film: Wegener: Der Student von Prag (1913)

Der Student von Prag I was looking forward to because I’d read it was a modern adaptation of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. If that’s the case, then so is Crossroads about Robert Johnson. Really, if there’s only one significant figure in history who sold his soul to the devil, then Christians should assume they’ve pretty much got Satan beat. What are the differences? Faustus is not needy, he’s brilliant and bored with life. Balduin is a depressed student who’s utterly broke. It becomes almost silly to see him, in scene after scene, sitting at a table in the foreground, surrounded by pretty young people dancing and partying, as he sits depressed, head on hand. But we know he must really be depressed because someone comments that he is the biggest partier at school. Almost immediately he strikes a deal with some old man, getting a large amount of cash in exchange for anything in the room. The man doesn’t exactly take his soul unless you’re going by Sir James George Fraser’s subjects’ beliefs that the soul (as a manikin) can be captured in a mirror, or a camera, and so forth. Thus the old man/devil points to Balduin’s soul in the full-body mirror, Balduin’s daemon steps out of the mirror, and Balduin is left alone with his money. First he’s freaked out, because he has no reflection anymore, but second, he’s fine, because he’s got all this money. The rest of the film is spent with him trying to get by in everyday adventures, and continuing to freak the fuck out when his daemon shows up to make precisely the sort of remarks a ghost would make, viz. “wherever thou goest, so shalt i be” sorts of things. And in what would be today the nudie scene, Balduin’s hooking up with the Countess when she finally notices, that which the audience has been squirming about for five minutes, that Balduin has no reflection in that enormous mirror reflecting their kisses. And she flips out, and suddenly Balduin’s daemon pops into the room, and all hell breaks loose. By this point you should be thinking: well, if his daemon keeps showing up, does that mean he can smack it? Good point. But he wouldn’t want to fight himself because, after all, he’s the best swordsman in Prague. So he pulls out a gun to kill himself, the daemon pops in, he shoots it, and it disappears. Now he’s very pleased with himself, because we’re pretty sure, from what we can tell, that his reflection has returned to the looking glass. And what now? You guessed it: Balduin instantly dies from a gunshot wound. This ties things up nicely as long as you don’t think about technicalities (…was the external daemon responsible for Balduin’s living? Or if one doesn’t require a daemon to live healthily, then why does having a shot-up daemon inside oneself lead to death?). Give me flying body parts and devils any day, rather than this ending. The film just itches for better technology.

If we feel like getting interpretive here, I suppose we could point to the extraction of daemon via mirror is strikingly close to the extraction of daemon via camera–which places every audience member in the role of the devil. Who but we has paid cash to observe the actions of this man’s extracted soul, to view the tragedy of his life, like gods over Job?

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