October 28, 1913 [Der Student von Prag/The Student of Prague]

My father tells a story:
He was a young man, still living with his parents. One night, after an evening with some friends, he was making his way home. It was late and the streets were dark, but he saw someone walking ahead of him. The form was familiar—he thought it was his father, but the lateness of the hour, the neighborhood he was walking through—and the fact that his father was by no means a rover, should most certainly have been home—all spoke against its being him. So my father hung back; but he began to worry that perhaps something was wrong, that his father had ventured out to look for him—his mother might have fallen ill (she was a sickly woman). Besides, as my father always added, "He looked forlorn, somehow—troubled, too. Something seemed to weigh on him." The man walked on, approached the light of an open shop or tavern—and it was my grandfather, my father swore, and in the sudden yellow light looked grave—and also ill-at-ease, as though he had lost something. His hands moved in and out of his pockets, his head swiveled, almost turning to meet my father, but still he faced the light, peering in the open door. And it was then that his appearance most oppressed my father, so that he at once was convinced it was Grandpop—but hesitated to approach him, my grandfather's demeanor seeming suddenly almost threatening. The man's hands clenched, and he stood still. My father made his way to him, and touched him on the shoulder, began to ask him what he was doing out so late, so far from home—and the man turned, and it was not his father, but a stranger—still, as my father always ended the tale, "as close to Pop's twin as I never hoped to meet again."

Paul Wegener, as Balduin, Der Student von Prag, also meets his double, the one who walks with him. Bored and penniless, he yearns to impress the countess—which he does, rescuing her from a tumble into a pond. But he's not her social equal, and returns to his student's poor lodging. The thin and stooped, menacingly cheerful Scapinelli approaches him, offers a contract: piles of money in return for anything in the room Scapinelli desires. Balduin looks around at the tatters and scraps of his possessions, gladly agrees—and Scapinelli takes the student's reflection from the mirror: his soul—and a singularly grim and unsmiling thing it is, its gait steady but plodding, its eyes like a doll's. Balduin is uneasy, but soon immerses himself in wealth; still, he cannot claim the countess—and worse, he is followed everywhere by his doppelganger thwarting his pleasures, slipping into the room or through the woods like a poisonous shadow.

And shadows there are. The film knows it has entered a dark fairy tale, and at times reduces the light to chiaroscuro contrasts—especially during a card-playing scene in which the players are bathed in light, their surroundings black. And as they lose, they fade into that darkness—until the only two left are Balduin and, of course, his double. It is for me the first truly painterly moment of the cinema since L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat [1896], which stretched the frame with the diagonal arrival, the train neatly dividing the plane into elongated triangles. Here, though, it is not composition but shading, stark foregrounding with uncertain depths behind, a perfect moment.

When Balduin shoots his double (which disappears)—only to discover he himself bleeding and dying—light and shadow meet in doom, as Scapinelli enters, capering and mincing, happy like an idiot child, sprinkling the torn bits of contract over the student's corpse, winking out like one of Méliès' imps. There is a strange secondary character, Lyduschka, "the wandering girl," in love with Balduin but ignored by him. She helps thwart his attempt to woo the countess, and is a kind of ghost herself, all but unnoticed by the other characters, even as she prances and fawns across the scene. Together, these figures cling to Balduin like inner yearnings and fears, and guide him with certainty toward inevitable ends. Balduin's shock as he realizes it is he who bleeds seems a version of my father's own waking dream, the figure who invites one to move closer—only to turn, a stranger and a warning.


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