Friday, January 2, 2015

The Student of Prague (1913)

Director: Stellan Rye                                          Writer: Hanns Heinz Ewers
Film Score: Josef Weiss                                    Cinematography: Guido Seeber
Starring: Paul Wegener, John Gottowt, Grete Berger and Lyda Salmonova

One of the earliest of the German films to be retroactively deemed the starting point for all supernatural cinema to come, The Student of Prague was, like all supernatural films of the teens and twenties, thought of as simply another literary adaptation at the time. In this case it is something of a combination of the story “William Wilson” by Edgar Alan Poe and the Faust legend. The screenplay was written by the famous German author of horror stories, Hanns Heinz Ewers, and he does a decent job with the limited amount of time he is given in the film. Like all films from this period the different versions vary widely and so I urge everyone to stay well away from the Alpha Video version. As with almost all of their silent films, this is so butchered and truncated and hobbled with bad music that it pales in comparison to the actual film. The fully restored German version is available on YouTube and is, quite literally, the only way to watch the complete film. And there is much in it to be impressed by, Paul Wegener’s performance being foremost among them. But the use of exteriors and very good special effects for the time also make this a film that is well worth seeing.

Paul Wegener plays a popular college student who is disconsolate because he is broke. But when John Gottowt comes to town in his top hat and pointy beard, the two of them strike a bargain. Meanwhile the wealthy countess Grete Berger has been committed to an arranged marriage with a cousin, Fritz Weidemann, but she doesn’t like him and while they are out hunting she rides off in anger and is thrown into the lake by the horse, but Wegener arrives just in time to save her and they fall in love. When Gottowt comes to see him later, he offers the student a hundred thousand dollars for anything in the room that Gottowt wants. Naturally, Wegener agrees. What he wants, however, is Wegener’s reflection in the mirror, and it comes walking out of the glass at his command. Meanwhile, a village girl, Lyda Salmonova, is desperately in love with Wegener and follows him everywhere. Berger later meets Wegener in the graveyard of the church, but suddenly his twin shows up and frightens her away. Salmonova tries to sabotage Wegener’s affair by telling Weidemann, but while Wegener plans to leave town to avoid the duel, his double takes his place instead and kills the fiancé, and so Wegener’s requests to see Berger are then refused. Wegener tries to drown his sorrows in drink and gambling but slowly descends into madness.

What is so fascinating about this film is how the subject matter--the two parts of the same personality being split apart--seems to be reflected by the film itself, and the division between the two parts could not be more stark. The interiors, especially at the estate of the countess, looks very primitive and spare, which is standard for the period, but they look that much worse when juxtaposed with the beautifully filmed exteriors. It wouldn’t be until years later, in Nosferatu, that the quality of the interiors matched those of the outdoor sequences. The other very positive aspect of the film is the special effects. When Wegener’s image walks out of the mirror it looks fantastic, and the trick shots are just as skillfully rendered. In one scene, when Wegener delivers a note to Berger, he spots his twin and it slowly vanishes before his eyes. In other scenes the use of split screen, or double exposure--especially the scene after the duel--is expertly done and makes the illusion incredibly convincing. One of the best scenes is when Wegener is playing cards with himself in front of a black background. While it may not look like it from the stills, Paul Wegener is an incredibly natural actor on the screen at times. And while he does give in to some of the over-gesticulation of the period, he is clearly the best actor on the screen.

While director Stellan Rye doesn’t use any close-ups, and keeps his camera in front of the action at all times, there are actually quite a few memorable exterior scenes in the film that raise it above a lot of the product coming out of the United States at the time, demonstrating how advanced the German film industry was. As stated before, the Munich Film Museum restoration is the only way to watch this film. The speed correction is the most important factor in this type of work and because of that the film unfolds naturally in the way that it was intended. Color tinting of scenes is done in a nicely muted fashion rather than some of the heavy-handed techniques that can make the screen colors garish. In addition, however, one of the delights of this version is the musical score. Bernd Thewes was able to take the original piano score by Josef Weiss and arrange it for the Orchester Jakobsplatz Muenchen under the direction of Daniel Grossmann, and it is wonderful. It may not be the greatest music but, for me, anything that can restore the experience as close as it was to the original conception, is cause for celebration. This restoration is exceptional and, as a result, I unhesitatingly recommend the complete version of The Student of Prague to all film fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment