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DER STUDENT VON PRAGUE (THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE) (1913)

[aka A Bargain With Satan]

I agree that Mr Scapinelli shall take from this room whatever he chooseth for his own use as he desires for which privilege he shall pay me one hundred thousand pieces of gold...





  Director:
 
Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener (uncredited)

  Starring: 
Paul Wegener, John Gottowt, Grete Berger, Lyda Salmonova, Lothar Körner, Fritz Weidermann, Alexander Moissi

  Screenplay: 
Hanns Heinz Ewers

Synopsis:  Though celebrated as the best swordsman in Prague and popular amongst his fellow students, Balduin (Paul Wegener) has been reduced to a state of poverty. In his depression of spirits, he refuses to join in his friends’ carousing, and shuns the advances of Lydushka (Lyda Salmonova), a dancing girl who loves him. As he sits apart from the crowd, Balduin is joined by a stranger called Scapinelli (John Gottowt), who intimates that he might be able to help him. Balduin retorts that the only thing that could help is a winning lottery ticket or a rich wife. Scapinelli continues to hint that there might be something he can do, and the two men walk off together... The Countess Margit Schwarzenberg (Grete Berger) is reluctantly engaged to her cousin, the Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg (Lothar Körner), who is also her father’s heir. While the two are riding to hounds, the Baron takes Margit aside, but she tells him bluntly that she does not love him. While she is struggling to get away from him, her horse bolts. As it gallops down the road, it passes Balduin and Scapinelli; the former hurries after it, in fear for the rider’s safety. Finally reaching the banks of a river, the horse throws Margit into the water. Balduin dashes in and carries her back to dry land. Immediately, some of the hunters arrive, alerted to the danger to Margit by the Baron, who thanks Balduin for his efforts. Balduin, smitten by Margit, reluctantly surrenders her... Later, Balduin pays a formal call upon the Graf von Schwarzenberg (Fritz Weidermann). Margit is delighted to see him and welcomes him warmly, but retreats into her shell when her cousin appears. The arrival of the Baron prompts a disappointed Balduin to cut his call short. He is gloomily contemplating his situation in his barren rooms when Scapinelli arrives. Scapinelli explains that he has come to make a bargain with Balduin, and astonishes him by pouring from a purse more gold coins than it could possibly hold. Excited but suspicious, Balduin demands to know Scapinelli’s terms, laughing incredulously when he is offered one hundred thousand pieces of gold in exchange for any one item that may be found in his rooms. Balduin signs the contract without hesitation, then waves a hand at his bare walls, inviting Scapinelli to makes his choice. To his bewilderment, Scapinelli demands his reflection – and Balduin can only stare in horror as it steps out of the mirror and follows Scapinelli from the room...

Comments:  While designating “the first” of anything is always tricky, there is no doubt that the 1913 version of The Student Of Prague was amongst the very first attempts to tell a full-length horror story on screen. The film was the brainchild of Paul Wegener, who unlike many of his fellow stage actors grasped the potential of cinema from the first, particularly the options offered by special effects. In this respect he found a sympathetic collaborator in Hanns Heinz Ewers, who may be best known these days as the author of Alraune, but was notorious in his own time equally for his peculiar personal philosophy and his espionage activities. At Wegener’s behest, Ewers came up with a cinematic take on the German legend of the doppelgänger, creating a scenario that blends E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story Die Abenteuer der Sylvesternacht with Poe’s William Wilson, with a smattering of Faust thrown in for good measure. As his director, Wegener hired the Danish Stellen Rye, who earlier the same year had directed him, Grete Berger and Lyda Salmonova in his first film, Der Verführte. The two men worked closely together on The Student Of Prague, so closely indeed that Wegener is commonly listed as the film’s co-director.

(Rye fled Denmark for Germany after serving a prison term for homosexuality. In 1914 he enlisted to serve in his adopted homeland’s army, and died as a POW.)

Unfortunately, this important early horror film is very difficult to judge fairly. For many years it was considered a lost film, and what may be the only surviving print – or the only readily accessible one, anyway – is severely truncated. Some sources suggest that this version of The Student Of Prague and its first remake, the 1926 version starring Conrad Veidt, were shot from the same scenario. This would indicate that, at 41 minutes, the print of Wegener’s production may be missing one-half or even more of its original footage. Our other clue is the advertisement for the film shown above, which The result is understandably choppy, lurching from highlight to highlight instead of slowly building to its climax as Wegener and his collaborators clearly intended.

(I should mention that, out in internet-land, there are hints of a print in existence some ten to fifteen minutes longer than the one released by Alpha DVD. However, there are also counter-suggestions that this difference is a frames-per-second artefact rather than “real”. Any solid information on the subject would be gratefully received.)

However, in spite of the limitations of the extant version, The Student Of Prague is both important and admirable. For those familiar with the early days of horror cinema, the most immediately striking thing about it is its seriousness of tone. There is not a breath here of the nervousness that pervades so many of the early American and British horrors, no comic relief, no deliberate undercutting of atmosphere; not even a contrived happy ending. Indeed, one of the greatest attractions of the silent German horror films is exactly this gravity, the unhesitating way in which they demand to be taken seriously. Perhaps this is not, upon reflection, so surprising: the Germans were the first to embrace an unabashed horror literature, when everyone else was explaining away their supernatural manifestations via unconvincing tales of banditti and wax figures; it makes sense that their approach to cinema would be the same.

While the production of The Student Of Prague in 1913 runs against the convention that the German horror cinema was a by-product of World War I, this film does differ markedly from its later brethren. Whereas the next wave of German horror embraced the concept of Expressionism, Paul Wegener was interested in emphasising the difference between the stage and the screen. There are certainly indications here that some attempt was made to build atmosphere via chiaroscuro (another casualty of the bleached-out surviving print), but on the whole Wegener shied away from artificiality, keeping his sets simple and giving his production an increased air of realism by working on location in Prague wherever it was feasible, including in the Lobkowicz palace. He was unable to gain access to one of his most important settings, however, being refused permission to film in the famous Jewish cemetery. His response was not to create an entirely synthetic setting, but to have reproductions of a number of headstones placed within the shadowed margins of a real forest.

 

While concentrating upon the effectiveness of his sets, it is possible that Paul Wegener did not give sufficient attention to another difference between the stage and the screen: namely, that what you can get away with on one doesn’t fly on the other. Wegener was thirty-nine when he cast himself as Balduin, and it shows. His overall performance is good, but he convinces neither as a hell-raising student nor as a first-class swordsman. Still, on the whole he comes off rather better than the unfortunate Grete Berger, who plays the Countess Margit. Berger was only thirty when she made The Student Of Prague, but was so unflatteringly photographed (or appears so in this print) that quite often she looks a good ten years older than Paul Wegener. The scenes featuring the two “young lovers” are jolting at best, and occasionally embarrassing.

However, the outstanding performance in The Student Of Prague is that of John Gottowt as Scapinelli, who was perhaps the first to essay the persistently popular depiction of Satan as a deceptively good-natured con-artist. Gottowt’s scenes in this copy of the film are few, but unforgettable; his performance was certainly influential, and echoes of it can be found in similar characters over many years to come. Some have found anti-Semitic overtones in Gottowt’s characterisation, but I cannot say these are evident to me. I think, rather, that this interpretation is a retroactive consequence of the way that characters like Scapinelli were used in later films.

The opening of The Student Of Prague plunges us right into Balduin’s problems. While his fellow students drink beer and carouse, he sits gloomily on his own, considering his empty pockets. He responds neither to his friends’ toast – “A health to Balduin, Prague’s finest swordsman and wildest student!” – nor to the advances of Lydushka. Who exactly Lydushka is, is one of the extant film’s little mysteries. The current intertitles refer to her as “a wandering girl”, some reviews call her “a gypsy”, while I’ve gone with “a dancing-girl” on the grounds that the first thing we see her do is dance on a table. She is, in any event, cast in the mold of Cigarette, from Ouida’s Under Two Flags (first filmed in 1912, significantly enough), a good-time girl who is popular with all the boys but who loves only one, and the corner of a burgeoning romantic triangle, self-evidently doomed to lose out to her aristocratic rival. We get no sense here if there was ever anything serious between Balduin and Lydushka, but know only that at this moment he has more urgent things on his mind than romance.

 

A carriage pulls up outside the Biergarten, and Scapinelli climbs down. He makes his way to Balduin’s table with suspicious promptitude. Balduin is irritated by the intrusion and shows it, but lends an involuntary ear to the stranger’s hints of financial assistance. In any event, he is curious enough to join Scapinelli on a walk down the road...

Meanwhile, the Countess Margit Schwarzenberg is joining the hunt in company with her cousin and fiancé, Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg. The Baron is the last of the family name, and the fears for his line have prompted the Graf von Schwarzenberg to compel his daughter into an engagement, much against her will. The Baron succeeds in separating himself and Margit from their companions, but she is blunt in spurning his advances: “I obey my father’s will, but I love you not!”

One of the film’s most problematic sequences follows. First, we are presumably to understand that Margit’s horse bolts with her, although there is no reason why it should and no indication that she isn’t in control of her mount. However, when it gallops down the road past Balduin he reacts as if Margit is in grave danger. The horse pulls up by the river and throws Margit in; here, likewise, we are expected to believe that she is at risk of drowning despite the fact that the water can be only a few feet deep. (The horse calmly drinking nearby, the river barely topping its hoofs, does little to increase our sense of Margit’s peril. Perhaps this is why the animal disappears between shots.) Be that as it may, Balduin plunges in to the rescue, and---

Ahem. Gerte Berger was, uh, not insubstantial, even when not fully clad and sopping wet, and Balduin’s struggle to pick up Margit and carry her to shore looks a little too genuine to be comfortable. He gives up in the end, settling for walking her out. He has barely laid her down when the Baron and some of the others arrive and reclaim her, and in spite of the Baron’s fervent handshake Balduin finds himself thrust aside. This brief passage has been enough to infatuate him with Margit, however, and adds another layer of misery to his money woes, as he contemplates the distance between penniless student and rich Countess.

 

(I’m not sure, but I think Balduin finds and keeps Margit’s watch here: he certainly picks up and kisses something that she has dropped, though we can’t see what it is. Later he is very intent upon guarding a watch from Scapinelli, but it might just be that it is his only remaining possession of any value.)

In high spirits, Balduin practises fencing in front of his full-length mirror. (This is the only time in the film as it stands that we see “Prague’s finest swordsman” in action.) Balduin’s rescue of Margit has given him an excuse to call upon her, and he does so. Rather unkindly, he co-opts some flowers that Lydushka gives him as a gift into an offering for Margit; so perhaps it serves him right that the Baron shows up almost immediately with a much more impressive bouquet. Despite the fact that Margit is evidently pleased to see him, and even more evidently displeased to see her cousin, a hang-dog Balduin soon withdraws and returns home to brood.

Scapinelli’s gleeful reaction to Balduin’s pursuit of the endangered Margit, as the two men just happen to be walking down that particular road at that particular moment, hints at a plot deeply and carefully laid, and the viewer is not surprised when, at this psychologically critical juncture, he turns up again, letting himself quietly into Balduin’s rooms. (Balduin’s reaction to his arrival suggests that his door was locked.) Scapinelli has come to make a bargain with Balduin; in fact, he has brought a written contract. Before he shows Balduin its contents, however, Scapinelli shows him something else. He pulls a small purse from his pocket and begins to pour gold coins out of it onto the table---far more than the purse could realistically hold...

Balduin is too dazzled to worry about this little detail, and when Scapinelli follows up his first display by pulling handfuls of paper money out of his pocket and scattering them around, the student is almost past caring what the contract says. When he does finally read it, it seems absurdly generous: any one item of Scapinelli’s choosing, to be found in Balduin’s rooms, in exchange for one hundred thousand gold coins; enough to court a Countess on. Balduin’s immediate reaction, as he glances around his barren surroundings, is a derisive laugh; he signs without hesitation.

And Scapinelli laughs too, as he strolls up to the mirror. He gestures, and both Balduins – the corporeal Balduin and his reflection – drop their copies of the contract; but only one of them steps forward...

 

The special effects in The Student Of Prague, though chiefly the product of simple split-screen work, are remarkably effective. The two Balduins confront each other time and again with few errors in lighting or any blurring of the image to give away the trick. The result not only outdoes any comparable contemporary film, but offers a serious challenge to many later, infinitely more technically advanced productions. (I’m thinking here of something like The Dark Mirror, where there is never not an obvious visual “line” between the two Olivia de Havilands.)

As he watches Scapinelli and his part of the bargain depart, Balduin tries to laugh again, but it is a feeble effort that does not outlast his first glance in a mirror. Then he shrugs: what is a reflection compared to more money than he ever dared dream of...?

Balduin’s social fortunes are soon looking up as well. He is invited to a ball at the Governor’s mansion, where Margit is also in attendance. He coaxes her out onto a long balcony and there declares his feelings for her. Three different people take a great interest in this moonlight interlude, and one of them shows himself without loss of time: the Baron stalks up to reclaim Margit, who allows herself to be led away. As she goes she drops her scarf, accidentally or otherwise. Balduin scoops it up and then scribbles a note, which he tucks inside the garment. This manoeuvre is observed by the jealous Lydushcka, who has managed to infiltrate the grounds of the mansion and climb up onto the balcony.

(As the film progresses, Lydushka’s ability to come and go amongst the elite of Prague grows increasingly improbable.)

When Balduin returns to the balcony, after slipping the note to Margit, he is initially in a happy daze; but this lasts only until he encounters the third of the interested parties, his reflection, who sits perched upon the balustrade and who fades away even as the startled Balduin draws near. Balduin is still recovering from the shock when he approached by two of his friends, who notice his perturbation. One of them (we gather) remarks that he looks like he’s seen a ghost – and offers him a mirror so that he can see for himself...

 

Meanwhile, Margit is in her room reading her note. From it we learn that she had already agreed to meet Balduin secretly. Margit does not realise that she is being spied on by Lydushka, who slips into the room in search of the incriminating document. The note is safely in Margit’s keeping, but Lydushka does find the scarf and Balduin’s tie-pin, which he used to keep the note in place. She slips out again undetected.

Presumably on the logic of “It’s the last place anyone will look”, Margit and Balduin meet in the cemetery. Margit is apprehensive and doubtful, and her humour is not improved by a brief encounter with Scapinelli. However, she calms down when she finds Balduin, and the two stroll arm in arm. They are, indeed, about to share their first kiss when Balduin recoils at the realisation that they are not alone...

“Where thou art shall I be unto the hour when I seat me on the stone of thy grave,” intones the reflection, which proves to be a bit of a mood-killer. This being 1821, it doesn’t occur to Balduin to explain to Margit that he has an evil twin. Instead, he sends her hurriedly away while he stays to confront his double, but he has already vanished.

In her determination to break things up between Balduin and Margit, Lydushka calls upon the Baron, who must have the world’s worst-trained manservant in his employ, as he shows the girl in rather than slamming the door in her face and/or releasing the hounds. Lydushka gives the Baron the scarf, with the compromising pin attached, and tells him what’s going on behind his back. The Baron affects to treat her story lightly, but as soon as Lydushka has gone he breaks into a rage. There is only one possible response to Balduin’s misconduct, and the Baron gives it: he challenges Balduin to a duel.

As we recall, the whole point of the Graf von Schwarzenberg pushing Margit into marriage with her cousin was survival of the family line, so the news that the Baron will be crossing swords with “the finest fencer in Prague” is all of the Graf’s nightmares come true at once. He pleads with his nephew not to go through with it, but the Baron refuses to back down. The Graf then carries his plea to Balduin himself, begging him not to kill his opponent. Balduin has, of course, every reason in the world to want to be in the Graf’s good graces, so he willingly pledges his word that he will not take the Baron’s life. The two men solemnly shake hands.

 

The Student Of Prague’s most indelible moment follows. On the morning set for the duel, Balduin sets out for the isolated location chosen for the encounter. As he walks into the margin of the forest, he meets his double, coming in the other direction. Balduin stops, recoiling involuntarily, and can only stare in horror as his double, with great deliberation, wipes the blood from his sword...

The death of the last of the Schwarzenbergs, in concert with Balduin’s apparent violation of his word of honour, ruins him utterly with the Graf, who bars his doors to him. Cut off from Margit, Balduin tries to forget his troubles with a little debauchery, but can’t even work up enough spirit to dance with Lydushka, who turns up in clear expectation of finding her way back to him cleared. Instead, she is punished as perhaps she deserves, when an impatient Balduin shrugs her off and throws a few insulting coins at her feet.

Cards are next, and for a time Balduin embodies the old adage about being unlucky in love. One by one, much poorer for the experience, Balduin’s companions flee from him – until the only person willing to play with him is the last person in the world he wants to see...

In desperation, Balduin decides that he must see Margit, and sets about sneaking into the Schwarzenberg estate. (We note with some amusement he has a great deal more trouble doing so than Lydushka ever did.) With the help of a convenient ladder, he climbs up onto the balcony outside Margit’s room. She is startled and dismayed by his sudden appearance, ambivalent on her own account but in no doubt whatsoever of what her father’s reaction to this intrusion would be. However, Balduin’s desperate pleas finally soften her heart, and she confesses that her feelings towards him are unchanged. Enraptured, Balduin draws her into his arms and kisses her.

This moment of bliss is Balduin’s last, however. As he and Margit stroll about the room, trying to think of a way to resolve their situation, they happen to pass in front of a large mirror...

 

But Balduin does have a reflection, of course: in fact, it’s over by the window. Margit faints; Balduin flees, retracing his steps to the front gate. As he awkwardly climbs over, the reflection unhurriedly opens and passes through a locked door, so that he is waiting for Balduin on the other side. After one horrified glance, Balduin turns and runs madly from the scene and up a deserted street – which is suddenly not quite deserted. He dashes onwards – and onwards – but he is never alone. (Some truly lovely location shooting almost distracts us from Balduin’s nightmarish dilemma here.) In what seems like a stroke of fortune, he stumbles out of the forest onto a narrow roadway just as a carriage is passing. He flags it down and climbs in, peering around anxiously as the vehicle rolls on again; but he has, it seems, finally eluded his pursuer. It is not until the carriage reaches town that he sees who the driver is. With a wild cry he runs home, only to find that he has been headed off again...

In his rooms – his expensive, lavishly furnished rooms – Balduin reaches the last stage of despair. He takes from a cabinet a set of duelling pistols, and contemplates one resignedly. After checking to see that he is truly alone, Balduin sits down to write a letter – and then his reflection crosses the room towards him.

With a cry Balduin leaps to his feet, snatches up his pistol, and fires at his infernal companion... 

Though it is not without its crudities and shortcomings, for its time The Student Of Prague is a remarkable achievement. We must judge it, of course, upon the surviving footage, which gives no indication that Balduin deserved the fate that was visited upon him. It is possible, indeed likely, that in a now-lost scene there was a fatal moment in which the penniless student offered to give anything – anything – in exchange for enough money to indulge his various passions. But as it stands, this is an extraordinarily sombre work, which far from somehow extracting a happy ending from its tale of spiralling misery, not only allows evil to triumph, but to do so gloatingly, with a spring in its step and a laugh upon its lips. The emotional and philosophical distance between this film and its American and British counterparts is staggering to contemplate.

 

Want a second opinion of The Student Of Prague? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.
 
 
----posted 13/04/2013