Bridge (1954), a war drama which won the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the biopic Ludwig II (1955), for which Kautner earned a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, and The Captain from Kopenick (1956), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Although The Rest is Silence is largely forgotten today, it can now be seen as a precursor to the New German cinema of the late sixties and early seventies in its often ironic and pessimistic depiction of the German economic miracle which R.W. Fassbinder would tackle in his famous BRD trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola).
Seen today The Rest is Silence is notable for the excellent ensemble cast. The film marked an important turning point in the career of Hardy Kruger. With his blonde hair, blue eyes and handsome Nordic features, it was inevitable that Kruger would be cast in romantic comedies and adventure films like Liana, Jungle Goddess (1956), but he managed to avoid typecasting by pursuing more challenging roles. For a brief period, he dabbled in English language features that helped expand his range like The One That Got Away (1957), Roy Ward Baker’s WW2 drama, Joseph Losey’s melodrama Chance Meeting (1959) and Howard Hawks’ Hatari! (1962). But his major breakthrough was Sundays and Cybele (1962), in which he played a traumatized war veteran who befriends by a lonely little girl. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and brought Kruger international fame. He has since become a seasoned character actor contributing strong performance in films like The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Barry Lyndon (1975) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).
One of the most interesting aspects of Kruger’s performance in The Rest is Silence is the fact that his character mirrors some of the actor’s real-life beliefs and concerns. Hardy actually served as a member of the SS during the final months of WW2 and those life-changing experiences helped inspire his public activism against anti-Semitism, extremist right wing groups and racial injustice.
Other cast members in The Rest is Silence who should be familiar to most movie buffs are Peter van Eyck as the cunning Paul Claudius and Heinz Drache as the cynical Herbert von Pohl. Van Eyck has played his share of Nazi officers (Five Graves to Cairo, Address Unknown) and despicable villains (The Snorkel, Run for the Sun), but he is much more versatile than that as witnessed by his superb work in films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Orson Welles’ Confidential Report (1955) and Rolf Thiele’s Rosemary (1958).
Heinz Drache, on the other hand, is often identified with suave playboy roles or authoritarian figures so his performance in The Rest is Silence as an unrepentant Nazi is a surprising departure from his usual screen persona. His main claim to fame is playing police inspectors in numerous mysteries and crime dramas, especially those based on Edgar Wallace novels like The Door with Seven Locks (1962), The Squeaker (1963), The Indian Scarf (1963) and The Mysterious Magician (1964).
Hamlet has been adapted for the screen at least fifty times or more but most of the movie adaptations have been faithful to the original Shakespeare play such as 1948 version with Laurence Olivier, the visually spectacular 1964 Russian version directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version starring Mel Gibson. The Rest is Silence is certainly one of the more offbeat reworkings of the original story and other unique takes on the famous play include Edgar G. Ulmer’s Strange Illusion (1945), Claude Chabrol’s Ophelia (1963), which is told from the title character’s point of view, and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), with Ethan Hawke as a film student in contemporary Manhattan.
The Rest is Silence is not available in any authorized format in the U.S. and probably won’t ever see the light of day on Blu-Ray or DVD unless there is a revival of interest in the film career of Helmut Kautner. However, you might be able to find a German language only DVD release from sellers in Europe if you own an all-region Blu-ray player or a DVD-R copy of it with English subtitles from European Trash Cinema.
Other links of interest: