Director: Stellan Rye
Writer: Hanns Heinz Ewers
Language: Silent, German
In 1913, German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and Danish director Stellan Rye produced The Student of Prague, an early silent German film loosely based on both Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson,” Alfred de Musset’s poem “The December Night,” and the ever-popular Faustian legend.
Set in 1820 in the city of Prague (then part of the Austrian Empire), the film tells the story of Balduin (Paul Wegener), a successful student and expert swordsman who falls into depression as he reflects upon his crumbling financial stability and unrequited romantic desires. A sorcerer named Scapinelli (John Gottowt) appears and offers Balduin love and money in exchange for Balduin’s mirror relection (a clever metaphor if there ever was one). Balduin signs Scapinelli’s contract, unaware of the consequences for doing so (initially, Scapinelli only tells Balduin he will grant him the fruition of his desires in exchange for one item in Balduin’s home). The reflection materializes and proceeds to wreak havoc upon Balduin and his new lover, a countess (Grete Berger) that Balduin rescues after she experiences a near-fatal drowning and now finds herself under the Balduin’s spell.
Like Poe did with “William Wilson,” Ewers and Rye end the story with its logical conclusion: Balduin, who receives blame for his doppelganger’s crimes, takes possession of a handgun and, after he shoots the doppelganger, realizes he has in fact shot himself and that his double was never there (this, of course, is ambiguous, since one can also argue that the double does in fact exist, simply disappears because it naturally depends upon Balduin for its very existence, and is not a mere figure of Balduin’s imagination).
The Student of Prague remains an important cinematic relic for at least two reasons. For starters, the lack of monetary support for its production. Scholars almost universally agree that The Student of Prague (also occasionally known as A Bargain with Satan) was the first independent film ever produced, as the cast and crew made the film outside of the small, yet nonetheless established, studio system.
Secondly, the film had quite an impact on the German Expressionists of the 1920s. During cinema’s infancy, directors began to think of a film as a cinema of attraction, so to speak. The idea was that one should allow the camera to capture the images without much distortion or manipulation of a film’s cinematographic qualities. That is to say, they believed that the camera should tell the story and not the director. You could manipulate elements, such as the set of the kidnapping scene in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) and the creeping shadows in Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), but you should allow the camera to simply capture it without tricky cinematography or camera techniques. Rye purposely advocated this method during the filming of The Student of Prague, and cinematographer Guido Seeber complied (as did Paul Wegener, who played Balduin in Student of Prague, on the set of his directorial debut, the lost 1915 film The Golem).
In 1926, director Henrik Galeen, who also wrote and directed The Golem and authored the screenplay for Nosferatu, released a remake of The Student of Prague, which remains a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema.
Personal Rating: 4/5