Kylo Ren’s design owes an obvious debt to the aesthetics of Darth Vader. But that’s not the only piece of film history that influenced his look and feel.
In a really intriguing thread on Twitter, user @benscalligraphy suggests a really fascinating connection between Kylo Ren and Hamlet, specifically Hamlet as portrayed in the 1921 silent film version made in Germany.
The visual evidence is pretty hard to argue: Kylo Ren’s design, and the particular way in which he’s shot and framed—the sharp contrast between dark and light—owe a clear debt to Asta Nielsen’s 1921 portrayal of Shakespeare’s Danish prince.
This is an interesting comparison for a number of reasons. This version of Hamlet is fascinating not just because, as an incredibly well made version of the film made an important time in film history, it had an outsized influence on what came after, but also because the lead, German actress Asta Nielsen, plays Hamlet as a woman.
In her interpretation, Hamlet is a woman forced to live as a man in order to fulfill her role as the king’s heir. It’s a conflict that shapes the character as she appears in the film, her struggle with the assumed masculine role she’s placed into complicating and emphasizing Hamlet’s traditional moral and existential dilemmas. In a film that doesn’t use any of Shakespeare’s expressive language to characterize the Prince, it’s a narrative tactic that works wonderfully to create a Hamlet that is just as fractured and complex as any other.
Now, I’m not suggesting we all embrace a “Kylo Ren is actually a woman” interpretation of the new Star Wars trilogy. Though I do think that would be an interesting reading, what I’m suggesting, instead, is that framing Ben Solo’s internal conflicts through the lense of Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet is a productive way to view the character. Nielsen’s Hamlet is, as described effectively in this blog about the film, a mess of repression and forbidden desires, struggling with a legacy she feels like she can’t possibly live up to. At the same time, that gap in identity feeds this Hamlet with a certain amount of trickster power. She’s sly, and has a massive secret world that only she knows about, and she exerts a good deal of power from that as well as anguish.
Sound a bit like anyone we know? Kylo Ren has many of these same qualities. He’s struggling under the impossible burden of the men from his past, a pain that breaks him but also infuses him with a brittle, rebellious anger that gives him immense power. Likewise, he’s filled with forbidden longings, all centered around the desire to be a person he just isn’t allowed to be.
I don’t know if any of this was intentional, but it works. Looking at Kylo Ren via Nielsen’s Hamlet highlights some of his most interesting traits. Under George Lucas, the Star Wars series always had a great love for film history, and referenced it copiously. It’s good to see that, even if it’s accidental, the new Star Wars trilogy is doing the same.