*. Silent Shakespeare. There was a lot of it, but what was the point?
*. What I mean is, Shakespeare isn’t known for his great plots, which he often borrowed anyway (as he did in the case of Othello). A Shakespeare play is a text, that is, it’s language. You can present and adapt that language an infinite number of ways, but still it’s an experience built around the spoken word. But a silent film is going to have to be something else. When Orson Welles was asked if Shakespeare would be a film director if he were alive today (this was in the 1960s) he said of course. But would Shakespeare have been a film director in the silent era? I don’t think so. I don’t think he would have thought it worth doing.
*. That said, if you really have to do Shakespeare without dialogue then this early version of Othello is about as good as it’s going to get. The story is essentially the same, but changed in numerous ways in order to make it more visual.
*. To take an obvious example, there’s a wholly original but very effective scene where Iago reveals the handkerchief to Othello to cool him down after one of his jealous rages. This is a nicely arranged shot between the two of them, with both facing the camera and Othello’s eyes only coming open as Iago makes a fuss over his pillows like a knowing lover (the whole thing is done in an almost erotic fashion). It works really well, without any dialogue, but there’s nothing that corresponds to it in the play.
*. Or take as another example the opening. Instead of tossing us into the middle of an argument between Iago and Roderigo (which would be impossible without a dozen dialogue cards), we get a scene of pomp and ceremony of the kind that movies are accomplished with. This actually takes us back in time to an event that occurs before the beginning of the play as we have it, with Othello returning to Venice as a conquering hero and announcing his choice of lieutenant. Iago is confident he’s the man, but Othello adopts Cassio, leading to Iago’s plans for revenge.
*. That’s all there is, by the way, to explain Iago’s much-debated (at least among scholars) “motiveless malignancy.” There’s nothing said about Iago’s own sexual jealousy or any other grudge he holds against the Moor. He’s just angry at being passed over.
*. Another change is that Othello kills Iago at the end, before doing away with himself. Is that because this is a movie, or because it was 1922? Shakespeare was adapted in quite radical ways right from the early going. Nahum Tate’s King Lear, which had a happy ending (Lear and Cordelia both live), held the stage from the 17th to the 19th century. Othello killing Iago was only a minor change, all things considered.
*. So overall I think the way this is a terrific adaptation, turning the play into a fast-moving drama dependent on lots of well choreographed physical action rather than layered language. What’s perhaps most surprising is how restrained it is. The sets look great, but they’re not overwhelming or expressionistic. They look suitably grand but not theatrical.
*. Then there are the performances: Emil Jannings as Othello and Werner Krauss as Iago. Given the conventions of silent-film acting, and the heightened emotionality of the play, you’d be forgiven for expecting them to out-Herod Herod. Instead they are, if anything, underplayed. Jannings is reserved and never flies into a rage. The closest he comes is when he writhes in his sleep while dreaming of Cassio and Desdemona together, or when he tears the handkerchief apart with his teeth (a bit which seems almost restrained in context and was probably a bit of stage business anyway). Krauss gets to ham things up a little more as the Vice of the piece, and when he’s scampering around the palace stage-directing things and even taking a tumble in his excitement he seems only missing a devil suit complete with a tail and a horned hood. But even this manic exuberance isn’t totally out of keeping with some interpretations of the role.
*. In fact, what’s most outré about the two leads are Othello’s loud pyjamas and Iago’s upswept winged moustache. I wonder what the correct name for that moustache is. I tried looking it up online, but couldn’t find it.
*. So all-in-all I think this is a great film. But is it Shakespeare? Only sort of. It’s a tale from Shakespeare made into a movie. Not something less, but different.