Saturday, 25 October 2014

Clear-view mirror… The Student of Prague (1913)

“Where thou art shall I be unto the hour when I seat me on the stone of thy grave…”

This film is often described as being perhaps the first true horror feature film, or maybe that’s just the first actually scary horror feature… It stars and is co-directed by one of the most influential figures in German silent film, Paul Wegener, later a Pharaoh, a Mummy, a Sheik and a Golem... and is now a magnificent 82 minutes long.

I had previously only seen a dilapidated cheap DVD print from an hour-long multi-generational video and wondered why such a major film hadn’t been restored. Well I might be the last silent kid on the block to find out but the film has been revitalized by the Filmmuseum München using a variety of sources including prints from as far afield as Japan and the USA: and what a joy it is to behold – almost like finding a lost film.

The Filmmuseum have produced a version closer to the original length and have also included a performance of the original score by Josef Weiss which further adds to the feeling of Prague Regained. The music has been adapted for the chamber orchestra Orchester Jakobsplatz which is on a mission to revive the musical heritage of Jewish composers.

Even through the grey haze of the truncated version this is a rewarding film to watch and you can only imagine the impact it would have had on contemporary audiences. But with the 2013 restoration now we can truly see how powerful the story is…

Wegener and Rye plan their story in Prague
The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag) was co-directed by Stellan Rye along with Wegener, was scripted by Hanns Heinz Ewers based, in outline, on Edgar Allan Poe’s story William Wilson* with a bit of Faust thrown in for good measure…

It concerns a talented swordsman and penniless student, Balduin (Wegener) who is fed up with his lot and all but ruined, the high-life having drained his funding and his hope (bet he wasn’t on a full grant!). The film open with him morosely ignoring the revels of his fellow pupils and the charms of the dancing waitress Lyduschka (Lyda Salmonova, who has to do a lot of dancing and climbing too…).

He is approached by the mysterious Scapinelli (John Gottowt) an old man with a reputation for sorcery and other miss-deeds, who tells him that there are other paths he could follow.
The two go walking and encounter the local hunt of Graf von Schwarzenberg (Lothar Körner). The Graf’s daughter son, Komtesse Margit (Grete Berger), is engaged to be married to her cousin Baron-Waldis Schwarzenberg (Fritz Weidemann), but the two argue – she does not love him – and her horse bolts running past Balduin and into the river.

The young student doesn’t hesitate and rescues Margit from the water with some difficulty judging from Wegener’s attempts to lift Miss Berger: clearly weighed down by her voluminous and water-logged under-garments. Smitten, he returns to her house where he realises that the social gap between them is too large to ever permit a relationship… especially with her promised to the Baron.

Deflated Balduin frets alone in his apartment when suddenly Scapinelli appears and unloads a pile of coins and bank notes offering them to the young man in simple exchange for just “one thing in his rooms”. Not seeing the catch, Balduin signs on the dotted line and is shocked when Scapinelli takes his reflection from the mirror.

But Balduin cannot see the harm in losing his reflection, blinded by his new good fortune and the possibilities it brings. He works his way into the world of the wealthy and gradually gets Margit’s attention. All seems to be going well but the Baron does not take kindly to his new competitor.

Can you spot Lyduschka?
At the same time, Balduin is being stalked by Lyduschka and there is an excellent scene in which she scales the walls to spy on the lovers from the balcony with ancient Prague gloriously visible in the background. She sees Balduin’s illicit promise to Margit and finds message from him arranging a rendezvous with her… Lyduschka makes sure finds its way to the lady’s intended.

The young nobleman challenges Balduin to a duel and, even knowing the latter’s skills as a great swordsman, selects a blade as his weapon of choice. If he expects the fencing expert to use his skills to avoid serious injury his uncle tries to make certain by getting Balduin to promise to leave him unharmed.

But it is now that the full extent of Scapinelli’s evil scheme becomes apparent, as he sends Balduin’s double to fight the duel and to kill his opponent...

No spoilers: A wedge is driven between Balduin and Margit, he climbs into her room to try and explain yet his doppelganger appears out of the shadows just as she realises her love has no reflection. There can be no escape and as the confrontations escalate can Balduin kill his own shadow without destroying himself?

The two Balduins are filmed really well…the film’s tour de force of special effect with Wegener acting well against his shadow self. A double-exposure trick that’s been done a lot worse many times since but is here executed to near perfection with the spruced up images only highlighting the sublime technique on view.

Prague in the sunshine makes for an excellent backdrop adding quality depth of field to what could have been a shallow gothic melodrama. Wegener does well as the “student” (I think he was in his late thirties at the time) yet is matched by John Gottowt’s fiendish energy as Scapinelli…

The Student of Prague is still available on the abbreviated cheapo DVD but to get a clear view of the two sides of Paul Wegener wait for the Edition Filmmuseum DVD set which has been in the works for well over a year – I’ve been checking regularly but there’s no release date as yet. Don’t hesitate when it does become available!

*A version of William Wilson featured as part the 1967 horror compilation, Les Histoires Extraordinaires. Directed by Louis Malle it starred Alain Delon as the eponymous lead who becomes haunted by his own reflection. In this version of events Wilson is sadistic and his counter-part seems intent on preventing his wrong-doings. In spite of also featuring Brigitte Bardot the sequence fails to engage and is vastly overshadowed by Fellini’s Toby Dammit, the final story in the set. Featuring a magnetic Terrence Stamp, Toby Dammit is a tour de force showcasing Fellini’s still outstandingly-original cinematic vision.

There’s a nice review of that mixed bag to be found on Dusty Video Box’s site here. The Student of Prague is undoubtedly the better take on the tale in spite of the gap in technology… just goes to show that substance wins over style, sound and colour…

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