Saturday, September 3, 2016

#239: The Student of Prague (Henrik Galeen, 1926)

Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel The Student of Prague has been adapted for film and television many times (and so has its forebear, the Faust legend), but Henrik Galeen's 1926 film of the classic moral tale is hard to beat. Galeen was primarily a screenwriter but was no slouch behind the camera, either, and he brings a sharp eye and a visual poetry to the old story of exchanging one's conscience for material gain.
The film is about Balduin (Conrad Veidt), a poor university student in Prague who, despite being the best fencer in the city, is in deep distress at his lack of funds. His swordsmanship isn't helping his bank account. He initially has our sympathy, even though we know things aren't going to go well for him (the film opens on his gravestone before flashing back). Balduin can't get out of his own way. As a university student and gifted athlete, his poverty years are most likely temporary, but he dreams of a wealthy fiancee and the high society life and ignores the advances of a kindly, loving flowergirl named Lyduschka (Elizza La Porta).
On a class trip to a country inn, Balduin meets the devilish Scapinelli (Werner Krauss), who offers him money in exchange for ... something. Initially mistaking Scapinelli for a loan shark, Balduin ignores him and decides to kick some ass at fencing instead. Victory clinched, he resumes moping and pines for a wealthy girlfriend. Scapinelli overhears and decides to use some occult powers to get his soul-stealing plan in motion.
Long story short, Balduin meets an engaged countess, Margit (Agnes Esterhazy), falls hard, and sells his soul to Scapinelli in exchange for wealth. As the old soul-for-cash trade generally pans out, things go well for a while and then go horribly, terribly awry. Galeen does a lot of beautiful, expressionist stuff with mirrors, and Veidt gets to play both his character and his character's shadow self, and Veidt is most definitely the silent film actor you want playing a shadow self. (I've talked about Veidt several times on this site, so I'll just quickly reiterate here that he is awesome and one of my favorite silent film actors.) The story goes expected places, but the visual expression of the familiar tale always surprises.
The Student of Prague is a pretty top-notch silent horror film but is currently only available in mediocre public domain DVDs transferred from VHS. Even with the less than stellar picture quality, the movie impresses. Galeen has an innate understanding of how to frame a shot for maximum visual impact, but he's also subtle, avoiding the overkill of extreme stylization, and I love how he manifests losing the soul as having Balduin's reflection come out of the mirror and retreat into darkness.
Henrik Galeen directed 12 films in his career but was most often employed as a screenwriter. He had a hand in writing the scripts for several silent horror classics, including The Golem, Nosferatu, and Waxworks. An Austro-Hungarian, Galeen was a journalist in his native country before moving to Germany and working as a director's assistant. Graduating to screenwriter and director, he worked in the German film industry until 1933, the year he fled the country for the United States. He lived a quiet life in the U.S. and died of cancer in Vermont in 1949.