Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Student of Prague (1926)

The 1926 German silent horror film The Student of Prague was a remake of the 1913 version. The basic story remains the same but cinema technique had advanced considerably in the interim, and modern audiences will find the 1926 film more accessible.

This version was written and directed by Henrik Galeen and had the considerable additional advantage of having in its cast two of German silent cinema’s great stars, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss.

Balduin (Conrad Veidt) is a pleasure-loving student who happens to be the finest fencer in Prague. Unhappily he now finds himself penniless. A rather odd character named Scapinelli appears on the scene and tells Balduin that his problems can be solved quite easily. It is merely a matter of signing a simple agreement. Once the document is signed Balduin will find himself exceedingly rich, to the tune of 600,000 gold pieces. And in return all he has to do is to allow Scapinelli to take one item from his room. Balduin eagerly agrees but is somewhat disconcerted when Scapinelli elects to take Balduin’s reflection as his payment.

Balduin is now so rich that he can afford to support a hundred other students. He is soon even more popular than he was before. The only cloud on the horizon is his discovery that his reflection has now taken on a life of its own and this double keeps turning up, causing Balduin both annoyance and a certain growing dread.

A chance encounter with the Countess Margit will have momentous consequences. Balduin saves her life, and then falls in love with her. The countess is betrothed to her cousin Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg. Inevitably a quarrel ensues between the baron and Balduin, a quarrel that can only be settled by a duel. The baron has no chance whatsoever of surviving an encounter with Balduin. The Countess Margit’s father begs Balduin not to kill the baron. Balduin, being fundamentally a decent fellow agrees, but on the following morning he discovers to his horror that his reflection/double has killed the baron.

Balduin is now on the road to ruin. The countess will not see him, he is expelled from the university and he resorts more and more to drink and gambling. These distractions do not help him. A final encounter with his double will settle his fate one way or the other.

While there was absolutely nothing wrong with Paul Wegener’s performance as Balduin in the 1913 version it has to be admitted that Conrad Veidt’s performance surpasses it. Veidt makes Balduin a truly tragic figure, a man who was basically kind and decent but of course you can’t make a bargain with Satan and expect to get way with it. Werner Krauss is a delightfully plausible yet sinister tempter. It’s the performances of these two actors that make this second film version of the story the superior version. The acting is also on the whole more naturalistic in this 1926 film than in the earlier version.

The most noticeable technical advance in this version is in the much more modern editing. Galeen was a fine director and this 1926 version offers some memorable and nicely chilling imagery.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is one of their better efforts. The picture quality is certainly not fantastic but taking the age of the movie into account it’s acceptable.

Both silent versions of The Student of Prague are excellent in their own ways and horror fans will really want to see both versions. Alpha Video offer a two-movie set including both versions and it’s a very worthwhile buy. Both films demonstrate the artistry of German silent horror films. Highly recommended.

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