When watching silent movies, I don't know that you can ever see one in an environment that replicates its original presentation. The condition of the film can't be as good as it once was and you don't know how the original musical accompaniment sounded. Therefore, when I say I don't like the music in the 2004 "Special Edition" of The Student of Prague (1913) from Alpha Video, that's not necessarily a mark against the movie itself.
In this case, though, I have more criticisms than I think can be attributed simply to the version I watched. The story was more difficult for me to follow and I didn't always understand what was happening in The Student of Prague, more so than in most other silent movies I've seen. One possible reason is that there aren't as many intertitle cards, leaving more plot points to be interpreted and more dialogue to be imagined through only the action on the screen.
On the other hand, I now see that the original running time was 85 minutes. The Alpha Video version is only 41 minutes, explaining why I feel there may have been scenes missing. Granted, they don't drastically affect the story; I get the gist of what was happening. I have to wonder, though, what is absent? Therefore, I'm going to treat this review as more of a history lesson, rather than a critique of the movie.
The Student of Prague is sometimes considered to be the first horror film ever made. It could also easily double (pun intended) as the first Twilight Zone episode never made. In The Fabulous Fantasy Films (A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1977), Jeff Roven makes a similar comparison. He writes that the first screen version of Satan came in this movie, "a routine tale by today's standards" that "set the stage for more extravagant deals with the devil to come."
In "Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1: The Silent Era" (Peveril Publishing, 2015), Wayne Kinsey writes about the literary influences on the movie. It is "loosely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's short story, 'William Wilson,' with influences from Faust and 'A New Year's Adventure'." The screenplay was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, who "is considered to have influenced such writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Guy Endore and was a good friend of occultist Alistair Crowley."
Kinsey furthers states that The Student of Prague, Paul Wegener's first film as actor and director, "employed early split screen photography to show Wegener and his mirror image which allegedly evoked screams from the fledgling cinemagoers who had never seen such an effect before on screen." Wegener would go on to make another landmark horror film, The Golem or, Der Golem (its original title.)
The story takes place in 1820 where Balduin, a Student (Wegener), is smitten with Countess Margit von Schwarzenberg (Grete Berger). Scapinelli, an "Old Adventurer" (John Gottowt), offers him 100,000 pieces of gold in exchange for any item found in his room. As a result of this "bargain with Satan," Scapinelli snatches Balduin's reflection from a mirror. As he later pursues the Countess, Balduin is haunted by his double.
In "An Introduction to Film" (Little, Brown, 1980), Thomas Sobchack and Vivian C. Sobchack called The Student of Prague a forerunner, with The Golem, to 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is "the most widely known and influential German Expressionism film and popularly considered the 'first' of the Expressionist movement. ("The Expressionist does not see, he has 'visions'.")
Since I'm being academic here, I really like the description of "medical doubling" that David J. Skal provides in "The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror" (Penguin Books, 1993). He says that in "The Nazi Doctors," psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton "explores the process of deadly mirror-doubling. Lifton compares the Nazi doctor's situation to the Faustian bargain depicted in the German doppelganger film The Student of Prague."
He further says that the term "medical doubling" is also "a good description of the underlying dynamic of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," in which a healer begets a doppelganger/destroyer." The Student of Prague is just one "significant" film "of the time dealing with doubles, doppelgangers, and the fantastic." I'll extend the comparison by saying that Henry Jekyll and Balduin, a Student, meet similar fates in stories with dark, twisty endings.
I appreciate The Student of Prague and its historical significance more than I appreciate the movie itself, at least in the version that I watched. I appreciate the fact that over 100 years ago, authors and filmmakers found epic lessons of morality within simple tales of horror. It's fascinating to find the original stories and movies from which so many others would spring. More often than we actually do it, we ought to go back in time so that we never forget.
Written by Hanns Heinz Ewers
Directed by Paul Wegener, Stellan Rye
Starring Paul Wegener, Grete Berger, Lyda Salmonova, John Gottowt
Released August 22, 1913 (Germany)
RT 41 min.
Home Video Alpha Home Entertainment (DVD)