International Horror Film Review: The Student of Prague (dir by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener)

The year is 1820 and Balduin (Paul Wegener) has a problem.

Yes, he might be the most popular student at the University of Prague.  And yes, he may be known as the greatest swordsman in the city.  And yes, he might get invited to all of the parties and he might have a lot of friends who all look up to him.  However, what Balduin does not have is money.  While everyone else seems to be living a life of luxury, Balduin lives in a tiny room where his only luxury is the mirror in which he often appreciates his own reflection.

Balduin could really use some money because he’s fallen in love with Countess Margit (Grete Berger) but there’s no way that a member of the noble class could ever marry a destitute man.  Instead, it appears that Margit is destined to marry her cousin, the Baron (Fritz Wiedermann).

However, an old man named Scapinelli (John Gottowt) claims to have a solution.  He promises to give Balduin a fortune in gold if he agrees to let Scapinelli remove just one thing from his room.  Convinced that he’s fooled the old man because he has nothing of worth in his room, Balduin agrees to Scapinelli’s conditions.  Scapinelli promptly turns to the mirror and, as Balduin watches, Balduin’s reflection steps out of the mirror and then leaves with Scapinelli.  Balduin starts to laugh hysterically.

So now, Balduin has no reflection but he does have a lot of money!  Balduin sets out to try to win Margit away from the Baron.  Making things difficult is that, no matter where Balduin goes, someone always seems to be following him. Sometimes, it’s a mysterious wandering girl (Lyda Salmonova) who always seems to be intent on eavesdropping on every conversation that he has.  And then other times, it’s his doppelganger!  There’s now two Balduins running around Prague and, whenever the first Balduin finds himself alone with Margit, the second Balduin always seems to pop up and ruin everything.

Obviously something must be done….

This German silent film was first released in 1913 and it’s considered by some to be the first feature-length horror film.  (Georges Méliès directed several films featuring ghosts and haunted houses but the majority of those films ran only a handful of minutes.)  It’s also considered to be one of the first art films and, since Paul Wegener financed the production and distributed the film himself, also the first independent film.  It was also the first film to make use of the type of double exposure tricks that we today take for granted.  In 1913, audiences were stunned to see Paul Wegener apparently acting opposite himself.  The film was a big hit, with none the less than psychoanalyst Otto Rank praising the film for its psychological depth.

Of course, to watch the film today, audiences have to adjust both their expectations and the way that they take in and process cinematic storytelling.  As of this writing, The Student of Prague is 106 years old and it’s definitely a film of its time.  The camera largely remains stationary and, from a modern perspective, the film is rather slow-paced.  And yet, the film’s story remains rather intriguing.  Despite the static camera work, the film manages to create and maintain a properly ominous atmosphere and a scene in which Balduin and Margit attempt to meet in a cemetery is effectively creepy.  Paul Wegener’s performance holds up well.  Largely eschewing the overly theatrical acting style that we usually tend to associate with silent cinema, Wegener gives a nuanced and effectively subtle performance as both Balduin and his doppelganger.  When he’s acting opposite of himself, you don’t think about the fact that you’re witnessing an early camera trick.  Instead, Wegener creates two separate but believable versions of the same character.  The doppelganger represents all of Balduin’s undesirable impulses and everything that has kept Balduin from achieving happiness.  By the end of the film, Balduin can’t live with his doppelganger but he can’t live without him as well.

The Student of Prague is an interesting piece of history and one that every true student of horror should watch and learn from at least once.