In his authoritative book Weimar Culture, Peter Gay makes the point that many of the artistic innovations that we associate with Weimar Germany actually originated beforehand. Silent movie The Student of Prague is a perfect example. Created in 1913, and thus a full five years before the end of the Second Reich, its eerie mood, technical accomplishment and literary inspiration seem to belong in one of the great 1920s Expressionist movies.
Like the film Richard Wagner, created the same year, The Student of Prague was so ahead of its time that it achieved multiple “firsts”. It is described as the first art film, the first horror film and the first auteur film, said auteur being Hanns Heinz Ewers, who wrote and directed (his co-directors being Stellan Rye and star Paul Wegener, although the division of directorial duties is disputed). Ewers saw the new medium of cinema as the perfect vehicle for the macabre atmosphere he had created in books like Alraune.
While the film’s Faustian bargain inevitably brings Goethe to mind, Ewers also drew on two other works, Alfred de Musset‘s poem “Night of December” and Edgar Allan Poe’s story “William Wilson”. Common to both is the theme of the doppelgänger, brilliantly explored in the film with the then revolutionary use of double exposure. Psychoanalyst Otto Rank picked up on the film in his 1914 essay “The Doppelgänger”, and no less a personage than Sigmund Freud mentioned The Student of Prague in the 1919 study “The Uncanny”. In Movies and the Modern Psyche, Sharon Packer comments that the film “bridged the supernatural and the psychological and connected the soul to the psyche,” creating “a metaphor about the struggles of early twentieth-century society, and its attempts to reconcile ancestral spiritual ideas with the advances in science, technology and psychology.”
The Student of Prague premiered in Berlin’s Theater am Nollendorfplatz in summer 1913. It launched the film careers of its two main actors, both making their debut. Paul Wegener went on to appear in three different films dealing with the legend of the Golem, while John Gottowt would be seen in pioneering science fiction Algol and later Nosferatu. Further versions of Ewers’ story appeared in 1926 and 1935.
A restored print of the entire 83 minute film was presented at Berlinale earlier this year. What appears below is a flawed, much shorter version which should be considered an approximation of the real thing: