by Allan Fish
(Germany 1926 95m) DVD1
Aka. Der Student von Prag
He gambled with his soul and lost
p Harry R.Sokal d Henrik Galeen w Henrik Galeen, Hanns Heinz Ewart story Edgar Allan Poe ph Gunther Krampf, Erich Nitzchmann art Hermann Warm
Conrad Veidt (Balduin), Werner Krauss (Scapinelli), Fritz Alberti (Graf Schwarzenberg), Elizza Porta (Liduschka), Agnes Esterhazy (Margit), Ferdinand von Alten (Baron Waldis Schwarzenberg),
Take a crash course in German Expressionism in the 21st century and a great injustice will be perpetrated borne out of ignorance. We know Murnau, Lang, Pabst, of Robert Wiene for Caligari (if little else) and Paul Wegener for and as Der Golem. Yet it’s a summary guilty of numerous oversights. Such avant garde pioneers as Hans Richter and Walter Ruttmann, Kammerspiel founder Lupu Pick, Paul Leni, E.A.Dupont, Joe May and Hanns Schwarz all merit a mention. As do the likes of Hermann Warm, Karl Freund and Fritz Arno Wagner. Not to mention the man who perhaps was the movement’s very soul in the same way Zavattini was to neo-realism, writer Carl Mayer.
The one missing from this illustrious roll call is Henrik Galeen. Various key film reference works list him as an essential figure in German expressionism, but why do we not know him better? It can be partially explained by looking him up on the IMDb, where Galeen comes up as “writer, Nosferatu.” He did indeed write the scenario for Nosferatu. He wrote Der Golem and Waxworks, too, but who remembers that he once co-directed the 1913 version of Der Golem? Who indeed remembers him as a director at all?
He didn’t make many films as a director, and fewer still survive, but there are two that are worth tracking down. Alraune is a worthy variation on many expressionistic themes with Paul Wegener and Brigitte Helm excellent in the leads. Better is his The Student of Prague, like Der Golem a remake of a 1913 original, and while that version has its advocates, few could argue that Galeen’s is the better film.
The story is an old chestnut, essentially another Faustian reworking about a student, Balduin, who is bored with being the greatest fencer in the land and wants to turn his attention to the fairer sex, but lacks the money to do so. He thus strikes up a bargain with the mysterious Scapinelli, who promises him 600,000 ducats in exchange for just something of Scapinelli’s choice from within Balduin’s room. Balduin agrees in the belief he possesses nothing valuable, but Scapinelli claims his reflection from within the mirror. At first he doesn’t miss it, but then the reflection stars getting ideas of his own, and kills a rival in a duel which he had promised would not be fatal.
The plot being such a familiar one, and Balduin’s death foretold in the opening graveyard scene, its reputation rests on its performances and visual command. Veidt and Krauss are reunited from Caligari (they were both in Waxworks, but didn’t share a scene) and they’re both superb. Krauss’ freaky appearance, with deliberately exaggerated make-up, is quite unnerving, while Veidt is superb in one of his greatest doomed romantic roles that he often played in Germany or Britain before Hollywood typecast him as a villain. That it’s stunningly photographed in chiaroscuro worthy of the old masters and superbly designed goes without saying, as does the fact that the scene where Krauss summons Veidt’s reflection through the mirror should be as celebrated as Max Schreck on the deck of the Demeter or Rotwang’s creation of the Maria robot. Sadly all prints currently in circulation are not in the best condition – those German classics not made under the UFA banner just weren’t preserved as well – and with the original negative lost a restoration seems unlikely. Yet still its influence can be seen down the years. Take the final scene where Balduin confronts his errant reflection in his room and shoots it. The mirror shatters and he sees his reflection back on the other side through the remaining shards, only for him to then realise he’s actually shot himself. If it sounds familiar, replace the mirror with a painting, locked away in an attic, a knife through the heart.