March 09, 2012

Der Student Von Prag (1935)

During the 1920s, German cinema experienced an artistic development that had its roots in the Expressionist movement that had been explored in architecture and painting. Films such as "Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari" (1920) and "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922) showcased the trademarks of the movement: a stylish and geometrical art direction, use of low-key lighting and the embrace of psychological themes. Expressionism was about the expression of the inner side, as opposed to a mere representation of the reality. Though short-lived, the movement left an enormous influence in cinema, particularly in the horror genre, which found in Expressionism the perfect style for its nightmarish worlds. The American horror films of the 30s are perhaps the best example of this, mainly because of the fact that key members of the movement who had moved to America were behind the camera. However, they weren't the only ones. In Germany, veteran director Arthur Robison attempted to update a classic story of the silent German Expressionism: "Der Student von Prag".

Set in the 1860s, Balduin (Anton Walbrook) is a young and gallant student, a dreamer whose greatest pleasure is to have a good time with his friends at the inn's tavern and compete with his friend Dahl (Fritz Genschow) for the affections of Lydia (Edna Gryeff), the innkeeper's niece. However, everything changes one day, when the group is celebrating Lydia's birthday, as that day the famous opera singer Julia Stella (Dorothea Wieck) stops by the inn, and casually offers the group a brief display of her talents. Amazed by the singer, the young Balduin immediately falls in love with her, but to his misfortune, she is always surrounded by the cream of the crop of society, people like the rich Baron Waldis (Erich Fiedler), so the poor student Balduin thinks he has no chance. It's in this moment when the mysterious Dr. Carpis (Theodor Loos) enters the scene, and promises Balduin the status he desires. However, by accepting this deal Balduin will become a pawn in Dr. Carpis' revenge against Julia.

The original version of "Der Student Von Prag" was written by author Hanns Heinz Ewers as a horror version of Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" and the Faust legend. Director Henrik Galeen's remake was more refined, but nonetheless faithful to Ewers' story. This version, written by Hans Kyser and director Arthur Robison himself, makes several important changes to the original tale. The most obvious are the fact that Balduin's love interest is no longer a member of the royalty but a famous singer, and the link between Dr. Carpis and Julia, inexistent in previous versions. The figure of Dr. Carpis receives considerable development, no longer being only a Mephistophelian figure, Dr. Carpis acquires a defined motivation and becomes a true villain in Robison's "Der Student Von Prag". However, the truly most important change is subtler: the fact that Balduin loses more than his reflection in the bargain, he loses his identity, his personality, his dreams. Robison's "Der Student Von Prag" is certainly closer to Wilde's "Dorian Gray" than to Poe's "William Wilson".

A veteran from the years of German Expressionism ("Schatten - Eine nächtliche Halluzination" being his most famous film), director Arthur Robison gives his version of "Der Student Von Prag" an ominous atmosphere of dread thanks to the great work of cinematographer Bruno Mondi (another Expressionist veteran), who captures the story of Balduin in a style that quite appropriately, becomes progressively darker as the story unfolds. Reflecting the changes to the plot, Robison's film is less an Expressionist nightmare and more a Gothic tragedy, with the emphasis now on the psychological horror instead of the visceral one. For this effect, Robison carefully develops the story of Balduin's damnation, giving enough space for the characters to grow (even the secondary ones), all with a slick and elegant visual narrative. His "Der Student von Prag" lacks the remarkable visual flair of Galeen's version, but instead Robison gives his movie a quite appropriate somber tone of ambiguity, with the nature of Dr. Carpis' power over Balduin left in the dark.

The acting is one of "Der Student von Prag"'s strongest elements, as it has several great performances from its cast. As the tortured Balduin, Anton Walbrook (still known as Adolf Wohlbrück) makes a remarkable job at portraying the change in Balduin's soul. Beginning the film as a carefree young lad, his character's obsession with Julia grows and takes him to make the pact with Dr. Carpis, which seals his fate. Without the help of any make up or special effects, Walbrook manages to create two very different personalities for his character, and often without saying a word: his facial expression telling all that's needed to known about the inner struggle for Balduin's soul. The beautiful Dorothea Wieck plays Balduin's love interest, Julia, and her work in the role is also of great quality. Wieck achieves to create an equally complex character, as her Julia is as guilty as Carpis of Balduin's ruin. Half Mephistopheles and half Svengali, Theodor Loos' Dr. Carpis may not be a physical imposing figure, but the strength he gives to his voice creates a convincing Gothic villain in the film.

An interesting update on "Der Student von Prag", Robison's film has in its favor an intelligent screenplay, a stylish technique and a collection of great performances. The twist that writers Kyser and Robison have given to the story is particularly meaningful, as it does give a new readings to the story. While in the past the result of Balduin's deal was that his mirror image gained life of its own (becoming a doppelgänger), in Robison's film the loss of his mirror image represents the loss of the best in him. The sentimental dreamer (as he is called in the film) becomes a cynic man twisted by greed and obsession. While he's still the young handsome student on the outside, his personality has been transformed by the powers granted by Dr. Carpis, eager to fuel Balduin's ambition to achieve his evil purposes. As a film made during the Nazi regime, it does make for an interesting parallel to the changes that were taking place in German society in the years before World War II.

One of the last films produced before all film production in Germany became subordinated to the Reichsfilmkammer, Arthur Robison's version of "Der Student von Prag" is more than a mere sound remake of a famous tale, it's a great horror film by its own right. Full of symbolism and of great technical quality, the 1935 version of "Der Student von Prag" has been unfairly forgotten, often overshadowed by its silent predecessors; however, it's probably the best version of the tale. "Der Student von Prag" would be Robison's last film before his death (he would not live to see it released), and also one of the last films Anton Walbrook would do before leaving Germany. In a way, "Der Student von Prag" marks the end of an era of German cinema.


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