The Student Of Prague (Der Student Von Prag) 1913

Director:  Stellan Rye
"Where thou art shall I be, unto the hour when I seat me on the stone of thy grave..."
Written by a self-confessed Satanist, this re-invention of the legend of Faust concerns an impoverished student tricked into a bargain with my esteemed employer. A landmark in German film, its makers went on to create several classic examples of expressionist cinema over the next decade.

Balduin, "Prague's finest swordsman and wildest student", is stricken by poverty and boredom. Even the attentions of Lydushka, a beautiful gypsy girl, fail to arouse his interest. He is nevertheless intrigued when a mysterious stranger who introduces himself as Scapinelli promises Balduin wealth and happiness. Scapinelli is with Balduin when they come across Countess Margit Schwarzenberg -- Balduin rescues her from a river when she is thrown by her horse. The lovestruck Balduin later pays the countess a visit, but is banished by Baron Waldis, her betrothed.

Scapinelli calls on Balduin to offer 10,000 gold pieces in exchange for an item of his choice from Balduin's room. When the eager student agrees, Scapinelli claims Balduin's reflection, which steps out of the mirror and leaves by Scapinelli's side. The shaken but suddenly wealthy Balduin begins a furtive courtship of the Countess. They are shadowed by both a jealous Lydushka and by Balduin's spectral double, who vows to follow Balduin always...

When Lydushka reveals the Countess' affair to Baron Waldis, he challenges Balduin to a duel. The Countess' father, mindful of Balduin's reputation as a swordsman, begs him not to kill Waldis. For the sake of the Schwarzenberg's honour, Balduin agrees. Then he discovers to his horror that his doppelganger has fought the duel in his place, killing the Baron in cold blood...

Hanss Heinz Ewers was a charismatic, larger than life figure; a writer of lurid horror fiction, public speaker, strident nationalist and sometime spy, who early on championed the potential of film as a legitimate art form. The doppelganger myth, long established in German fiction and folklore, had an obvious visual appeal which Ewers and his co-writer Henrik Galeen exploited fully for The Student of Prague, their first exercise in the film medium. For this variation on the Faust legend, itself a staple of cinema by 1913, they drew on stories by Poe and ETA Hoffman for inspiration, creating something ground-breakingly original in the process.

Ewers cultivated an exotically diabolic persona. Frank Braun, the thrill-seeking protagonist of his most famous novels (including the often-filmed Alraune) was a thinly-disguised alter-ego of Ewers himself. Thriving on notoriety, Ewers lectured publicly on the virtues of Satanism and experimented with writing under the influence of hallucinogenics. His personal secretary and collaborator Galeen likewise had a fascination with the occult, later going on to script such classics as The Golem, Waxworks and Nosferatu, and direct Student of Prague's 1926 remake.

A game of cards: Balduin (Paul Wegener) and his
Set in 1821, much of the original version was shot on location in a city with a long history of occultism. Though the local Hebrew community refused to allow filming in the Jewish cemetery, several scenes were filmed on Prague's 'Golden Lane', also known as 'Street of the Alchemists', whose former occupants reputedly included figures such as Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa and Dr Johan Faustus, the eponymous inspiration behind Christopher Marlowe's 1589 play. It was while filming here that star Paul Wegener first became aware of the legend of the Golem, a myth he would explore through three film versions, beginning in 1915.

The subdued way in which the story's supernatural elements are introduced into these romantic locations adds greatly to the film's uncanny atmosphere, thanks also in no small part to Guido Seeber's delicately-lit cinematography. John Gottowt's Scapinelli, quite obviously Mephistopheles in human guise, is a subtly sinister top-hatted gentleman far removed from the cloaked and horned pantomime villain of cinema's recent past. Balduin's spectral double is a similarly malign presence often depicted, effectively and unnervingly, in wholly mundane surroundings.

Credit should be given to Danish director Stellan Rye for avoiding the cliches and bringing his phantom out of the shadows and into sunlit terraces and drawing-rooms. The credit, however, may not be entirely his, as it has been suggested that both screenwriter Ewers and star Wegener had a substantial input into the staging of the film. Rye, incidentally, had allegedly spent three months in prison in his native country for homosexuality before being 'hired' by Ewers to direct Student of Prague. He fought for Germany during the first World War and later died in a French POW hospital. 

The Student of Prague was premiered in Berlin (to adults only) on August the 22nd, 1913 with a specially-composed musical score, and was an immediate hit. Audiences thrilled to the spectacle of Wegener's malicious doppelganger, and critics lavished it with praise, calling it "...a pioneering innovation" and "...a total success". Though it would be derided as primitive on it's 1926 re-issue, the film's initial reception suggests that Ewers' artistic ambitions were entirely justified: four remakes (in 1926, 1935, 1990 and 2004) testify to the story's enduring appeal.

(Some information for this post was drawn from 'The Satanic Screen' by Nicholas Shreck, and Gareth Walters' blog 'The Amazing Movie Show'. Thanks are due.)

End Credits:
Paul Wegener (Balduin), John Gottowt (Scapinelli), Greta Berger (Countess Margit Schwarzenberg), Lyda Salmonova (Lydushka), Lother Korner (Count Schwarzenberg), Fritz Walderman (Baron Waldis Schwarzenberg)
Screenplay: Hanss Heinz Ewers and Henrik Galeen, Photography: Guido Seeber, Art Direction; Robert A. Dietrich and K. Richter, Music Score: Josef Weiss. Loosely based on 'Sylvesternacht' by E.T.A. Hoffman, and 'William Wilson' by Edgar Allan Poe.
(USA Title: 'A Bargain With Satan')
Deutsche Bioscop, Germany
Running Time 58 mins.

The Student of Prague (Alpha Video). This incomplete video-transfer print, the only commercially available version, runs to 41 minutes, though a diligent search of Ebay can often yield an almost-complete 56 minute copy.

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