"Must I Remember?"

Hamlet, History, and Helmut Käutner's The Rest is Silence


  • Douglas Lanier University of New Hampshire


We have grown accustomed to conceptualizing Shakespearean appropriation as a means for filmmakers to speak through a vehicle imbued with great cultural authority, even when filmmakers aim at questioning or undermining that authority. Certainly that is the case with The Rest is Silence. Käutner deploys Hamlet, a text especially laden with political and cultural resonance for German audiences, as a means to engage a key issue of postwar German cinema: the nation's guilt and yet its desire to remain silent about its past. The Rest is Silence takes up two particular components of that cultural silence, the unacknowledged imbrication of corporate power and profit in the rise of the Nazi regime, and the temptation of a younger generation, coming of age after the war in the fifties, to forget the nation's guilty past or, at the least, to participate in communal silence about it. Both issues had some topicality at the time of the film's initial release. At the same time, however, the Hamlet narrative also provides Käutner a means to avoid remembering the complicity of ordinary German people with Nazism, a means to displace rather than fully acknowledge communal guilt. Käutner's selective fidelity to certain aspects of Hamlet constitutes a subtle mode of strategic forgetting in the tale of national guilt he seeks to tell. In The Rest is Silence, Hamlet functions as both mirror and cover for the nation's guilty memory, so that the appropriation of Shakespeare becomes both a means to voice an uncomfortable (family) secret but also a precedent for not remembering it in all its disturbing power.

Author Biography

Douglas Lanier, University of New Hampshire

Douglas M. Lanier is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, and Director of the UNH London Program. He has written widely on both early modern drama and poetry, and on contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare on stage and screen. His book, Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture, was published in 2002. He is currently at work on two book projects, a consideration of screen adaptations, faithful and free, of Othello and a book on The Merchant of Venice in the Arden Language & Writing series.