The Student of Prauge (1913)
Directed by Stellan Rye
Mon, Apr 23 at MoMA, as part of the Babelsberg Studios tribute within Kino! New Films from Germany
Silent film isn't a period, but a style. In The Student of Prague's ending, a man sits on a dirt hill beside a tall gravestone. He's leaning forward, his face fixed, his gigantic eyes wide and unblinkingly open. The man stays there, frozen, while long, leafy tree branches sway above his head.
A silent film can force you to stare at people as they stare into you. Lillian Gish, Griffith's muse, had eyes wide enough to hold worlds, and so did Paul Wegener, the 1913 Student's star. His romantically sad Balduin, an impoverished master swordsman, signs a Faustian pact with the sinister, supernatural Scapinelli (John Gottowt) to win the Countess Margit (Grete Berger)'s love; he soon discovers that his reflection has escaped its mirror and become a living, breathing, evil double.
Torment and turmoil and torture ensue, as Wegener's claylike white face seems to harden into stone. The tale's familiarly melodramatic, yet we feel for the people inside the story. Even when they're in groups, their suffering isolates them. Balduin sits drinking at an elaborate party while people dance directly behind, and while others walk and talk freely further back as they move up and down stairs. He's in the front center of the room, and the chair nearby is empty. Lyduschka (Lyda Salmonova), the poor girl from his past, approaches to try to catch his attention, but she knows she's lost to him, and so she doesn't sit down. The fixed frame echoes the way they're trapped in themselves. Student, which will screen with live piano accompaniment by Ben Model, feels as immediate as any new film. The people onscreen are looking to share themselves with us.