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The Forgotten: The Balduin Brothers

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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?

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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!!!

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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.

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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.

"Wonderful."

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.

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Now you see him...

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Now you don't.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

If you want to make things really complicated, you should bring up the fact that Robinson also directed the first movie version of The Informer — a 1929 British talkie with a Hungarian and a Swede (the Victor Maclaglen part) in the lead roles. It also happened to be Jack Cardiff’s first gig (and thus the Walbrook Circle is complete!).
Walbrook really is one of the best, and certainly one of my favorite performers.
Well I’d be very disappointed if Walbrook didn’t get off on himself.
It would show a deplorable lack of taste, and that’s one thing we could never suspect him of. I’m on the verge of laying my hands on that part-talkie version of The Informer — does it start talking when he does? Looking forward to it intensely. Robison has a concentration on psychological effects that I find essential to cinema.
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Thanks for this article. Is this film available on DVD? // The Idiots is an absolutely devastating film – my favorite Von Trier. From the perspective of the idea to the form – one of the best.
So far, Student of Prague isn’t available at all, in any format,anywhere. Legally. The Idiots packs a certain wallop, but it was re-seeing it with subtitles that made me realize how crude the expression of ideas was in the dialogue. Trier really goes for obvious, on-the-nose stuff — his next Dogme project should be to make a silent film.
Well Guy Maddin is light years ahead of him on that score.
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I can’t disagree with you more, David, on Trier. The crudeness that you allude to comes from the subject matter. This is different from making the subject matter crude.
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// i meant David Cairns.
The stuff I found crude was the ghastly family who berate the woman for running off after her child died. They’re just comic-strip villains of the kind Trier is too fond of using. I don’t have any problem with the broad comic or grotesque elements. I find the idea that there’s a noble innocence in having learning difficulties fairly pathetic, but that doesn’t matter so much in the film — the characters may believe it, which is fine. Unfortunately, Trier has said he believes it too. It’s just as patronizing as all that “noble savage” guff.
where did you find the arthur robison version of the student of prague. I would like to see it!
Just to enlighten you a little bit because you do not understand the language. Balduin is granted his luck in exchange for his reflection and almost instantly feels the loss of “der andere in mir selbst/ the other within myself”. This mirror image sort of represents his conscience (and haunts him, he is the only one who sees it btw) and when he finally is reunited in the scene you describe so well and correctly, at least to me this is a happy ending. Carpis has called Balduin a “sentimental dreamer” before btw. The two ladies – if at all – Balduin is torn between are his old love, the landlord’s daughter, and the unmarried (!) singer Julia, with whom he falls instantly in love when first meeting her. Julia herself has had some relationship going on with Dr Carpis, who is very jealous and considers her to be his creature and who has successfully destroyed the lives of several of Julia’s suitors before – in the movie he not only destroys Balduin’s life but also Baron Waldis’ one (he is the guy being killed by Balduin in the duel, in fact they had agreed by Julia’s intervention to not hurt each other fatally but Carpis manipulates Balduin into believing that Waldis and Julia had planned for him to be killed instead). The killing is done quite delberately by Balduin and Waldis indicates that they had an agreement before dying and this is why Balduin’s fellow students turn away from him.
Hi again, David. I liked this review. I want to tell you and others that you can now order a good, subtitled copy of this film at rarefilmsandmore.com where I posted a review before reading yours but it covered many of your points. One thing you mentioned and I should have added was about the name change of the villain. It’s possible Scapinelli was changed to Carpis because Germany didn’t want to offend their friend Italy. Again thanks for the great review of a little seen film.

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