Released 22 August 1913, The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag), a.k.a A Bargain with Satan, is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839); Alfred de Musset’s poem “The December Night” (1835); and Faust.
In May 1820, we’re introduced to Vive Balduin (Paul Wegener, who played the title role in the Golem trilogy), the best swordsman and boldest student of Prague. Though his friends are enjoying themselves, Balduin is despondent. When an old man, Scapinelli (John Gottowt, né Isidor Gesang), joins his table, Balduin says he’s ruined, and begs the stranger to make him win the lottery, or find him a rich heiress.
Scapinelli agrees to help him, and they seal the deal with a handshake.
Meanwhile, Countess Margit (Grete Berger) and her fiancé go on a hunt, during which it’s revealed they’re cousins, and that Margit is only marrying him because her father desires it. She doesn’t love her fiancé at all.
Who should happen along but Balduin and Scapinelli, just in time for Balduin to save Margit from drowning! As Balduin carries her back to shore, Margit surreptitiously slips an amulet into his hand.
In his dorm, Balduin fences in front of the mirror, then admires the amulet. He accepts a bouquet from a flowergirl outside (Wegener’s real-life, much-younger wife Lyda Salmonova) before visiting Margit.
After this brief visit, Scapinelli comes to Balduin’s dorm and conjures up 100,000 pieces of gold, and a contract. Balduin can’t accept them unless he grants Scapinelli the right to take whatever he wants from that room.
Balduin happily signs, and tries to interest Scapinelli in the mirror. While Scapinelli is moving it from the wall, a Doppelgänger steps out, and all the trouble begins.
Act II begins with Balduin being invited to a ball given by the Governor, in the castle. Thanks to his newfound riches, he’s able to go in style, in a high-class carriage, pulled by bewigged coachmen.
Balduin tries to flirt with Margit during the ball, though she maintains a respectable public image when they’re not alone.
Also by the ball are the flowergirl and Doppelgänger. Soon after Balduin encounters the latter, he vanishes into thin air, and says he’s neither God nor demon, but Balduin’s brother whom he called by name.
In Margit’s salon, she reads a note from Balduin, entreating her to keep her promise and meet him tomorrow at 11:00 in the Jewish cemetery, the most discreet place in Prague. After Margit walks off, the flowergirl steals a handkerchief Balduin gave her.
Act III begins with Margit and Balduin’s meeting. Of course, both the flowergirl and Doppelgänger pop up and scheme to spoil things. The flowergirl gives the handkerchief to Margit’s fiancé, and the Doppelgänger appears by a tombstone.
Though Balduin is Pargue’s best swordsman, Margit’s fiancé nevertheless challenges him to a duel. Her father visits Balduin and begs him not to kill the fiancé, since he’s his sister’s only child, his daughter’s fiancé, his heir, and “the last one to bear our name” (as though women are completely incapable of passing on family names!).
Balduin is on his way to the duel when he runs across who else but the Doppelgänger. This seems the answer to his problems, since his double can commit the act he dares not.
Act IV opens with a de Musset quote about how the Doppelgänger stalks him wherever he goes, constantly shadowing him, even when he tries to sleep. We learn Balduin is no longer admitted to the Count and Margit. Instead, he fills his life with hedonistic pleasures.
After refusing to play a card game against the Doppelgänger, Balduin goes to see Margit. Margit receives him joyfully, but their reunion ends in horror when the Doppelgänger appears.
And thus the final scene of greater and greater horror begins.
Like many horror films of this vintage, this isn’t something you can expect thrills and chills from. It’s more about creating a mood and building towards that final reel. A lot of 1910s features are also hit or miss for me. Feature-length film was in its genesis, in process of finding its voice. The storytelling often isn’t particularly sophisticated, and a dearth of intertitles creates confusion about who a character is and what exactly’s going on.
This film was remade in 1926 with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, and again in 1935 and 2004. The 1913 original is considered the very first German art film, and the world’s first indie film. It also deeply spoke to the alienation many Germans felt as their empire headed towards collapse, sparked interest in psychoanalysis, and set the stage for German Expressionism.