THE SPY WITH MY FACE
"He had the good fortune to be a bad author with an imagination reveling in gross sensation and sex - a natural ally for the Nazis, for whom he was to write, in 1933, the official screen play on Horst Wessel." — Siegfried Kracauer on Hanns Heinz Ewers.
The Student of Prague, a sort of mash-up of Poe's William Wilson with ETA Hoffmann's Sylvestrenacht and the Faust legend, was a staple of German cinema for thirty years, attracting major acting and directing talent associated with uncanny cinema. Screenwriter Hanns Heinz Ewers, a successful novelist and former WWI spy, saw cinema as an ideal medium for the stories of twisted psychology and the supernatural in which he specialized. In 1913, Paul Wegener, two years before embodying The Golem for the first time, co-directed and starred in a short but stiff movie (Wegener always acted and directed like a man fired in a kiln) based on Ewers' scenario. A very early example of the unheimlich tendency in German cinema, this was followed in 1926 by a Henrik Galeen remake starring Conrad Veidt, part of the full-on expressionist horror movement that included Wegener's third outing as the Golem (the only one which now survives) and Nosferatu, both of which were scripted by Galeen.
I can make this even more complicated if you like—as an actor, Galeen played the Golem's master in the original clay man movie.
Now it's 1935, and Arthur Robison, known today solely for the expressionist mood piece Warning Shadows, is having a crack at it, aided by lead actor Anton Walbrook, cinema's finest hysteric and the only actor to play the student who looks like he might be young enough. In fact, he's thirty-nine. Veidt was the youngest, but looked the oldest. Wegener doesn't look old, as such, he just looks like a massive clay man.
Confession: I don't speak the German. And since nobody has made Robison's film available with subtitles, and I don't know any skilled simultaneous translators who do German, I think I was missing a fair bit of nuance when I watched the movie. I have a suspicion that, if you understand the language, the film does actually make a lot more sense. Watching movies without understanding any of the dialogue is quite an interesting experience. I do recommend it. But you can't really rely on any of your conclusions—I once saw The Idiots at Cannes, in Danish with French subtitles, two languages I don't speak (I know—are there any languages I do speak?). There was some kind of audio translation coming from the arm of my chair, but I couldn't get close enough to the arm of my chair to hear it. The movie seemed quite intriguing. It wasn't until I saw it again with English subs that I realised my terrible mistake.
But what are you going to do? You can either wait for somebody who speaks German to see The Student of Prague, and write about it, or you can see it yourself, which I recommend, but you might not speak German either. There are too many variables here. Just read the article, will you?
THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS
"Mirrors are the doorways through which Death enters the world. Stare long enough into a mirror, and you will see Death at work." — Jean Cocteau.
Walbrook is Balduin, a student of—well, I wasn't clear what he was studying, possibly histrionics. But this being one of these Mitteleuropean unis where the fratboys spend most of their time gashing each others' faces open with sabres, it doesn't much matter. I'm helped by the fact that I've seen the first two films, although being both much longer and a talkie, Robison's film adds a lot of detail, as well as changing character names. But we see Anton defeating a rival with his deft swordplay, so I'm on safe ground here, I think.
A brief romantic comedy mime sequence enhances the feeling that I'm on top of this, and proves that Walbrook could have knocked them dead in silent movies—oh wait, he did? More forgotten cinema to dig up! It soon becomes clear that Walbrook is torn between his sweet barmaid and a rich married lady. This psycho-socio-sexual schism can be seen as the "perfectly reasonable explanation" for what is to follow. The sinister Dr Carpis—our Mephistopheles-for-hire—imbues Walbrook with the power to win at cards (Walbrook would revisit this fantasy terrain in The Queen of Spades, a 1948 British thriller directed by the underrated Thorold Dickenson, simultaneously a faithful adaptation of Pushkin's story and a quasi-remake of this film), but thereafter he's plagued by visions of his doppelganger, emerging from mirrors and freaking him out at inopportune moments. Carpis is called Scapinelli in previous versions, which threw me for a moment. I guess in 1935 German movies weren't casting Italians as villains unless they absolutely had to.
Walbrook—using his birth name, Adolf Wohlbrück—is the unquestioned centre of this movie, and it fascinatingly prefigures everything he would do later (for his career is only beginning). A waltz calls to mind La ronde, a duel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Here he is in a domino mask and cape, the Bat from Oh... Rosalinda!!!
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
"In me didst thou exist—and in my death, see how utterly thou hast murdered thyself." — Edgar Allan Poe.
Unlike in previous movies, where Balduin's double is a flesh-and-blood foe, here the interloper is a somnambular shade, unseen by other characters and more symbolic of the soul Balduin has given away. His soul is no longer on his side.
This leads to the expected scenes of Walbrook's image stepping out of a mirror (which is actually a doorway opening onto a duplicate set), and the film's cleverest moment, when Carpis and Balduin walk past a wall mirror and a sudden gust blows a lace curtain across it, obscuring the glass for exactly the two seconds it takes for them to pass by, leaving open the question of whether either man still possesses a reflection.
Aided immeasurably by a swooping, atmospheric score by Theo Mackeben, Robison concocts a gloomy world much indebted to the silent horrors of the twenties, with crepuscular, sloping mean streets lit by flaring lamps, and a camera that slides outwards to show Walbrook awakening from tortured dreams and becoming aware of his surroundings, or shoves into his face to register some new expression of spiritual malaise. With his swish-pans, restless roving, and sharp cuts, Robison not only manages to shoot two Walbrooks in the same scene with only a few special effects, he matches his leading character's (or characters'?) neurotic angst with a stylistic twitchiness that's exciting to watch.
After accidentally killing a dueling opponent when startled by his look-alike apparition, Walbrook finally faces off with the man in the mirror, aiming a pistol at the source of all his problems: himself. Fans of The Red Shoes will relish the chance to see the great Walbrook smash another mirror by way of jump cut. Fans of supernatural stories will probably guess what the result of that self-directed bullet will be.
Digression—1948. Lawrie Knight, a young assistant on The Red Shoes, is asked by Walbrook if he can screen the rushes from the previous day's shoot: the mirror-smashing scene. Knight hastily arranges it.
The lights got down, the image appears, but there is no sound. Knight apologizes and offers to see the projectionist, fix the problem. Walbrook demurs—it doesn't matter. So they sit together in the whirring silence.
The voice is a mere whisper. Knight looks around. He's alone, except for Walbrook.
"Marvellous. Oh, wonderful. I'm fantastic."
End of digression. Purpose of digression—Walbrook plays his greatest love scene with his own reflection in The Student of Prague. The last moments of the story, rudely hijacked by the actor, who turns the doppelganger myth into a Narcissus. Staring mournfully, tenderly, into his own eyes, he murmurs the words "Sentimental dreamer..." (OK, I know a couple of words of German) and softly touches the glass lips of his image.
Director Arthur Robison, a unique figure—an American who made his name in the German cinema of the silent era, also making movies in Britain and France—is worthy of more study. Only fifty-two, he died while making The Student of Prague.
I'd love to know what killed him.
Now you see him...
Now you don't.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.