The Student of Prague/A Bargain with Satan/Der Student von Prag (1913) **½
While it’s probably true that the extra energy contributed by the Expressionist style of filmmaking accounts for most of silent German horror’s lasting appeal, the Teutonic fright film had its genesis a number of years before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Indeed, even before World War I— the real-life nightmare that is so often credited with instigating the memorably morbid turn that German cinema took during the early 1920’s— a few pioneers were already experimenting with giving audiences of the new medium the creeps, and Paul Wegener was foremost among them. Today, Wegener is best remembered for his trilogy of films based on the old Jewish legend of the golem, of which only the final installment has survived. Though he was first and foremost an actor, Wegener wrote, produced, and directed as well, frequently in collaboration with other important figures from the first flowering of German horror cinema. On The Student of Prague, however, Wegener’s most important associate was better known for his fiction than for his work in film— although his most famous novel, Alraune, has certainly been adapted often enough. Hanns Heinz Ewers was a colorful character in his own right, a shameless self-promoter whose real exploits (like his tour of duty as a spy in the United States during the First World War) often didn’t need the exaggeration he so assiduously gave them. He courted controversy not just with his writing, but also with a succession of lectures touting the virtues of philosophies (including radical individualism of the Nietzschean variety and reputedly even Satanism) that were profoundly at odds with the social norms of his day. Ewers was also an enthusiastic promoter of cinema, which was very much in its infancy as an art form, and had yet to achieve very wide acceptance as anything other than disposable light entertainment. He even went so far as to open a movie theater of his own. And more to our present purpose, Ewers took seriously the potential of film as the ultimate medium for presenting stories of the supernatural. Thus, in 1913, Ewers joined forces with Wegener and Danish director Stellan Rye (who would die the next year in a French POW camp) to bring to life “Sylvestrenacht,” a short story by fellow occultist author E. T. A. Hoffmann, as The Student of Prague.
The student of the revised title is named Balduin (Wegener, who would revisit this story, in premise if not in detail, with The Lost Shadow about a decade later), and an early intertitle assures us that he is both the city’s foremost hellion and its foremost fencer. All that carousing doesn’t come cheap, though, and Balduin seems to be spending most of his time lately brooding over his collapsing finances. He admits as much, too, when he is accosted outside of a popular beer hall by a strange old man who calls himself Scapinelli (John Gottowt, from Waxworks and Unholy Tales). Scapinelli cryptically suggests to Balduin that he may have a solution to the lad’s troubles, which they can discuss some other time, if he’d like.
A bit later, Balduin is walking in the forest when his path crosses that of Countess Margit von Schwarzenberg (Grete Berger, of Siegfried and Destiny). The young countess is out on a fox hunt with her cousin and fiance, the Baron of Waldis-Schwarzenberg (Fritz Weidermann), whom she does not love— their engagement having been made at the behest of her father, the reigning count (Lothar Körner), out of worry that the family line will die out otherwise. Why the count is panicking over this when both representatives of the next generation are so young is anybody’s guess. Anyway, when the baron puts the moves on Margit, she flees from him, but gets thrown from her horse while making her escape. Margit (who apparently does not know how to swim) lands in a fast-moving stream, and it’s lucky for her that Balduin happens along just then to rescue her. The student finds Margit terribly enticing, but she is a rich noblewoman, while he is too broke even to romance Lydushka (Lyda Salmanova, later to play important roles in Wegener’s Monster of Fate, The Golem and the Chorus Girl, and The Golem), the city’s most eligible street urchin, in the manner to which she is accustomed.
Which brings us back to Scapinelli, and his mysterious offer of aid. Scapinelli comes to visit Balduin at his flat, bringing with him what looks at first like a perfectly ordinary coin purse. There’s nothing at all ordinary about Scapinelli, however, and as Balduin stares in astonishment, the old man produces a physically impossible fortune in gold coins from within the little leather pouch. Scapinelli then presents Balduin with a contract promising 100,000 gold crowns in exchange for a single item from Balduin’s room; the document does not specify what. Balduin, dumbfounded, takes a quick look around to satisfy himself that there isn’t a thing he owns that could conceivably be worth a fraction of the sum Scapinelli has offered, and then signs the old man’s contract. That’s when Scapinelli crosses to Balduin’s mirror, materializes the boy’s reflection from it, and departs with the double in tow, leaving the enchanted purse on the table.
The newly wealthy (and non-reflective) Balduin wastes little time in calling upon Margit, but is chagrined to discover that she’s already spoken for. He refuses to be stymied, however, and eventually succeeds in seducing the countess at a party thrown by her father, where he discreetly passes Margit a note inviting her to meet him the next evening for a stroll around the local cemetery. What Balduin fails to realize at first is that he is being spied on by two very self-interested busybodies. The first, inevitably, is his doppelganger from the mirror, who appears to him just after he parts from Margit, and ominously informs him that he and his mystical twin will henceforth never be far apart. But even more troublesome, in her way, is the enigmatic Lydushka, who, after observing Balduin’s note-passing from behind a pillar at the Castle Schwarzenberg, sneaks into Margit’s budoir and pockets the incriminating document. For reasons that are never really addressed (the obvious motive— jealousy— seems difficult to credit given what we’ve seen of the girl thus far), Lydushka then presents Balduin’s note to Margit’s fiance. This last occurs at about the same time that Balduin and his supposedly secret paramour are having an encounter with the animate reflection at the graveyard.
Given that this is the Austro-Hungarian Empire we’re talking about, and that the year is stated as 1821, it is hardly a surprise that Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg’s response to Balduin’s back-door dealing is to challenge him to a duel. Because this duel is to be fought with swords, Balduin’s skill as a fencer means that the baron has effectively signed his own death warrant, and the distraught Count Schwarzenberg hastens to the student’s lodgings as soon as he hears the news. The old count can grudgingly accept that his scheme to marry his daughter off to her cousin has disintegrated, but he can’t bear the thought of the slaughter that will surely result when the two rivals meet on the field of honor. Acquiescing to Balduin’s courtship of Margit, the count nevertheless extracts a promise from him to spare the baron’s life when their scheduled duel reaches its inevitable conclusion. But when the day arrives, whom should Balduin meet on his way to the site of the battle but his double, nonchalantly wiping the baron’s blood from the blade of his saber? As bad as it may be to become known as a social-climbing sexual opportunist, this apparent breaking of Balduin’s vow to the count is a vastly more serious abridgement of age-old Germanic notions of manly honor, and the student’s reputation is ruined. Even this apparently does not satisfy the malevolent reflection, though, and it continues to plague Balduin at every turn. Finally, in desperation, Balduin goes on the attack, but as we have learned well from the innumerable doppelganger movies that have followed in this one’s footsteps, doing harm to your magically generated evil twin is apt to have very serious— and very unpleasant— consequences.
The most immediately striking thing about The Student of Prague is its total and uncompromising commitment to its premise. In an era when Louis Mayer would neuter his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a mawkish new ending modeled on A Christmas Carol, and when the Edison Company and even Georges Méliès— Mr. Merry Frolics of Satan himself— had felt compelled to market the likes of Frankenstein and The Devil in a Convent with promotional materials assuring skittish exhibitors that the films contained nothing that could possibly offend anybody, The Student of Prague ends with supernatural evil not merely affirmed in its reality, but actually victorious! The producers might as well have promoted it with a money-back guarantee to theater owners that they would be denounced from the nearest pulpit as apostles of Hell within one week of the initial screening. This unflinching readiness to provoke the self-appointed guardians of public morality enables The Student of Prague to overcome a number of faults that might have sunk a more timid treatment of the same material. Paul Wegener is, if not exactly miscast, then certainly misapplied. It doesn’t help that he’s much too old to be believable as a student, but more seriously, one cannot help noticing that, for all the intertitles’ assertions that Balduin is “Prague’s wildest student and greatest swordsman,” we see very little indication of either wildness or swordsmanship from him. The surprising decision to have the duel against Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg play out completely offstage pays off handsomely in horrific effect, but it would have been helpful to see Balduin show off his supposed moves at some point. The other glaring defect concerns Lydushka. She’s a terribly important character, in that her machinations precipitate the ill-fated duel, but we never receive even the slightest clue what her game is. Also, it stretches credulity to the breaking point to have this vagabond girl prowling unchecked all over the Schwarzenberg estate, seemingly invisible to everybody but the audience.
On the other hand, The Student of Prague is startlingly mature in its approach to storytelling, often feeling considerably more modern than some movies made a decade or more later. There are still lots of stylistic hangovers from the stage, and the majority of the intertitles are deployed in an archaic explanatory manner, but this is a much more cohesive and plot-driven picture than was common back in the teen years, with very little of the dazzle-for-its-own-sake that was the dominant filmmaking sensibility in its day. Nevertheless, The Student of Prague is also a minor technical marvel. The special effects used to put two Balduins on the screen simultaneously are of the highest caliber, resulting in images nearly as seamless as anything that could be accomplished today with technologies undreamed of in 1913 (although the practiced eye will note that at no point are Balduin and his double ever called upon to touch each other). And John Gottowt as Scapinelli is a fine villain, practically walking off with the whole film despite figuring in only three scenes. His dapper diabolism paved the way for generations of actors portraying Satan in the used-soul-salesman mode, whether one chooses to accept him as the Devil himself or merely as an infernal sorcerer (as the opening curtain-call dubs him). The obscurity of this film naturally makes it difficult to assess the direct influence of Gottowt’s performance, but it seems inescapable that his Scapinelli is very likely the great-grandfather of most subsequent smooth-talking Satans. For all its undeniable primitiveness, The Student of Prague is a worthy starting point for the Teutonic cinema of the supernatural.
Thanks to Liz Kingsley for furnishing me with a copy of this film.